Black Mirror episode 2: White Bear and the culture of desensitization

The last episode of Black Mirror’s second season airs tonight on UK Channel 4.

Do you remember the first profoundly shocking image you saw on the internet? Perhaps it would have been something you came across by accident; perhaps you followed, half horrified and half compelled, a trail of digital whispers to see if you could handle it.

Maybe you don’t remember the first one, but you remember some of them. Maybe you shut the window, sick at yourself, at the glimpse of a woman’s eyes glassed with something unsettling, not staged. Maybe you lingered on eruptions, lacerations, in spite of yourself. To see if the image could possibly be real.

You could have even been one of those who chased the rush, gaze fixed on the spectrum of human mortality suddenly available for analysis and consumption in ways far beyond what you will hopefully ever witness in your actual life. If so, you’ve probably seen someone’s victim, someone’s child, flicker by in your shock-zoetrope. That person is probably okay. It probably wasn’t real. It wasn’t really your problem. There was nothing you could’ve done anyway. You went to bed.

Now, you know that the world is full of upsetting and graphic things. You have seen communities form in dark little digital caves, faceless audiences forever upping the ante, worrying at a numb nerve ending that adapts, that wants ever more elaborate stimulation. . It is hard to feel shocked anymore; it is hard to feel moved. If you wanted to join them you wouldn’t have to dig through secretive channels; it’s just there, right over your shoulder. You probably already know where to look.

In the exposition of Black Mirror's season 2, episode 2 ("White Bear"), a woman awakes bound to a chair, alone in a house where the television radiates a stark, inexplicable sigil, an ominous whine. Disheveled, amnesiac, and clutching a photo of a child she can barely remember but who must be her daughter, she stumbles out into a suburban neighborhood, shouting for help. What greets her instead is an eager scattering of spectators wielding camera phones. Unmoved by her pleas, they film her from house windows, follow her down the street.

The voyeurs are possessed of a visible, quiet eagerness that you’ve seen on anyone looking at the world through a smartphone’s video recorder. Like what they’re seeing is just a moment to be captured, unreal. Immediately our heroine learns she’s being hunted; a masked man with a shotgun coolly advances, fires at her with no particular urgency.

No one helps. They just follow along and watch, like they’re hoping to be the first one with the video of someone dying. Who’d do that? Oh, yeah.  You, maybe. It’s not that implausible a projection.

This episode is only tangentially about voyeur culture and our desensitization to the individual fostered by mass communications, though.  It deviates from the usual structure of the series -- usually an episode opens with a scenario, a premise, an imminent reality enabled by our relationship to omnipresent social media and technology, and then explores the implications of that premise.

This one favors a long, action-intensive exposition that, beneath all the fleeing and gasping, the slow dread of violence, throbs toward a twist conclusion. It starts by placing us right into the circumstance of Victoria, shaken and bereft of her memory, fleeing the voyeurs and the videogame-like, masked “hunters” who seem to want to kill her for the benefit of the viewers. She’s assisted by  Jem, a tough gal who explains that everyone’s under the influence of a signal being broadcast from a transmitter called White Bear (hence the episode’s title). The pair’s objective is ostensibly to evade the sadistic hunters and disable the transmitter.

All the while, Victoria has flickers of memory: Of viewing the child she scarcely remembers through a video screen, of being accompanied by a man with a sigil tattoo. And all along, the viewers, disturbingly gleeful, like they’re touring a theme park.

The reveal at the end doesn’t feel totally unexpected, but it’s still uncomfortable. Ultimately you can view the episode as a critique of all kinds of themes: Mob mentality, reality television, even the complicated treatment of women in the justice system, or the assumptions we bring to the things we see – we can capture nearly any issue from all angles and pin it to virtual glass forever, but still only own a piece of the story, the unknowable remainder filled in by our own preconceptions.

Primarily, though, this episode is a critique of our deep, often-unexamined mass desensitization, or at least a dread portent of its potential to grow.  It aims to ask: To what extent can you stand by and watch horror before you are complicit, punishable?


