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There’s an outrageousness to Shut Up and Dance that makes it both easier and more difficult to enjoy. It’s the most suspense-driven and conventional of the third season, but it’s also the most nihilistic and painful-to-watch. Shut Up and Dance brings the absolute worst qualities of Black Mirror’s moral arbitration, first pounding its characters into submission, and pounding them again until their nothing but guilt-ridden pulp (do they deserve it? Black Mirror certainly thinks they do). At the same time, Shut Up and Dance offers up some of the most harrowing and morally complex questions in the season. The episode centers on Kenny, a young dishwasher/busser, who, after downloading a shady ‘malware cleaner’, ends up actually giving out his laptop’s information—specifically speaking, both his webcam and internet history (have you guessed where this is going?). Not long after his private act, Kenny gets an email threatening him that unless he follows their demand, they will release his ‘information’ to everyone he knows. This sends him on an odyssey across the city to complete a series of odd demands, eventually coming across a man with his own online sins, Hector.
The only two aspects of Shut Up and Dance I’m comfortably praising are the performances of Alex Lawther (of “The Imitation Game”) and Jerome Flynn (of “Game of Thrones), as the characters of Kenny and Hector respectively. Alex Lawther is all adrenalized guilt, his rush of anxiety in the episode give Shut Up and Dance the closest thing to a ‘human face’ (this will prove to be a problem later in the episode). Jerome Flynn—wry as always—gives the episode a ‘voice-of-unreason’ likeability that grounds this ludicrous scenario, along with its impersonal themes and its aching modernity into timeless storytelling. Flynn sells his down-on-his-luck pathetic-ness with impassioned urgency, giving the episode its only true sense of dramatic motivation.
Shut Up and Dance sells its premise as a ‘it could happen to you’ scenario—which it very well can, this episode doesn’t take place in a wonky-functioning future but a very feasible present (much like Black Mirror’s first episode “The National Anthem”). Unlike The National Anthem (which was smart, thought-provoking and unpredictable at every turn), Shut Up and Dance plays out like shorthanded fiction—with only limited means to get that one point across, it goes for the easiest and most predictable ‘thriller’ approach, from bank robberies, subsequent roadblocks and nail-biting countdowns. James Watkins does his best with what he’s given in Shut Up and Dance (he’s also responsible for the scariest ‘Broken Britain’ horror film Eden Lake). I could even describe some moments as legitimately terrifying (the woodland trek sequence and subsequent ending “twist” are both productively scary revelations).
[Spoilers to follow]. At a certain point in the episode, after Kenny and Hector rob a bank, Kenny is texted by his anonymous tormentor who orders him to walk into the woods alone. One of the best decisions Brooker makes until this point was simply not revealing that Kenny had actually been masturbating to child pornography, because, simply said, it gave me the opportunity to actually see him acting and reacting as a human being before knowing about his subhuman traits. A problem with that, however, is why Brooker (who wrote all the episodes) specifically chose for Kenny, who up until this point was the ‘human face’ of the episode, to be the face of all internet creeps (that is, an unexpected face). It implies that the unbearably cruel ‘fight to the death’ that happens at the episode’s denouement is somehow justified. Worse, it also implies that the show’s villains, hackers, extortionists and sociopaths, are the episode’s designated ‘heroes’.
I do understand some discrepancies here, obviously Kenny is guilty (and deserves prison time along with some therapeutic treatment), and Hector—who purchased a prostitute online—is not blameless either. And I will concede to Brooker’s clever irony in how Kenny—who up to a point had been a prey of the internet—is revealed to be as the internet’s veritable predator. Ultimately, Shut Up and Dance can feel vapid and directionless but what it comes down to it, the episode simply wants to draw the line between victim and offender (and see who deserves to ‘punish’ and who deserves to ‘be punished’). While the nihilistic ending of the episode suggests that Brooker has deemed its invariable heroes in the episode the unsung ‘bad guys’, it’s his thoughtful use of the troll face texts (creepily recognizable iconoclasts) which ultimately unveil a sullen truth behind the internet’s faceless villainy.