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Black Mirror season 3, episode 6: "Hated in the Nation" has one true villain — creator Charlie Brooker. (Also, bees.)

This supersize episode works much better than it should.

Black Mirror
Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay are the Mulder and Scully of “Hated in the Nation.”
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This article is a recap of Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation.” There are spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

Why does Hated in the Nation work?

I’m not sure I can answer that question. The episode is overlong, at 90 minutes, especially when you can more or less predict much of what’s about to happen in the very first scene, as you watch a woman’s Twitter feed fill with hateful invective directed at her. (She dies just a few minutes later.)

And yet I enjoyed “Hated in the Nation” more than any season three Black Mirror episode not named “San Junipero.”

Some of that is surely thanks to its crackerjack cast, which includes Kelly Macdonald, Faye Marsay, and Benedict Wong. Some of it is probably the nasty closing twist (which we’ll deal with in a moment). And some of it is the nicely inconclusive way the episode ends, with the investigation still technically in progress.

But if I had to guess what drew me into “Hated in the Nation,” it was probably the bees.

Watch out for robotic bees

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker apparently hoped “Hated” would be his take on Nordic noir, the Scandinavian drama trend that has given us, among other series, The Killing and The Bridge. But essentially every critic I’ve talked to about the episode has compared it to The X-Files, due primarily to the episode’s very Black Mirror take on the Mulder/Scully, believer/skeptic dynamic.

Here, Macdonald plays Karin Parke, a grizzled veteran (how wonderful to have Kelly Macdonald playing a grizzled veteran), while Marsay is Chloe Perrine, a tech-savvy younger officer who is more comfortable with computers than Parke is. Flipping that believer/skeptic dynamic to tech-savvy/virtual Luddite is a very Black Mirror way of reinventing a tired trope.

But there’s also the way the episode is scary — and scary in a bunch of different ways, no less. There’s the mounting dread of Parke and Perrine trying to defend a victim from a swarm of robotic bees. There’s the strange sadness of the closing sequence, with all of those doomed victims slowly realizing their own fate. And there’s just the simple grossness of someone’s brain being short-circuited by a bee drone.

But let’s face it: The X-Files comparisons stem largely from the fact that the episode is focused on bees. I mean, yes, they’re technically robotic drones built to look like bees and fulfill their pollination functions, in a near future where colony collapse has led to far fewer bees around the globe. But as with the alien virus–carrying insects of The X-Files, “Hated” gets a great deal of mileage out of the sheer alien horror of a giant swarm of insects.

But the use of bees also strengthens the point of Brooker’s script without constantly underlining it. (The constant underlining is a Black Mirror problem consistent across all seasons.) The idea of a social media swarm using a hashtag to single out various people for death, only to have the bees actually carry out that death, is a great example of how much power the show can gain from simply making some of its more outlandish ideas literal.

Black Mirror is about seeing how far technology stretches human emotions. “Hated in the Nation” doesn’t have to push nearly as far as you might expect to go from “social media outrage cycle” to “literal swarms of insects killing people.”

Black Mirror is about worlds that have ended already — they just don’t know it yet

Truth be told, I was a sucker for “Hated” from the second that first little drone bee crawled around on a flower. The deeper I got into season three of Black Mirror, the more I started to realize that the show is, on some level, about a series of worlds where the apocalypse has come and nobody’s realized it yet.

A robot drone bee pollinates a flower.
The moment “Hated in the Nation” won me over.

So it is with the drone bees. Without bees to pollinate plants, the plants would die, taking life on Earth with them. Thus, humanity comes up with a solution to this problem — as you’d expect — via its technological knowhow. But as always happens on this show, that technological knowhow just turns out to be another way for humans to kill, hurt, destroy, or otherwise disappoint each other.

Now, that underlying skepticism of tech and social media could feel predictable here, as it does in other episodes. But it works because it’s impossible to avoid the sick gut clench of that final twist: Even as Parke warns that the source code for the bee drone override system was too easy to find, everybody plunges ahead, before the “#DeathTo” hashtag can claim a major government official as its next victim. (It figures that things would really step up once the government started being threatened.)

The drones, see, have been keeping a record of every single person who used the hashtag — and sure enough, once the source code is overwritten, the switch flips, and the drones swarm all of those hashtag voters. The gun firing the “#DeathTo” bullet turns out to have been pointing both ways.

We know something like this is coming. The whole episode has been framed as Parke’s testimony before some sort of Parliament subcommittee into what went wrong. (Curiously, the episode seems really centered on the UK. Was nobody in other countries using #DeathTo as well?) And any time an officer is giving testimony in a police drama like this, you know something horrible went down.

But that still didn’t quite prepare me for the agonizing slowness with which the final denouement played out. I complained in my season review about how season three’s episodes often slowed down their storytelling when they should be speeding up, but here it worked really well.

The audience realizes why the drones have been keeping all those social media profiles a split second before the officers do — and then all any of us can do is wait for the bloody inevitable, which Brooker and director James Hawes drag out as long as they possibly can.

A few notes on Charlie Brooker, villain extraordinaire

If there’s a quibble with “Hated” (beyond it probably being 15 minutes too long), it’s that the villain’s plan, ultimately, is kind of stupid.

He’s hoping to teach a moral lesson about the fact that words mean something, even when you’re shouting them into the social media void. But because we spend so little time with him (he’s basically a nonentity throughout the episode), the full weight of what he’s done doesn’t register as much as it could.

The #DeathTo hashtag in action.

And yet the more I think about the episode, the more I become convinced that Brooker almost intends this figure as a sort of self-insertion character. Like Brooker, he’s obsessed with getting his audience to consider the darker side of technology, and like Brooker, he’s full of outlandishly grand ideas. (The two even kind of look alike if you squint.) But where Brooker created a TV show, our villain sets up an elaborate system to murder people using drone bees.

There’s still a sense here of the futility of trying to teach a lesson, of hoping that you might be able to get people to consider their words more carefully in any form of written communication.

Maybe the “#DeathTo” hashtag prompted some sort of national soul searching, but I somehow doubt it. If there’s one thing Black Mirror has taught us, it’s that people are irrational and spiteful and, above everything else, kinda shitty to each other.

And yet even in this scenario — the one with the murderous robot bees, I’ll say one last time — there’s some grim sense of hope on the horizon. Perrine might not have the criminal captured just yet, but he’s in her sights, and Parke knows her former partner is closing in.

Instead of having her kill herself (as the episode head-fakes toward), Brooker lets Perrine live — perhaps to catch the villain who just might be him, perhaps to miss that villain until another day. The answers, like so much on this show, lie tantalizingly out of reach, just around that next bend in the road.

Black Mirror season three is currently streaming on Netflix. Read the rest of our episode reviews and recaps here.