Of the first half of Black Mirror’s third season, this is possibly the most disturbing.
Perhaps it’s because of how close to home this episode is; it doesn’t take place in a sci-fi dystopia, but modern England, and doesn’t use any futuristic technology. Certainly, in a world of revenge porn and leaked photos, it’s not hard to imagine a group of internet trolls taking things too far and putting someone through hell like this.
Or perhaps it’s because of the performances. Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) as Kenny, a teenage boy on the receiving end of blackmail, gives a fantastic performance – it’s powerful in no small part because of the raw emotion on display, giving a pitch perfect rendition of Kenny’s gradual breakdown.
There’s no single standout, because of how consistently powerful Lawther is throughout; however, it’s the scenes where Kenny is crying that really emphasises his youth and his vulnerability, and make the events of the episode all the more disturbing.
Perhaps it’s because of the direction. Unlike the cinematic ‘Nosedive’ or the CGI-heavy ‘Playtrap’, there’s something much smaller and more intimate about ‘Shut Up and Dance’. It’s a clever directorial choice that makes this episode feel that much closer to reality.
Or perhaps it’s because of that final twist. Having seen Kenny be put through hell and back, the audience is generally pretty sympathetic to him. More so than any of the others, really; while Hector (Jerome Flynn) at times seemed nice, it’s more difficult to sympathise with him because of his misdeeds.
Yes, what’s happening is undeserved, but he did do something wrong – unlike Kenny, who very much seems to be a victim of circumstance. Indeed, it even gets to a point where the audience wonders why Kenny doesn’t simply stop following the instructions and let his blackmailers leak the video.
Until the final reveal that Kenny had been looking at child porn – and sympathy shifts to horror.
It’d been telegraphed since the beginning; consider, in retrospect, how secretive Kenny was with his laptop, or his lack of interest in his female co-worker and the scantily clad women on television. Innocuous and largely unremarkable at the beginning, but these moments hold a very different meaning with the end of the episode in mind. Certainly, his interactions with the little girl in the restaurant at the beginning of the episode take on a far, far more sinister tone in hindsight.
This reveal gives ‘Shut Up and Dance’ a very bleak edge – no longer is Kenny just a vulnerable child, but a figure of disgust and loathing. There’s something very unsettling about this twist, and the way it forces the audience to re-evaluate the entire story.
Ultimately, of Black Mirror’s first three episodes in this new season, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ is the most impactful; it’s chilling and discomforting in a way quite unlike its predecessors. No doubt this is a story that’s going to stay with anyone who watches it for a long, long time – just like the best of Black Mirror, really.
Available from Friday 21 October 2016 on Netflix.
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