  1. I have to say, Black Mirror is making me increasingly uncomfortable in a way I hadn’t experienced in a very long time (basically, since I kind of became desensitized to most horror flicks, probably right after Blair Witch, which was novel and terrifying -for me, at the time). The last episode of season 1 was very difficult to watch. I wasn’t able to finish ep. 1 of the second season (it was *too* close to home in some of my biggest fears) and I had to pause this latest one, White Bear a few times.

    I usually think of myself as hardly impressionable in terms of TV/ films but Black Mirror is somewhat touching on too many deep seated issues I didn’t even know I had. If anything, I am super impressed by the novelty (eh, there isn’t much originality in TV these days).

  2. Ok, I’m sure I’m going to be criticized for this request and told to go Google myself:

    I was not sure whether ‘Black Mirror’ was a TV show, a youtube series, or some other episodic media (nor did I know where I might see it) until the last sentence of the article. I humbly suggest this information should be in the first sentence of the article. 

    Though, I do give credit for being interesting enough that I skimmed the whole article to find out what it was talking about, and engaging enough that I felt like posting a comment. :-)

    1. It might share some commonalities with the Twilight Zone (do you also protest that Star Trek and Star Wars are the same thing?) but it certainly is not a “poor version”. If anything, it adds a contemporary commentary to certain issues/ fears that Twilight Zone also explored.

    2. Are you surprised every time it gets praise or was it just the first time you heard it praised that you were surprised?

      I like Charlie Brooker, but I’ve found Black Mirror a little challenging at times but overall very watch-able  Whoa, peel yourself off the ceiling catrap0 – that was fairly faint praise at best. 

    3. Then why don’t you offer a concrete criticism, instead of just saying it’s “poor”? That way, we’ll actually have *some* fodder for discussion besides “Gosh, catrap0 doesn’t like Black Mirror for some reason.” ;p

  3. I also though of it as a commentary on our obsession with sensationalizing crime stories. hence the disneyfication of the justice system. great episode.

      1. ooo, you mean we can pirate it?  Gosh golly, the thought never occurred to me.  /s.

        It’s more a comment on restrictive copyright laws and policy that do nothing but…oh never mind.  Whoosh.

      2. Maybe you could give some idea how? There are no free versions on the first few pages of google search results, downloading it using vuze or something would take a lot more than 30 seconds and you can’t check if it’s genuine until it’s done downloading.

        1. In the years I’ve been using, I have never found one of their files to be either wrong or fraudulent in any way. Occasionally  a file will have some encoding issues but they are quickly replaced by a proper one.

      1.  All Channel 4’s content from 4OD is also uploaded to youtube. All six episodes are one there and if you’re in the UK you should be able to watch them without any problem.

    1. Failure on who’s part?

      I’m all for the ‘ease-of-access’ argument, but when something is made for a target audience that is not you, it’s not a failure to not make it available to you.

  4. Does Channel 4 have/has it had a predilection for programs like Black Mirror? I’ve never really watched any of their programming, but saw Utopia over the weekend and felt like it was cut from a somewhat similar cloth as Black Mirror. Is that coincidental, or is Channel 4 just developing a fondness for this sort of quasi-genre?

    1. Since Channel 4 is party funded by the TV license, they have a public service remit to provide, amongst other things, “a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, in particular:

      (a) demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes”

      I can’t think of anything recent that is quite like these shows though. You’re right in thinking they share something in their creative DNA. maybe they were commissioned by the same person at Ch4?

      Have you seen Charlie Brooker’s previous show for Ch4, Dead Set? it was pretty damn good too.

      1. In response to ‘have you seen Dead Set': WHAT. I didn’t even know this *existed*. Thank you, I know what I am digging up in the near future. (Is that vaguely punny? Bygones.)

        Out of curiosity, what were your thoughts on Utopia? Oh, and your username is aces.

        1. Glad I could point you to it then :)

          I thought Utopia was fantastic. The writing and acting were perfect, and the things that are usually less noticed, like production design and music, were great too.
          I really hope there’s a second series.

