Red Rose’s Ending Is Invasively Thorny

Photo: BBC

Spoilers follow for the Netflix series Red Rose, which debuted on February 15. 

Netflix’s latest international acquisition to make it into the service’s top ten with little advance notice, British thriller Red Rose, is a phishing warning email elongated into eight episodes. A cross between the incel’s wish-fulfillment of Don’t Worry Darling and the gleeful voyeurism of Squid Game, Red Rose wonders, What will it take for members of Gen Z to turn off their phones? while unveiling a series of increasingly melodramatic tech-related scenarios that the teens dawdle over taking seriously.

A ghost or demon haunting their cells, a stalker using their phones to target them, malevolent artificial intelligence assuming their identities: The teens in Red Rose believe they’re being targeted by those myriad mysterious foes until finale “The Gardener” explains the entirety of what’s been going on. A thorny bouquet of baddies are at fault, and Red Rose uses them to emphasize the dangers of casually ubiquitous surveillance. (It’s pretty bad!)

Set in the present day, Red Rose begins with what looks like a suicide. Teen girl Alyssa (Robyn Cara) is terrorized by her smart home, which refuses her commands and scares her with recordings of herself in real time. She then seemingly jumps off of the roof. Six or so months later in Bolton, England, a group of graduating high-school seniors are looking forward to their last summer together before moving on to university. But there are fissures in the friend group: Roch (Isis Hainsworth) doesn’t love that her bestie, Wren (Amelia Clarkson), has started dating Noah (Harry Redding). Ashley (Natalie Blair) is irritated by Taz’s (Ali Khan) constant mockery. And Antony (Ellis Howard) is hiding his sexuality from his family and friends. When the increasingly lonely Roch receives a text message from a popular and wealthy classmate inviting her to download a new app, she does so, installing Red Rose on her phone. And although Red Rose is odd (asking Roch personal questions, showing ghostly figures in its video-recording feature), it delivers a new outfit to her doorstep when Roch admits that she wishes for money, power, and respect. After Roch’s mother’s death by suicide, her father’s problems holding a job, and her own alienation at school, Red Rose is finally helping Roch gets what she wants — and it convinces her through audio recordings that her mother’s spirit is actually somehow in the phone.

But when the increasingly distraught Roch (who gets bullied online because of the posts the app makes without her permission) seemingly takes her own life, her friends realize that Roch’s insistence that something was wrong with her phone might have been genuine. Once Wren downloads Red Rose and starts hearing messages from the dead Roch — just like Roch thought she was communicating with her dead mother — the teens realize they need someone with more tech knowledge. So they team up with fellow student Jaya (Ashna Rabheru), a coder and hacker, to figure out what Red Rose actually is. They link Red Rose to Alyssa, then link Alyssa to her classmate Jacob (Charlie Hiscock), who died around that time — and who wrote the original code for Red Rose.

At first, Jacob designed Red Rose so he could learn more about Alyssa and, eventually, get her to fall for him. Through the app, he would send her probing questions that looked like they were conceived by the program, and through her answers, he would mimic her interests to get close to her. But when he uploaded the app to the dark web, it took on a more menacing angle. Bullying by various dark-web users who mocked his crush inspired Jacob to up the ante on the app by connecting it to video feeds, smart-home technology, and CCTV, and the users’ ringleader, the Gardener, convinced Jacob to hand over admin power. With that web of surveillance out of Jacob’s hands, the Gardener turned Red Rose into a malevolent tool for dark-web users to spy on other people’s lives, toy with them, and bet on the outcomes. There’s no real explanation for why Roch was targeted, but once she died, the Gardener and the app’s other users turned their attention to killing off Wren — using methods both virtual (cruel texts and social-media posts) and physical (traveling in person to Bolton, placing cameras around town to watch the teens, and attacking Ashley and Jaya when they got too close to the truth).

Red Rose arrives at this ending after a few supernatural feints — including a flashback that fills in how Roch’s, Wren’s, and Noah’s mothers were all friends who used a Ouija board together and left a ghostly portal open when they didn’t end the session correctly. (A real Nightmare on Elm Street, “sins of the parents becoming burdens of the children” situation.) There are evocations here of horror films Countdown and The Ring — with the app acting as a kind of virus that passes from phone to phone, teen to teen — and David Fincher’s thriller The Game — as the dark-web users look for new victims to draw into their abusive gambles. In the finale episode, the Gardener (Harrie Hayes) admits she messed with the teens because she was bored and they were her own kind of Stanford prison experiment: A hacker in an “I ❤️ New York” T-shirt who misquotes Hugo Weaving’s V when describing how “you can’t delete an idea,” she wanted “to see how far” she could push the teens. The fact that Wren killed the man the teens first thought was the Gardener is a win for the real Gardener, whose internet presence is erased when Jaya deletes the source code for Red Rose. She’s a ghost — just not the one Roch or Wren thought. (If this premise appeals to you, check out Prime Video’s dark satire The Consultant, premiering on February 24. Christoph Waltz plays a strategist whose tactics for improving worker productivity at a gaming company aren’t that far off from the Gardener’s.)

Why didn’t tech genius Jaya save some of Red Rose’s digital DNA to prove what was happening to the police, who of course don’t believe the teens about any of this? Perhaps because Red Rose’s gamification of surveillance is built on its omnipresence and how those in power imbue it with an implicit trust. They rely on uninterrupted watching as a means of control and gathering data, and the idea that someone could so easily twist it for nefarious purposes signals that there’s already a transgression in this voyeurism. The teens telling the police that monitoring is bad, actually, would hit too close to home and just get ignored. And although Jaya thinks she shut down the app, she doesn’t stop it from spreading — which it does in the season’s final seconds, appearing on a Japanese teenager’s phone in Tokyo. Red Rose is invasive, and if Netflix wants a second season, that intrusion can bloom anywhere.

Red Rose’s Ending Is Invasively Thorny