Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
Sophie, I’m not sure quite what to make of the recurring song outside of the general observation that Charlie Brooker loves his Easter eggs. There are lots of funny little examples of cross-pollination between each of his episodes, even though they ostensibly take place in separate worlds, and though some episodes are set in the real world and some in very different dystopian futures. I, too, really enjoyed “Men Against Fire,” even though it was grim beyond belief. It told its story cleanly, explored real issues about augmented reality, and left a lot more to puzzle over in its aftermath. It might be my second favorite of the season.
“Hated in the Nation” is more similar to “Nosedive” for me. It’s a little too long (running 90 minutes), and it makes its point very repetitively, unfurling a plotline about social-media shaming where a Twitter witch hunt becomes a daily game of real-life death. What’s the main message? That the online hive mind condemns without thought of consequence, laying into targets with the same ferocity, whether they’ve committed crimes or simply made an offensive joke. How best to symbolize that? Killer robot bees flying into people’s brains, of course!
The metaphor was so obvious I almost respected it—especially because there’s a deeper message at work to “Hated in the Nation” about the growing surveillance state. The episode plays like an extra-long episode of The X-Files (down to the bees), crossed with a gloomy Nordic crime thriller. The wonderful Kelly Macdonald is Detective Karin Parke, a grumpy murder cop with the same grim demeanor as a character out of The Bridge or The Killing. Faye Marsay (recently the Waif on Game of Thrones) is her tech-savvy partner, one who quickly realizes that the murder they’re investigating of a much-despised newspaper columnist somehow relates to an online hate campaign. And, well, bees.
The procedural “cop show” helps mitigate the episode’s extreme length—it’s plotty enough to forgive the repetitive exposition about just how people tweeting #DeathTo was somehow leading to actual murders. Led by one vengeful soul angry at the online mob, the #DeathTo game is designed to make them feel the consequences of their actions. Whoever leads the hashtag tables at the end of a day dies rather horribly, as a mechanical bee flies up their nose and causes such unbearable pain that they’ll cut their own throats open to get it out.
The X-Files inspiration seems very clear in the bees—a recurring image through much of that show’s run, and a key element in the first X-Files feature film. In “Hated in the Nation,” the mecha-bees are a government project created to address the extinction of the real thing; these drones disperse pollen to keep our planet’s ecosystem alive. Of course, since they’re government-sponsored robots who fly all around the U.K., they’re also easily manipulated into misbehaving.
The bees are a fun stand-in for the insidious nature of state surveillance, a particularly prevalent concern in the U.K., a country blanketed with CCTV cameras. Throughout the episode, the fictional “National Police Force” uses all kinds of shady methods to track down suspects and potential victims of the evil bee swarm. That’s what I liked most about “Hated in the Nation”—the subtle ease with which civil rights are stepped around, to minimal protest within the government, simply because there’s a ticking clock to get ahead of.
Brooker has himself been at the end of an online backlash before, which he admitted inspired this episode. In 2004, he bemoaned the potential re-election of George W. Bush in a Guardian column, concluding his thoughts with “Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.—where are you now that we need you?” Even in the U.K., where Bush and the Iraq War were tremendously unpopular, the remarks prompted a public outcry, and Brooker retracted the column and apologized.
But to Brooker’s credit, “Hated in the Nation” doesn’t just feel like a lecture about the evils of ganging up on people online. At the end of the episode, the #DeathTo phenomenon turns on its users, and the bees swarm against everyone who dared jump on the bandwagon; the punishment Brooker might have wished on his online detractors in his darkest moments is taken to a logical extreme, and the result is horrifying. “Hated in the Nation” is blunt, but its target is diffuse: Everyone’s somewhat culpable, and thus no one can be put on trial, which is just how these social media mobs function. It’s a depressing note to end Black Mirror on, but a fitting one—a caution to its audience to never feel too high and mighty about your conduct online. The bees might be coming for you next.