With the fourth season now available on Netflix, I look back at a creepy blackmail story that plays out in episode three of season three of Black Mirror.
After a opening episode with a revolutionary social media system, and a second episode dealing with the future of immersive gaming, we have a more down to earth story from Black Mirror. Following Joe Wright and Dan Trachtenberg, this time James Watkins, writer of the excellent My Little Eye, and director of Eden Lake, Women In Black, and Bastille Day, is helming a script from series creator Charlie Booker and William Bridges.
Alex Lawther (a future star for sure) plays Kenny, a shy, nervous young man working in a fast food restaurant, being bullied by his workmates. When he gets home, he finds his sister has been using his laptop, and is incredibly annoyed by this, leading to him putting a lock on his door. His sister has managed to get a virus on his laptop, and he uses a malware remover to get rid of it. This however leads to a hacker getting access to his computer, and especially the camera. After… doing what teenage boys do… he receives an email with a copy of a video of him… doing what teenage boys do. The hacker threatens to send the video to everyone in Kenny’s contacts, unless he does exactly what they tell him to.
The next day, Kenny gets a text telling him to go a car park at a certain time. He is met there by a mysterious man on a motorbike, who takes a picture of Kenny and tells him he was told to do this by “them” as well. He gives Kenny a box and leaves without any further explanation. Kenny is then told to deliver the box – containing a cake – to a hotel room. The man, Hector (Game of Throne’s Bronn himself, Jerome Flynn) in the room refuses to let him in, and when he does, he realises he too has been blackmailed. He had arranged to meet a younger woman in the hotel room, planning to cheat on his wife.
Kenny thinks he is now free to go, but instead, Kenny and Hector are told to go together to another address. There is a bank at this address, and these two strangers realise that the situation they have found themselves in is escalating beyond their control. Will the two of them do what is asked of them? How far will they go to protect their private secrets? And just how far will the hackers push them?
Of all the episodes of Black Mirror, for me this was the most chilling so far. I think it fits alongside “White Bear” and the “White Christmas” special as almost an old fashioned melodrama that sees a character make a mistake and get punished severely for it. Do the characters deserve what is happening to them – who can judge that an affair with a younger woman is worth the emotion toil Hector goes through? Of course, he could come clean as soon as he is confronted, all of the “victims” could, but the blackmailers play on their darkest secrets. Still, it is difficult not to empathise with Kenny or Hector through over the course of the episode, whether that is right or wrong.
“Shut Up and Dance” is one of the least futuristic episodes of Black Mirror, and so plays as quite a straight, traditional story. Jerome Flynn is brilliant as the conflicted, seemingly decent man trapped by the escalating events, but it is Alex Lawther who is a revelation. You might remember him as the young version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, but his performance here sits alongside the very best in Black Mirror. And given some of the quality that has come before, that is saying something. The way he plays Kenny gets better with multiple viewings, as it moves from being a nervous, frightened teenager to something more sinister.
I’d tell you more, but that would be a spoiler, and the way this story unfolds really is remarkable. And I’m not going to risk upsetting people on the internet after this!
All 4 seasons of Black Mirror are available on Netflix, and the first two are on All4.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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A previous version of this article appeared on TheSnootyUshers.com in 2016.