          1. Yesssss. The music was perfection, and I’m not much of a soundtrack girl. But it set every scene so damnably well, to the point where I hunted down the artist’s Bandcamp page immediately post-viewing. Things I did not expect: the same person also did the soundtrack for The Crimson Petal & the White.

            What got me, though — and I suppose I am showing my American here — is how very beautiful Utopia was. I’m aware of PAL and NTSC and all that, but when I was last in the UK and watched programming where the visuals were clearly of importance (The Hour; they loved their design details), it was like a revelation. Watching Utopia brought that all rushing back. It doesn’t feel like a lot of shows bother thinking about color palettes quite so much.

            Mixed feelings on a second series, though. Do you think they could carry the story for another six episodes without losing anything? More would be great, but I worry that it might stumble.

          2. I think they could twist it all around and go someplace completely unexpected. They seemed to like doing that anyway.
            As long as they don’t drag it out to 7 seasons or something. Two, maybe three tops, then get out – but then, that’s something else UK shows are good at.
            I just wish The Hour had been allowed to finish it’s planned three series. Now I’ll never know what happens with Bel and Freddie!

  5. It takes about a minute to find a free streamed version online. Just very slightly more difficult than e.g. Borgen.

    I’ve heard it said that some combination of a slash, ‘.net’, ‘hedbatg709wa’, and ‘videozed’ might work, but don’t quote me.

    I didn’t watch it, of course, because that would be wrong. Great show, though.

  6. I somehow found a file of this episode last week somewhere on the interwebz, not knowing it hadn’t aired yet. Anyways, I had to pause it and walk away twice.

    I remember during an awkward nighttime mass interaction with police, here in the states, taking pause and looking at all the bystander “journalists” with cellphones out just filming away. During the stand off with police, pepper spray was unleashed and the cellphone “journos” with their little video flash bulbs ablaze moved in from all corners of the intersection to get a shot of the aftermath. The filmers were always just out of arms reach, but also very much in the way, inhibiting the movement of others trying to administer aid, and never helped or really said anything (except maybe narration for their “feed”). They were bystanders in the middle of the action. They would shuffle and dance around you when you walked by as not to be touched, but when you hunched over to flush someones eyes they were right there next to you. I was taken aback by how that little screen could, as it seemed, wholly remove someone from their surroundings while they simultaneously were an active participant in the situation.

    Back to this episode of Black Mirror, I won’t spoil it but I will say the twist gains its full shocking force through the cutaways during the closing credits. Watch all the way to the end. Digest it, then wash this show down with the most kid friendly, mind numbingly positive cartoons (Care Bears) you can find.

    There is no more appropriate name for this series, than Black Mirror.

  7. Both Black Mirror and Utopia should be shown as is in the USA.

    But there again, I’m so tired of media that is “USA Only”, that having quality media that is “UK Only” smells like ironic payback.

  8. “Primarily, though, this episode is a critique of our deep, often-unexamined mass desensitization, or at least a dread portent of its potential to grow.  It aims to ask: To what extent can you stand by and watch horror before you are complicit, punishable?”

    I’m a little bit skeptical about the whole idea of mass desensitization.  I dunno, I think its a bit of a bugaboo for censorship advocates, people who want simplistic explanations for crimes, and occasionally for people who make preachy and shallow movies like Funny Games.  It there any evidence that exposure to violent or shocking media imagery affects people’s reactions, particularly moralistic, to actual, unmediated violence?  Is there anybody who would hold their hands, and say that their moral compass has been adversely affected by exposure to violent media, or is it just something that happens to other, less clued-in and reflective individuals than ourselves?  We experience violent or unpleasant imagery, both mediated and unmediated, in a variety of very different contexts, and I think the panic about desensitization rarely takes into account the profound differences that these contexts make to our reactions.

    1. I find that I’m beginning to become more sensitive as I get older. Like the idea of browsing through now makes me uneasy.

      Although there could be billboards of goatse up around the city and I probably wouldn’t give it a second thought.

      1.  I remember when I was in school, this buddy of mine was always trying to show me shit on  This guy had such a juvenile sense of humor at the time that he couldn’t hear the word “Bangkok” in class without collapsing in fits of laughter.  I don’t know what his current levels of sensitivity to unpleasant imagery and place names are, but he turned out alright.

