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?