This article is a recap of Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance.” There are spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.
The premise is about as straightforward as Black Mirror gets, taking place squarely in the world as we know it, instead of taking a trip into a dystopian or otherwise alternate reality. Kenny (Alex Lawther) gets filmed through his webcam, and then gets a series of threatening text messages telling him to do exactly as “they” say or the footage will leak to everyone he knows.
Along the way, he meets other unlucky victims of these mysterious villains — never unmasked — who hack photos, webcams, text archives, whatever it takes to find something incriminating enough to force their targets to act out dangerous and/or debasing acts because...
...well, that’s never explained, either. Because they can, I guess? Because morality is important, or something? It’s probably some combination of the two, but it’s never once clear.
So, no, “Shut Up and Dance” — co-written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and William Bridges — isn’t exactly an airtight episode of television. As directed by James Watkins, Kenny’s nightmare saga only becomes more viscerally horrifying as it unfolds. It’s a predictable trajectory, and if it weren’t for a set of rock-solid performances, there wouldn’t be much else to make this chapter stand out.
But hey, as long as we’re here, let’s see what we can pull out of this episode, for better and for worse.
For better: The central pair of actors nails it
As Kenny, Lawther is quivering, desperate, heartbreaking — which is important, given that his character is being blackmailed for masturbating to pictures of children. Being able to sympathize with his terror as unseen puppeteers manipulate him is crucial, and the fact that I could was almost entirely thanks to Lawther’s incredible, vulnerable performance.
Still, it’s a relief when Kenny teams up with another blackmail victim, giving Lawther an unexpected scene partner in Jerome Flynn (whom you might know as Tyrion’s right-hand man Bronn on Game of Thrones).
As Lawther’s Kenny shivers like the skeleton of a crumbling fall leaf, Flynn’s Hector is all coiled anger. Caught in the act of ordering a prostitute, Hector is gruff and to the point, furious at his total helplessness in the face of his invisible tormenters.
When Kenny and Hector are thrown together, “Shut Up and Dance” gets a brief jolt of energy, a new kind of friction that catapults the episode forward. Neither of them can understand what’s happening to them, but for a minute, they settle into something almost like relief. At least for now, there’s someone else on the planet who knows what they’re going through; they don’t have to do it alone.
Once that wears off, though, it’s back to the same old routine.
For worse: You can pretty much guess exactly where this episode’s going
The whole time I was watching “Shut Up and Dance” — through my fingers, because I’m a notorious wimp for these kinds of things — I kept waiting for it to take an unexpected turn. I kept waiting for something ... well, interesting to happen.
And though Lawther, Flynn, and Watkins do their best to keep the tension taut throughout, “Shut Up and Dance” deflates as it goes on instead. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff said in his review of Black Mirror’s entire third season, this new batch of episodes suffers from Netflix bloat, and you can feel every stretched minute of this episode in particular.
First, Kenny’s instructed to pick up a cake. Then he has to deliver the cake to Hector, who then drives him to a bank, which they’re instructed to rob. Then they drive to a deserted field, where they split up, and Kenny has to fistfight another victim — another pedophile — to the death.
It’s just a series of escalating dares, each one a little more dangerous than the last. (See also: Nerve, a movie that came out this summer with an eerily similar premise.) There’s not a whole lot of suspense in that, as much as the episode seems to believe otherwise.
Even the final “twist” of the hackers releasing all the information they’ve got anyway — even after Kenny does, in fact, come out of that fight alive, bruised and bleeding — doesn’t hit that hard. The road to get there is predictable enough that the hackers sending the final message of a little troll grin feels more like an easy way out than a moment of any real significance.
For your consideration: This episode is more interesting as a window into shame than hacking
This isn’t exactly a new insight, given that Brooker has talked — even on this very site! — about the fact that he doesn’t consider technology to be the villain on Black Mirror, but rather human frailty. Or, more succinctly: “We can always fuck up in amazing ways.”
And so “Shut Up and Dance” might ostensibly be about the dangers of hacking, or trying to live a double life in a world that makes secrets all too easy to access, but it wouldn’t go anywhere without shame.
If Kenny, Hector, and the various desperate people they meet along their way to the bottom didn’t feel deep shame about the things they had done, the hackers would have no leverage. The episode would go nowhere, be nothing. Though most of the acts “Shut Up and Dance” mentions are illegal — with the exception of a woman trying to keep her racist emails under lock and key — no one mentions being afraid of legal retribution. Instead, they’re terrified of what this information could do to their families, and what their friends would think.
And so the burning shame radiating throughout Kenny and Hector compel them onward to do terrible things. Whether or not those things are worse than what they’ve already done is up to us; neither the hackers nor the episode itself seems interested in thinking too hard about comparisons on that front.
But whenever “Shut Up and Dance” starts to lose the spark that keeps it moving, it’s shame that brings it back to earth, and makes you wonder: How far would you go to keep your shame safely hidden? How much is too much to bear?
“Shut Up and Dance” isn’t sure. But in true Black Mirror fashion, part of the point is to absorb that horror and try to understand it within ourselves.