        1. It seems like rotten is largely defunct.  
          Maybe everyone went to 4chan?

          I never did look in the “fecal Japan” section.

    2. Yeah, I had a similar first reaction when reading the article. It seemed to me that it had a vague ‘blame the new technology’ feel to it. We so often hear people saying that ‘today’s youth’ are more apathetic, hardened and isolated, that violent movies and video games are causing an epidemic of violence, etc, but there doesn’t seem to be much hard evidence behind these statements. It seems to be another case of older generations lamenting that newer generations are doing it all wrong, which has been going on probably forever.

      From the article: It is hard to feel shocked anymore; it is hard to feel moved.

      I am getting less sensitive as I get older, merely because of experience and different expectations. By ‘less sensitive’ I only mean that the shocking things I happen to encounter don’t often keep me awake at night, haunt my dreams or affect my mental health anymore. However, it does not mean that I don’t feel concerned or moved by what I see. Unlike what the quoted statement seems to suggest, I don’t believe that people must feel shocked or traumatized in order to feel that something is sad, thought-provoking, worrisome or downright wrong.

      On the other hand, there has been no shortage of predatory, apathetic and selfish people throughout history. I would still like to see whether the ratio between empathic and predatory people is any worse today than ever before (especially because of technology). I doubt it.

      1.  That’s odd. I think I’ve gotten more sensitive as I’ve gotten older. Maybe the visual impact is no longer there after you’ve seen all the shock sites (and I think I have seen them all) but once you have kids you get a new sense of dread about the underbelly of society I think.

        1. I never sought out shock sites on purpose and I am a parent as well. But when I stumble upon nasty/gruesome stuff (nearly impossible to completely avoid), it doesn’t totally freak me out and wreck my whole mental state anymore. I’ve seen it a few times and am aware that there’s some really vile shit out there. I can cope better now.

          What I’m saying is that it’s possible to think something is vile without experiencing complete shock and dismay at the mere sight. I don’t think that developing better coping mechanisms necessarily means that one’s ability for care and empathy are also dulled (which is often what I find people imply by the word ‘desensitization’).

  9. I think that this was one of the best Black Mirror episodes, really good. The twist was well done, and uncomfortable.

  10. “Do you remember the first profoundly shocking image you saw on the internet?”

    Yes.  It was when I was 11.  Me and my friends all started screaming and ran.  The bravest one of us inched back into the computer room and yanked the computer’s plug out of the wall.


  11. I actually wasn’t that impressed by this episode, as I found it a little…well, far-fetched–which is saying something, considering that I’ve found every previous episode to be so relatable that watching each one was like staring fifteen minutes into the future (not 20 minutes: Max Headroom’s a bit further down the road). This one, though…it felt too contrived. Too obviously staged.

    That said, I *did* rather like the idea of the White Bear Justice Park. But it would be much more interesting and cost effective were the criminals just forced to fight gladiator matches with each other and/or armoured bears.

    1. Wouldn’t it be vastly more cost-effective than what we have now? Especially if they charged admission?    Sounds like a win-win to me.

      Is Disney already involved in the Prison-Industrial Complex?  Follow the money!

  12. If you like Black Mirror, You will also like Utopia. A dark as the fucking night drama also on Channel 4 that addresses similar issues and actually made me admit the bad guys have a very good point even if they are sadistic bastards whose ends wouldn’t work out nearly as well as they imagine.

  13. “even the complicated treatment of women in the justice system,”

    *woosh* and there Boing Boing once again went over the cliff.

    You must have missed that part where her partner in crime comitted suicide because he didn’t want to end up there. So if he wouldn’t have done that they both would have ended up in this “Justice Park”.

    Maybe you also missed the reveal during the credits? Yes, this was in part about voyeurism, but it’s also clearly a critique on the “mob mentality” that runs rampant in today’s media. Just read any comment under a crime story that involves someone “innocent” and what people would like to do. Half of those commentators would get season passes to the Justice Park just because.

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