Black Mirror: White Bear

Black Mirror: White Bear

For the second week in a row, Black Mirror has managed to make me well up, however this episode left me feeling more nauseas than emotional. If ‘Be Right Back‘ was sentimental, then ‘White Bear‘ is cruel.

The episode opens with Victoria waking up in a flat, showing the symptoms of amnesia. She gets painful flashes of the past, such as a white symbol on a screen and the face of a little girl whose photo Victoria finds next to one of herself and a man. She wanders out of the house to find herself surrounded by silent voyeurs, surveying her through windows and documenting her via their phone cameras. No one will interact with her, answer her pleads or questions, and they all keep their distance. 

Soon she meets several other people, some of whom are hostile, but others like Jen who helps her, and claims most people have turned into these vacant beings since the transmission. After more terrifying encounters, including witnessing people strung-up on crucifixes in a wood, Victoria begins to remember the little girl, who is called Jemima and her white tidy bear, who she believes to be her daughter. She also recalls the marks on her wrists are from metal straps and not suicide attempts as she has started to believe. 

Jen convinces her to help her shut down the White Bear transmitter, which the former believes to be causing everyone to act so strangely. In the climax of their sabotage, it is revealed that Victoria is part of an elaborate show. ‘White Bear’ is a justice park, so named after Jemima’s white bear, a symbol of innocence and the search for the girl, where criminals are punished in Saw-style personalised scenarios acted out and administrated by a team. It is a surreal cross between a safari park and a theatre. ‘Jen’ tells the audience/customers, which terrifyingly includes children, to think of Victoria as “an escaped lion” and the actors take bows to a clapping audience after Victoria is strapped to a chair at the end of the ‘performance’. The main point it to entertain the audience through this voyeuristic torture-porn, to gain justice and to create a convincing story through illusion. They have systems in place to time everything and keep the public safe, but prefer the public to adhere to the rules for story consistency.

It transpires that Victoria was the accomplice of her fiancé – the man in the photo – and filmed the torture and murder of Jemima at the hands of her lover. Victoria is shown the news report of her own trial as the actors and audience look on unsympathetically, and begin to shout abuse at her. This voyeuristic crime is turned back on Victoria as the audience film her, spectators to her own torture and participators in the dealing out of justice.

She is then led through the ‘White Bear’ justice park strapped to the chair in a glass vehicle, similar to something the Pope would have for his protection. However, this use of glass is to make her a spectacle as the crowd are encouraged to heckle and throw red sponges – to simulate blood – at her. The shame and humiliation is overpowering as Victoria is led back by the handlers and the leader of the park’s performance to the house  in which she began the day. The organiser, Baxter, a pseudo-celebrity, sets up the memory-wiping device and video of Jemima’s torture that Victoria filmed herself. Broken, Victoria pleads for release: “Please just kill me”, and he tells her she always begs for death. Jemima’s memory is wiped, the props are replaced and the actors return to their entrances on the set as the audience take their places to begin another day in the performance of justice. 

During the credits of the episode the viewer sees ‘behind the scenes’ at White Bear, and the preparations for everyone to take their roles. This creates several layers of performance: the viewer [e.g. me sitting in my living room] is seeing the behind the scenes of the ‘performance’ in the first half of the episode up to the reveal, but also the viewer is seeing what could easily be behind the scenes in the filming of Charlie Brooker’s episode itself. The credits end with Victoria waking up again, in a loop, and then in a surreal move, I switched to Channel 4 + 1 to watch the whole thing all over again.

Having just written an essay on voyeurism, spectatorship and participation, I was reading all sorts into the episode and found the writing to be just glorious in its disgustingly questionable ethics. The bizarre twist I felt worked because there were enough subtle hints for the viewer, through Victoria herself, to realise something was amiss and that some information was being withheld from her and us. Despite that, however, the moment I realised it was a show, I was shouting at the screen: “It was a performance?! That’s sick!” 

I found it had parallels to Martin McDonagh’s cracking play ‘The Pillowman– one of the texts for my essay – because of the way it deceived the audience and used several layers of fiction, but also the themes of child-torture and perverse methods of justice. If you liked the tone of Brooker’s episode, and the themes it could only touch upon owing to the limits of time, I would say give it a read.
I also found myself relating this episode to Derren Brown’s ‘Apocalypse’, which I wrote about here. In Brown’s show, we played the role of the audience members of White Bear, but from our sofas, watching a man really be tricked into believing he had survived the zombie apocalypse through hypnotism. At the end of Brown’s show, the man discovered that it was artificial and was grateful for being improved and gaining perspective from the experience. Personally I think I would’ve punched Derren Brown in the face for pulling off such an elaborate and sadistic prank. 

However, in Brooker’s episode there is no redemption. It’s not just some grand farce, this is ceaseless and relentless torture of a woman. A criminal: yes, an accomplice to the murder of a young child: yes, but still a human being. I think the episode really brings to light individual views on the justice system and as a strong adversary to capital punishment, this dishing out of justice did not sit well with me.

The fact that something like Derren Brown’s show actually took place only months before Brooker’s episode sends a shiver down my spine. It makes ‘White Bear’ even more sickeningly cruel, but in a piece of fiction I adore that sort of stuff. 

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