Season 3, Episode 3 – Shut Up and Dance
“Shut Up and Dance” is Black Mirror at its most barebones. Stripped away of having to develop an entire alternative world and sci-fi concepts, this episode is free of exposition and predictable story beats. It’s similar to “The National Anthem” episode wherein you truly can’t anticipate what happens next because anything can happen next. You’re essentially taken to a wild ride and all you can do is sit back and brace for the next curveball it throws your way.
The plot is pretty simple: After getting his laptop hacked by an unknown group that records him masturbating, Kenny is blackmailed into doing a series of tasks that become deadlier than the next. Watching this episode is like watching a drawn-out trainwreck. It’s kind of horrific and fascinating at the same time, because near the end you’re wondering why the lead, Kenny, continues to follow instructions which will result in him ruining his life in worse ways than having a private video uploaded all over the internet. But we accept this because Kenny is brilliantly acted by Alex Lawther as this awkward, isolated kid who’s barely out of puberty. It’s easy to believe that Kenny would rather rob a bank than risk getting humiliated and shaming his family.
But the episode offers a revelation towards the end that makes everything clear. It’s revealed that Kenny wasn’t just masturbating to a porn video, but something much worse. Something criminal. On the surface, “Shut Up and Dance” is a thrilling, tense drama, but by the end it makes you ask yourself whether the revelation that Kenny was a criminal all along makes you lose any sympathy for him. It also makes you question the vigilante “justice” being imposed by the mysterious hacker group. They are aware of their victims’ actions and even have proof, but instead of handing them over to the authorities, they blackmail them into doing terrible things for their twisted entertainment. The online hacker group have been presented as the villains of the episode right from the start, but even knowing that they were targeting criminals or unlikable people doesn’t put them in a better light.
It’s a clever sleight of hand on part of the filmmakers for adding the twist in the end. If we knew that Kenny was doing something more horrible than what was shown at the start, would we still be rooting for him to get away with it? Would we still be driven to the edge of our seats as we watch him desperately achieve the instructions of the shady hacker group? By the end of the episode the true revelation is that there aren’t any heroes in this episode. We might have sympathized with Kenny at first, but watching him go to such great lengths to hide his actions and knowing that he is a pedophile sours our opinion of him. The unassuming nature of the episode reveals so many layers after you’ve watched it. It forces you to wonder and ask yourself a lot of uncomfortable questions about how society defines justice and how it should be dealt to criminals.
But despite the heavy and tense nature of the episode, it still finds moments of levity that bring relief from all the doom and gloom. Jerome Flynn (known famously for playing Bronn in Game of Thrones) adds much needed lightness throughout the episode without being distracting or superfluous. It’s a nice balance which ensures that the episode doesn’t go too deep in its nihilism while never making light of the gravity of the situation.
Overall “Shut Up and Dance” is a well-crafted and brilliantly acted episode that is all the more effective due to its simplicity. It serves as a great reminder that Black Mirror doesn’t always have to rely on outlandish ideas to tell a great story.