Several Black Mirror episodes make for canny double features, so it’s helpful to think of “Shut Up and Dance” as a sister story to the earlier “White Bear.” Both thrust the audience into a hostile, enigmatic hunt and leave them, panting and frightened, to sort out what’s going on. They’ve got the same strengths and the same flaws: mounting tension at an agreeably slow boil, which fizzles out on a late-game twist that doesn’t amount to much. The dark revelations that close out both episodes reframe everything that’s led up to those final moments, and the satisfaction of watching it all snap into place certainly has its own merit. But the pitch-black nihilism feels like empty sadism once it becomes apparent that nobody’s leaving this parade of misery and degradation having learned anything of worth.
At first glance, “Shut Up and Dance” could be a cautionary tale about the importance of always putting a sticky note over your laptop camera. Nineteen-year-old Kenny (Alex Lawther), who assumes he just rid his computer of malware, decides to treat himself to a “seventh-inning stretch.” (Read: masturbation.) Moments later, to his abject horror, he receives a message from an unknown number, informing him via aggressive all-caps that they’ve recorded him in flagrante delicto and will leak the sensitive material if he doesn’t comply with their commands. Who this “they” is and what they’ve got against our hapless masturbator constitute the driving mystery of the suspense-oriented hour. The eventual reveal is plenty shocking, and yet the road to get there has far more to offer than its destination.
As if at virtual gunpoint, Kenny is sent on a series of increasingly perilous errands by his faceless blackmailers, soon making the acquaintance of fellow victim Hector (Jerome Flynn). The two captives enter into an uneasy sort of companionship founded on mutual distrust as they go about their work. (This dynamic has shades of “White Christmas,” which also found two men stuck in the same unfortunate circumstance, trying to figure out how they ended up there.) Their cooperation only lasts as long as the depraved assignments demand of them, and so their partnership is defined by the uncommon combination of mutual despair and muted enmity. The scenes anchored by Kenny and Hector are tense and occasionally funny — an encounter with a PTA mom provides a bit of much-needed levity — and most crucially, they keep the viewers off-balance and unprepared for the episode’s endgame.
And though to spoil the ending would be to rob it of all its power, there’s plenty of room to say that it doesn’t follow through on what precedes it in any meaningful way. When the episode concludes with the trollface meme sent out like the sinister Order 66 from Star Wars, it feels a lot like writers Charlie Brooker and William Bridges are just messing with us. They’ve impelled us to bear witness to some pretty abominable sights, and all we’re left to show for it is a meme. (And one with an expiration date of, like, 2010!) As the punchline to a joke, it’s one hell of a twisted gag, and it inspires more indigestion than laughter.
Before that, however, Brooker and Bridges milk the impersonal menace of technological designs for all they’re worth. The cell phone becomes an effective tool of terror, the pixelated readouts of text-message notifications taking on more menace with every passing scene. In a truly vicious flourish, Hector’s ringtone — the noise alerting him that his life is falling to pieces — is a clown’s bicycle horn. When the unseen antagonists monitor Kenny via drone during the episode’s climactic scene, they’re uncomfortably remote and yet undeniably present. The coldly mechanical whir of the drone, the way it rises into the air and hovers, the slow zoom onto the lens of the camera as if it’s an unblinking eyeball, it all combines for a supremely discomfiting set piece that works in isolation, even as it’s left behind by a narrative that doesn’t have an interesting use for it.
To be fair, mounting a story of such carefully orchestrated suspense is a considerable feat all on its own. Because the legislation banning critics from comparing Black Mirror to The Twilight Zone still hasn’t made it out of Congress, we may go right ahead and compare “Shut Up and Dance” to “Time Enough at Last,” the all-timer where Burgess Meredith breaks his eyeglasses just as he’s settling in for an eternity of reading. The ironic poetry of such bad luck tied a satisfying ribbon on that classic episode, and the tone was light enough that dooming a man to an eternity of blindness still provoked a chuckle. The building drama of “Time Enough at Last” was cathartically released, closer to the eternally stymied Wile E. Coyote than the black-hearted morality play at hand.
Brooker and Bridges get all dressed up with nowhere to go, readying themselves for a grand finale that they squander on what might as well be a shrug emoji. That’s a reductive, maybe even flippant, way of describing what amounts to a decisive choice to embrace such a nihilistic conclusion, but the sheer callousness of the final scene makes it feel that way. Black Mirror is no stranger to the bummer ending, but even when an episode concludes with every major character meeting with a fate worse than death, it should make a greater point about punishment or inevitability or justice. The most “Shut Up and Dance” can muster is an exhausted, “Hey, sometimes everything is just really bad … and then it gets worse.”