The following review contains major spoilers, so please don't read unless you've seen the episode in question, or spent 1999 screaming "Bruce Willis is a ghost!" in shopping malls...
Last week's premiere "Be Right Back", while emotionally rich, didn't take its overused sci-fi concepts anywhere new. Black Mirror's second episode, "White Bear", was also a bit of a hodgepodge of ideas, although the narrative felt more gripping and propulsive. And the trump card resolution added some deliciously dark and satirical flavours that elevated the whole episode in retrospect.
This week, we were introduced to a young woman called Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) who wakes up in an empty house with a terrible headache, sat in a chair with open wrist-restraints and a bottle of pills spilled on the floor. There's a television displaying a white logo, and it soon becomes apparent Victoria doesn't know who and where she is. Venturing outside, she's puzzled to find that the neighbours all keep their distance, never speak, and all keep their mobiles phones trained on her—recording her every move, and following her around like crazy voyeurs. She later meets a young woman called Jem (Tuppence Middleton), who reveals most of the population have been transformed into mute onlookers by a dangerous signal that suddenly appeared on every screen—which has led to a bizarre situation where some of the unaffected have taken the opportunity to indulge their sick desires, as both woman soon become the prey of a group of masked weirdo "hunters"...
If this was the entirety of "White Bear"—a kind of low-budget British version of The Hunger Games, with added sicko violence—then it would probably have been an effective and enjoyable episode soon forgotten about. Thankfully, writer Charlie Brooker's appreciation of a twist-ending really helped take this story to the next level. Just as the creepy but simple story of a woman terrorised by people in strange masks carrying shotguns, while being watched by impassive bystanders, was beginning to have exhausted itself, "White Bear" took a love-it-or-hate it change of direction. It was revealed that Victoria is actually being punished for a crime where she allowed her sadistic boyfriend to kill a young girl they'd kidnapped (filming it on her smartphone), and is now part of a Truman Show-esque theme park designed to give members of the British public a feeling of justice by putting her through a similarly nightmarish experience. Customers pay to watch Victoria go through her ordeal, led through the same daily events by theme park guides like Baxter (Michael Smiley), only for her to be presented with the harsh truth of her existence... before having her memories erased and planted back in the empty house ready to be reawakened for another day's live-action penance.
It obviously requires a big imaginative leap to accept ordinary people would participate in this kind of event—but that's actually part of the nightmare. They don't have to make sense. Brooker is instead capturing that sense of outrage the public get whenever a notorious murderer is captured, and either disappears behind bars (at best) or perhaps commits suicide to escape justice. In this fantasy scenario, punishment is elaborate, industrial, severe and relentless... but also shows the innocent people as equally as callous in some ways. A little nod at the trend for people to surreptitiously enjoy watching people suffer, somewhat protected from the "barrier" that exists when you're watching a screen.
Lenora Crichlow does surprisingly well as the lead here, given how I wasn't a fan of her performance as the ghost Annie in four series of Being Human—even if it's largely a role where she pinballs between confusion, terror and disbelief. She was nevertheless very good and kept you invested in the poor woman's plight—even keeping your sympathy when it became clear how despicable a person she really is. The supporting cast were less memorable in smaller roles, with the exception of Kill List's Michael Smiley as the orchestrator of the whole White Bear experience. There's something very scary about a man who's so jovial and matter-of-fact about a job that entails scaring someone half to death every single day... for the twisted pleasure of people who think this is an acceptable form of punishment.
I can understand people preferring last week's "Be Right Back" because it contained better acting and emotional nuances, but I think "White Bear" was significantly cleverer and edgier. You might not like how it resolved (twist-endings rarely please everyone), and the footage show amidst the end credits perhaps over explained what has been going, but otherwise this was a gloriously weird, frightening and gonzo hour of bleak entertainment.
written by Charlie Brooker / directed by Carl Tibbetts / 18 February 2013 / Channel 4