We're breaking down Season 3 of Black Mirror, which is now streaming on Netflix. You can read our interview with series creator Charlie Brooker and sift through our recaps and analyses of other new episodes "Nosedive," "Shut Up and Dance," and "Hated in the Nation." Here, we take a look at Episode 5, "Men Against Fire."
There's a hard-to-swallow-away spasm in the back of a human throat that twitches whenever dystopian visions of the future blur into the present. This is the sensation Black Mirror lives for, and I certainly suffered from it during "Men Against Fire," an episode that even creator Charlie Brooker says spooks him. In "Fire," mankind views the world through second screens glued to their faces, the line between military and police is completely faded, xenophobia ignites a silent genocide, and authority figures strong-arm the little guys into executing immoral plans. Remember: This is dystopian fiction, not the 2016 election season.
With shades of 28 Days Later and The Parallax View, "Men Against Fire" is a shaggier entry of Black Mirror that ends with a violent punch to our noggins. Our hero Stripe (up-and-comer Malachi Kirby) spends a large chunk of the episode blowing away "roaches," ravenous mutated humanoids who, according to marching orders, can infect the pure-blooded. Equipped with MASS, a computer eye implant that displays maps, auto-targets weapons, and makes ex-Google Glass employees very, very depressed, Stripe and his troop plow through the infected countryside with a rowdy remorselessness that makes the satirical soldiers of Starship Troopers look like the do-gooders from M.A.S.H. They want to kill roaches and they want to kill them now, now, now.
You know what comes next. After Stripe's MASS malfunctions -- gifting him the most unexpected four-way in sci-fi TV history -- the military pawn discovers the roaches are really fangless, struggling humans. The disease part seems to be true; they do have problems, just not ones anyone in the government is willing to cure. The solution is militarized eugenics dictated through augmented digitized imaging. Unlike spoken orders, the human mind can argue with apparent reality. Brooker, of course, finds an even harsher note to end on; there's no backing out of MASS for Stripe. Either he spends his life blinded by the army, in a prison of his mind, or goes back on the front lines of killing innocents. He chooses the latter, as many might. As many do.
Do you see what Brooker wants you to see? "Men Against Fire" is a catch-all metaphor for how we deal with the disenfranchised members of our global society. The black Americans impacted by police violence are the roaches. Groups targeted by Brexit-fueled xenophobia are the roaches. Citizens of war-torn Aleppo, a "humanitarian nightmare" that "has basically fallen," according to Republican candidate Donald Trump, and the Syrian refugees escaping the civil war are the roaches. Sift through social media and you'll find politicians and pundits campaigning to sweep the suffering under a rug. "Men Against Fire" imagines if the compression of computers into wearable devices could turn those Twitter smear campaigns into our physical perception of the world.
The "smart" contact lens is on the way. While Google's external "Glass" wearable hit a snag, the company isn't slowing down efforts to put a computer in your eye: in 2014, the company patented for smart contact lenses that contain a very wireless chip capable of monitoring a wearer's glucose levels, and this April, it patented an intra-ocular device that communicates with laptops and smartphones, powers itself using bodily energy, and is injected into the eye. Samsung is also researching and patenting ocular devices, in hopes of granting wearers the power to snap photos with the literal blink of an eye. Let's hope the first wave avoids the Samsung Note S7 kinks.
Through all the violence, the most shocking turn in "Men Against Fire" is Stripe's discovering how he wound up with MASS in his head. His nefarious "psychiatrist" (Michael Kelly of House of Cards) shows the soldier a video of the day he enlisted. He needed an out. "Part of what you're agreeing to is not realizing you've been put in this state," an off-screen voice tells the slouched, flippant kid. "That's kind of funny, man."
The moral apocalypse is a choice, Brooker insists. If we're aware of what we're signing up for, cautious of what we're being fed, and empathetic to the strife around us, maybe we'll bypass it. If we're seduced by sales pitches, we may end up like Stripe: a beautiful wife, a white picket fence, and total ignorance. One man's dystopia is another man's utopia.
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Matt Patches is a Senior Editor at Thrillist. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.