Black Mirror’s ‘Men Against Fire’ Tackles High-Tech Warfare
The fifth episode of the new season features American soldiers fighting mysterious mutants.
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.
What a relief “San Junipero” was after the actually nightmare-provoking “Shut Up and Dance.” (I really did have a dream about a bugged bottle of wine that was sending videos to Russian hackers, because that’s just the kind of week it’s been.) It isn’t often Black Mirror takes such a heartwarming, optimistic view of things, although naturally the episode had sharp undertones about the dangers of perpetual pleasure seeking (the Quagmire was as apt a portrait of the dark underbelly of the internet as you’ll ever find) and the allure of nostalgia.
I loved the narrative freedom offered by a new location, though, and now that we’re almost through all six episodes, I wanted to take a minute to think about how season three of Black Mirror has been different. The shift to Netflix from the U.K.’s Channel 4 has opened the show up to different locations, yes, but also different environments. In its first two seasons the show seemed to be set in Britain—even the more unrecognizable worlds of “15 Million Merits” and “White Christmas.” But in expanding its geographical horizons, Black Mirror is also able to expand its scope with storytelling, exploring themes that might not have made sense before. Like falling in love. And going to war.
“Men Against Fire” is one of the better episodes of the series, I think, because it actually featured a sharp twist with a message, and one that wasn’t as obvious as the show’s usual sermons (technology: bad, mob mentality: bad, brain implants: v. v. bad). Stripe (Malachi Kirby) is a soldier fighting in what appears to be Eastern Europe, only the enemy forces he’s targeting are zombie-like mutants known as “roaches.” After a band of roaches raid a nearby village in search of food, the American soldiers pay a visit to a local eccentric who’s believed to be helping the mutants out of a belief that all life is sacred. Searching through some hidden rooms in his house, Stripe encounters several aggressive roaches and kills two, but not before one of them shines a mysterious light in his face that causes his brain implant, or “mass” (a device that allows his commanding officer to transfer visual information to him instantaneously), to start acting peculiarly.
After the ringing in his head affects his performance at a shooting range, Stripe reports to medical, and is sent to a unit psychiatrist (Michael Kelly), who quizzes him on what it felt like to kill the roaches, and how he’s coping. The next day, while infiltrating a roach compound, Stripe is shocked when he sees his fellow soldiers murdering civilians, all of whom seem to be pleading for their lives. He helps a woman escape with her young son, and learns the truth: the implant in his head causes him to see ordinary people as gruesome mutants, and to interpret their peaceable actions as violent ones that threaten his life.
It’s a terrific, unexpected twist, mostly because it seems so plausible: What could be more enticing to an advanced military power than a device that allows soldiers to kill without suffering any guilt or emotional repercussions? In a horrifying conversation in Stripe’s cell after he’s recaptured, the psychiatrist reveals that the technology was pioneered because humans are “genuinely empathetic as a species. We don’t want to kill each other, which is a good thing, until your future depends on wiping out the enemy.” The blood sickness the soldiers were taught to believe was the reason for eliminating the roaches is actually their genetic differentiation, the doctor explains: higher rates of cancer and muscular dystrophy, substandard IQ, higher criminal tendencies and sexual deviance.
With this unexpected lurch toward the subject of eugenics, “Man Against Fire” alludes to a wealth of different prejudices still rife among humankind, particularly institutionalized racism, tribalism, and fear of refugees (the villagers don’t see the roaches as other, it’s worth noting—they’ve simply been taught to see them that way). And it veers into darker territory still toward the end, when Stripe is adamant he doesn’t want his mass reset, and the doctor informs him that if he refuses, he’ll be forced to relive his murder of the two “roaches” on a permanent loop via the implant while he sits in a jail cell. It’s the kind of particularly inconceivable psychological torture Black Mirror likes to throw out once in a while, like being stuck in a log cabin alone listening to Christmas music for what feels like several million years. And it persuades Stripe: At the end of the episode, he’s shown returning home in uniform to a ramshackle house and a woman who most likely is an illusion created by his device.
The episode made me think about augmented reality, and the ethical boundaries that don’t yet exist when it comes to showing people things that aren’t there. It was also a persuasive and nuanced exploration of military valor, and the potential might of an army that could fight without morality getting in the way. But it also seemed to point toward the drone technology that exists now, and how much easier it makes eliminating large groups of people remotely at the flick of a switch, without the smell or the sound of warfare. Without the implant, the doctor tells Stripe, “you will see and smell and feel it all. Is that what you want?”
Praise to Malachi Kirby, fresh off his performance in the Roots remake, who was similarly stellar in this, and to Kelly, who always imbues every performance with extraordinary menace. What did you make of it, David? Should we note that when Stripe’s fellow soldier sang “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” that’s the third time this fairly obscure track has been featured in the series? What’s up with that?
Read David Sims’s review of the final episode, “Hated in the Nation.”