In fact, perhaps the least convincing aspect of the main character, Kenny (Alex Lawther), being blackmailed through video of him jacking off isn’t that, given our internet culture, he might’ve gotten 15 minutes of fame instead of shame had the video leaked. It’s that the video is captured from the webcam on the teen’s laptop and not, say, from the eye of a wireless Teddy Ruxbin cybertoy, or the eraser in a mechanical pencil, or a chronically depressed refrigerator bent on revenge for the stuff left rotting inside.
But that aside, as the photographer Kyle Cassidy—someone who’s not only photographed John Carpenter but watched a metric ton of horror movies—noted as we watched this episode together, “Shut Up and Dance” may not do anything particularly new, but it does it extraordinarily well—and unlike in “Playtest, “we do care about the main did-bad-things characters throughout, at least in the moment, and we are largely invested in the epic (to them) aspects of their struggle.
Here, it’s probably wise to mention that one reason Black Mirror works so well is it does a superlative job of casting episodes—there are topnotch actors in every role, consummately chosen and given great direction. If some of the old Night Gallery and Twilight Zone episodes no longer really work, sometimes it’s that the acting pulls us out of the story in a way that’s not as bad as Dark Shadows but might as well be. “Shut Up and Dance,” with its ultimate deus ex machina manipulation, is the best example of why that matters.
For one thing, Jerome Flynn, most famous for his rakish role in Game of Thrones, pops up gloriously and unexpectedly as the mid-life, middle-class version of his fantasy-realm character, harried and stressed and utterly convincing. Yet it’s his counterpart in an agonizing alliance of convenience, the teenager played by Lawther, who in all of his reactions is so excruciatingly perfect that you’re horrified, wanting to look away and yet mesmerized and for a long time really rooting for him to get out of this—while also wondering just how many acting awards he’ll be up for.
You could argue that “Shut Up and Dance” says something we already knew, because even those of us who have committed no crime are indentured to our insecurities and petty secrets. Those who don’t like the episode, including my wife, are right to think that ending with a montage of people in distress while a sad Radiohead song plays could be considered papering over a lack of formal closure. But, then, through our devotion to LOLCats, wise owl photographs bearing fortune-cookie truths, and other internet memes, we know everything already anyway, so every truth is banal and made fresh only by a new and different context. I may be half-joking, but Black Mirror isn’t; the final twist in “Shut Up and Dance” plays hardball with the idea of who you root for, and why you root for them in deeply uncomfortable ways.