In a future war between humans and “roaches”, a new recruit makes his first kill. With season 4 now available, this is my review of one of the darkest of all of the Black Mirror episodes.
In a season full of different settings, we have another totally new one in “Men Against Fire”. We are sometime in the future, in the middle of a campaign to fight off a hideous animalistic enemy. Stripe (Malachi Kirby) is about to go on his first mission with his squad, led by Medina (Sarah Snook). They go to a small village that has been attacked by “roaches”, a feral creature that some humans have mutated into. The unit is handing out food packages when they get some information about a possible local hideout for roaches.
They find an isolated farmhouse and the soldiers are shown the plans on their MASS, a system that allows soldiers’ vision to be supplemented with targets, maps, and any type of visual aids that could help with their mission. While Medina talks to the owner (Francis Magee), Stripe and fellow soldier Hunter (Madeline Brewer) search the building. They find a hidden door leading to a secret room, where they come across some roaches. Stripe shoots one immediately, but is flashed with a mysterious green light, and then ends up in hand to hand combat with one of the beasts. Stripe eventually manages to overpower the roach, and stabs it repeatedly in the chest.
The unit take the farmer back to their base, and Stripe is hailed as hero. He is given the reward of an erotic dream, but starts to have some apparent issues with his MASS unit. Or is the real problem with Stripe? After a particularly poor target practice session, he goes to see a doctor, who gives his MASS unit the all-clear. Stripe is still unsure, so he goes to see Arquette (Michael Kelly) a psychologist who talks to Stripe about what happened at the farmhouse, but more importantly, how it made him feel. Stripe is shaken up, but Arquette assures him that his MASS is in full working order, and that he is simply feeling the effects of his first piece of combat action. Arquette promises Stripe that he will have a very good night, programming a special dream for the soldier.
Stripe’s dream glitches, but before he can get his MASS system checked, the unit is sent out on another mission. They have more information on the roaches, and are sent to an isolated building to try and wipe out the remaining creatures in the area. As they are reconning the building, Medina is shot by a sniper, leaving Stripe and Hunter to try and take the building alone. Will Stripe be able to function without his technological aids? Can Hunter and he survive? And what does Arquette really know about the MASS?
“Men Against Fire” is slightly difficult to fully discuss without spoilers but this is a brilliant, brutal episode. The gut-punch reveal is up there with “Shut Up and Dance” as a genuinely moving piece of television. Despite its futuristic technology, “Men Against Fire” is painfully real. There are hints of PTSD in Stripe’s journey, as his doubts start to grow. Malachi Kirby does so well to capture the doubts swirling around the young soldier, while still being believable as a trained killer.
There is a distinct Nordic noir feel to this episode (at least the first half) that director Jakob Verbuggen deserves a lot of credit for. The villagers in the first act speak Danish, but there is more to it than that. The scenes in the farmhouse have a stillness to them, especially the conversation between Medina and the owner, that give a real tension to the episode. I would like to point out the last impression Francis Magee left on me, despite being slightly short changed time wise, as a man harbouring these deadly beasts but being sure he is doing the right thing.
Probably the most chilling character in all of Black Mirror could be Arquette however. I can’t say more about him without breaking my spoiler policy, but Michael Kelly is great in the small role. He’s the man in the “Welcome To Darkness” teaser that was released on YouTube ahead of the move to Netflix, and that I have included at the bottom of this review in case these episodes aren’t enough nightmare fuel for you.
If I say that something could be an episode of The Twilight Zone, I am giving it one of my highest complements. This would make a great episode of The Twilight Zone. I’m not talking about any plot twist or swerve, but the sense of paranoia and fear, of being a distinctly fictional world but still very real, and of hitting so close to home it hurts. “Men Against Fire” is probably Booker’s most “serious” effort so far, and although it is far-flung, it is a totally believable scenario, with some scarily familiar lines in the script.
“San Junipero” showed that Charlie Booker – and Black Mirror – does indeed have a heart. If anyone was worried that he was going soft, well it only took one episode. This is as cutting and satirical as it gets. Sit back and… “enjoy”.
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.