The Webcam Hacking Episode of 'Black Mirror' Is Its Scariest Yet

black mirror

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," "Men Against Fire," and "Hated in the Nation." Here, we take a look at Episode 3, "Shut Up and Dance."

"Shut Up and Dance," about a 19-year-old (Alex Lawther, of The Imitation Game fame) who falls prey to laptop-hacking trolls, is a difficult episode to watch. Directed by James Watkins and written by William Bridges and series creator Charlie Brooker, the dark thriller is at once a very atypical and very classic Black Mirror story. It might be the hardest to stomach this season. Here's why.

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It takes place tomorrow

Like the best Black Mirrors, "Dance" is a nightmare that hones in on a couple topics (in this case, hacking and trolling), takes them to a hypothetical extreme, and makes you worry whether human nature can coexist with advanced tech. But unlike such entries as "Fifteen Million Merits" and "Nosedive," this one takes place in neither an otherworldly dystopia nor a far-flung future.

When feckless fast-food employee Kenny comes home from his restaurant job, he finds his younger sister trying to watch movies on his laptop. It's frozen. He downloads a free malware remover called Shrive, which seemingly fixes the problem. What it really does: gives a hacker, or hacker collective, known as Mindy access to his personal info, laptop webcam, and microphone. (This scenario probably sounds familiar.) So the next time he goes to masturbate? He's caught with his pants down.

The sequences that follow -- strings of "do this or we'll expose your dirty deed" errands that include delivering a cake and robbing a bank with co-star Jerome Flynn (oh, hey, Bronn from Game of Thrones) -- create a mounting sense of anxiety, partly because Kenny's hopelessness as a puppet to anonymous sociopaths is palpable, but also because this scenario could actually happen. Kenny communicates with his blackmailers via text message. He rides a bike and drives a Volvo. His laptop even looks outdated. Viewers witness a tragedy that could happen tomorrow. Yesterday, even.

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Webcam dangers are very real

If you don't have an instant reflex when, or immediately after, watching "Dance" to cover your webcams, you're a special kind of fearless. These types of hackers exist. "I do not understand why products with webcams built into them don't come, by default, with a slider," Brooker told Thrillist over the phone a few weeks ago. "I guess the thing is, it's hard to introduce that now without admitting there's a problem, or it would just worry a lot of people, wouldn't it? They'd go, What? You're saying I need that?"

Well, do you? Sounds like it's time for a quick Amazon sidebar, just in case. Here, in no particular order, are some cam covers you can order ASAP:

Steagle 1.0 ($11.99)
Thick as a credit card, apparently; comes in black, silver, white-gold (???), or cherry-blossom pink.

WebCam Cover Solid Black ($4.99)
"Its NanoTech Material will stick to any surface 250,000 times"! Not a joke.

camJAMR ($5.95)
Cool. May or may not be a skateboard move from Tony Hawk: Pro Skater 3.

C-Slide 1.0 Black -- Family Pack ($14.95)
So you and your loved ones can bond over cyber-security.

SpiShutter ($19.99)
Endorsed by Daniel Craig. Joke.

Security Guardians Covert Pack ($9.99)
Pack of four? Say no more.

Different kinds of tape and stuff ($depends)
Sure, sure, yeah, get creative.

(Also, check out OverSight.)

The point is "Dance" has the lasting effects of something like "The Entire History of You," where the trauma you see onscreen doesn't stop haunting you offscreen.


It ends on a super-depressing note

Seriously. I half hate it, half love it.

The entire episode feels like it wants to say something about the internet's power to dehumanize people, how the person you are behind your black mirror can become a vastly different person, or altogether creature, than the person you are in real life. Time magazine's Joel Stein recently wrote a cover story about trolling, and his article touched on this transformative phenomenon.

"If you need help improving your upload speeds, the web is eager to help with technical details," wrote Stein back in August. "But if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building. At some point, everyone, no matter how desensitized by their online experience, is liable to get freaked out by a big enough or cruel enough threat."

The problem is, Kenny never sees this threat; there's no confrontation in the traditional sense. Before "Dance" ends, he's ordered to fight another man to the death. A drone hovers by, out of reach, to watch. But we don't see anything. Instead, a super-depressing montage rolls, one that shows the hacker exposing the sins of every character we've met, just for the heck of it. All of Mindy's victims, including Kenny, receive the Trollface. All their tasks -- everything we sat through in the last 52 minutes -- were completed for nought. It's a sour punch line.

But that's kind of the point. Though we never meet Mindy, we meet several other threats: all those people who hide behind their phones and computers to fulfill their sick desires. Kenny's targeted because he's "looking at kids," as his mother puts it. Flynn's character gets caught trying to cheat on his wife with a prostitute. The troll in this episode isn't just a troll, but a radical vigilante -- an internet version of Jigsaw -- who serves the same brutal justice we see in "White Bear," and who makes us ask the same question: which characters are truly depraved?

All of them are, to a degree, because in "Shut Up and Dance," the internet's anonymity doesn't breed heroes.

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and hates webcams now. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.