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Someone builds a better soldier on an unsettling Black Mirror

“I don’t like it when they get away.”

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Black Mirror

"Men Against Fire"

Season 3 , Episode 5

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When I was a kid, I used to rent video games from the corner store every weekend. I was only allowed one game at a time, which meant I had to choose carefully; but when I picked a good one (Mega Man 2, maybe), I played the living hell out of it. I spent hours in front of the television, and at night when I tried to sleep, whenever I closed my eyes I’d just see the game in front of me, playing through certain blurry levels on an endless loop. That’s what I think of whenever someone brings up augmented reality—the fact that some goofy 8-bit fantasy could so easily sink into my synapses makes me terrified of what will happen when the folks doing the programming start making an effort to really fuck me up.

“Men Against Fire” isn’t about video games; it’s a speculation about the future of warfare, and how we convince ourselves to kill. But it uses developments in the gaming industry (“What if Pokemon Go, but evil?”) from the past few years to posit a terrifying, and (as is so often the case on this show) painfully plausible, new status quo. In the presumably near future, soldiers get an implant, maybe similar to the one we say in “Playtest,” although the only physical impact we see is a certain grayness about the eyes. That implant gives them access to advanced combat systems, instant technical data, and some pretty sexy dreams. Oh, and it erases their memories and makes their enemies look like feral Nosferatu. So that’s cool.

None of this is revealed at the outset, and for a while, “Men Against Fire” moves in a predictable path. Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a new recruit, is sent out on a mission with his squad to track down a group of “roaches” who recently raided a local village. The roaches are mutant humans, seemingly feral and violent, who live on the outskirts of normal society, stealing food and tainting the land with their diseased blood. Stripe and his squad visit the home of a local man who’s supposed to be sympathetic to the monsters, and find a nest of the things living upstairs; in the chaos, Stripe shoots one and stabs the hell out of another, but not before getting zapped by a strange device that disrupts his implant.

It’s not hard to guess at the outset that the “roaches” are more than they appear to be, and once Stripe starts having problems with the system in his brain glitching out, it’s only a matter of time before he learns the horrible truth and betrays his squadmates. And that’s more or less what happens, albeit not quite so smoothly. There comes a point when you’ve seen enough anthology shows (or read enough short stories) that it’s possible to recognize the outlines of a plot structure from miles away. What makes an episode like “Men Against Fire” work is that it tells its story patiently but without dragging, and it offers just enough surprise and insight to make something familiar worth revisiting.

The surprise here isn’t that the implant is feeding Stripe false information: the surprise is how much of what he sees is a lie. The “roaches” are just regular people who’ve been deemed undesirables by the state (Arquette, the therapist who lays everything out for Stripe during the episode’s climax, offers a laundry list of complaints that sounds like a eugenics starter kit). Without the implant doing its job, don’t look like monsters at all.

That’s bad enough, but what really sells this is the idea of war and state-sponsored murder perfecting itself over time, using the tools at hand to strip people of their troublesome humanity and make them into machines that can consistently deliver the same output time and time again. Arquette (Michael Kelly) explains how no matter how good the weapons got, there was always a flaw inherent in the system: soldiers could never be entirely relied upon to kill, no matter how thoroughly they were convinced in the righteousness of their cause. The implant solves that problem nicely. It used to be the state had to launch propaganda campaigns in order to turn the enemy into a hateful monster. Now it’s all plug and play.

The final twist of the knife is the discovery that Stripe signed for this of his own free will. This is the closest “Men Against Fire” get to the smugness Black Mirror is so often accused of, and the pre-implant Stripe comes across as kind of a dupe in his few minutes of screentime. And yet his foolishness seems more like an observation than a judgement. This isn’t some Jason Bourne-type, driven by his government to become the best possible killer he can be. This is just some dumb kid, probably without much going on in his life, accepting what the authorities tell him because what the hell else is he going to do. It’s hard to condemn his naivete because even now, even after decades (centuries) of evidence that the people in power can never be entirely trusted, we want to believe. And yes, there’s culpability in that belief, especially when it means taking innocent lives—but it’s not a culpability I feel entirely comfortable pushing on to someone else. Have you read about drone warfare recently?

So Stripe is given a choice: he can go back to the way things were, or he can rot in a cell, forced to relive the horrors he committed under the implant’s illusions over and over and over again. It’s the perfect trap, because it’s not really a choice at all. You could condemn him for taking the “easy” way out, but he had little more autonomy over his actions than poor Winston Smith back in Room 101. It’s brutally depressing, but there’s something deeply sympathetic to Stripe’s suffering in the episode that keeps this from being a simple morality tale about bad choices. Everything is stacked against him to the point where there was never any real question of what might happen next.

Which leads to the final scene, of a freshly re-chipped and scrubbed clean Stripe visiting the beautiful woman he sees so often in his dreams. The actual narrative meaning of this is slightly unclear; while it shows what choice he made, I’m not sure if this is supposed to represent some kind of shore leave, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen when he walks into the rotting house that he sees as a paradise. But as a symbol, it’s effective, and it also subtly suggests another reason why Stripe signed on in the first place. The place is an empty wreck, but the implant gives him a vision of home, and of love, and of hope. Maybe that’s the other half of how they get you: we’ll give you an enemy to hate, and a life worth protecting. The implant is fancy technology that really boils down to the same lie, only shinier. You buy in, and it never goes away. Not even when you close your eyes.

Stray observations

  • “You can’t still see them as human.” I think it’s telling that even with the implants in, the whole deal seems pretty shaky. Even if you think the people you’re hunting really are hideous mutants, no one in Stripe’s unit makes an effort to convince him (or each other) that they’re an immediate danger—they steal, but they don’t kill unless attacked, which makes it hard to justify slaughtering them. All the implant does is make the moral choices just a little bit easier. You don’t see the truly awful things you do, and you’re with you’re buddies, and if you perform well, you get great sex dreams. I’d criticize the show for thinking our souls could be bought so cheaply, but I don’t think I entirely disagree.
  • Malachi Kirby has a very tricky job—Stripe is largely passive throughout, but he has to hold our interest and our sympathies for the story to have much impact, and I think Kirby does well with this. That last shot of him weeping outside his “house” is a stunner.