Revisiting “White Bear,” The Most Unsettling Episode of ‘Black Mirror’

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Black Mirror, you know it’s a show that refuses to be easily dismissed. The anthology series deals with different characters, settings, and realities, producing a variety of horrifying outcomes for its protagonists, many of which don’t feel too out of reach from our own lives. With sympathetic protagonists who feel like they are continually subjected to the worst possible outcome, Black Mirror often feels like a train wreck that you can’t look away from.

The show, whose name refers to the reflection we receive from a phone or tablet screen turned off, typically deals with what could happen if we let technology get out of hand. But every so often they switch it up a little. “White Bear,” the second episode of the series’ second season, marks one of these divergences. The episode follows a woman (Lenora Crichlow) attempting to take out a signal transmitter which is controlling those around her via their device screens. The controlled follow her around, recording her actions while she desperately begs for their help.

The presence of these hypnotizing devices can easily deceive us into thinking that “White Bear” is yet another cautionary tale against being too attached to technology, but this episode’s intentions are far more unnerving. Our protagonist, one of the few people not controlled by the signal, begins the episode with no memory: no understanding of who she is, where she is, or why she is there. Much like us, she’s struggling to figure it all out as she goes along.

The episode feels like one long action setpiece, with our hero and her ally narrowly escaping a few anonymous violent people who are attempting to protect the signal transmitter. Her foes are almost victorious, but, after getting out of a few tight spots, our hero finds herself on the right end of a shotgun, pointing it at one of her pursuers. But when she pulls the trigger, confetti escapes instead of a bullet. The walls open up, and she’s met with cheers and applause from a faceless audience. She’s pushed into a chair and strapped down as her ally and pursuers bow. No longer in an action-packed situation, our hero now seems to be an unwilling guest on some sort kind of twisted game show.

Victoria, as we come to learn her name is, was not the hero of this story. In an info dump/twist combination, the audience learns alongside her that she and her late fiance abducted and murdered a little girl, Jemima (Imani Jackman), who is remembered by the symbol of her white bear. While her fiance killed himself in custody, Victoria was labeled a “uniquely wicked and poisonous individual” and sentenced to a punishment proportional to her crime of filming Jemima’s death. Since she reveled in being witness to Jemima in anguish, she now undergoes daily psychological torture, met only with witnesses (the general public) who recording her suffering.

Victoria, learning about her past from a blank memory, is clearly in distress; it’s evident that, without her memories, she deeply regrets what she’s done. She is paraded, strapped to her chair, through the crowd of people shouting death threats at her before her memory wiped for the next day of punishment. Over the episode’s end credits, we see the employees and visitors of White Bear Justice Park preparing to terrorize Victoria another day.

And that’s it. Characteristically, Black Mirror doesn’t offer any obvious answers, no sense of conclusion, nothing to take from the episode except more questions. While much of Black Mirror acts as a cautionary tale against technology that advances too far, the most high-tech part of “White Bear” is the cell phones visitors use to intimidate Victoria. This episode throws us completely off our game, asking moral questions that feel, in many ways, too real even for Black Mirror.

While we typically are given a reasonably sympathetic protagonist, Victoria is someone who we discover we should hate. Even still, Victoria’s error happened long before we meet her. The Victoria we know has no memory, no idea she’s done anything wrong. She seems horrified at the thought that she could do what she did. With her crime so far removed from her, is she even a criminal? We shouldn’t feel sorry for her— that much feels pretty obvious— but then again, if we can decide that she’s not a criminal, why shouldn’t she deserve our sympathies?

Oh and our remaining options for sympathy? A crowd shouting death threats, those working at the park to terrorize someone who doesn’t know she’s guilty, and a dead little girl’s family we only see through archival footage. Black Mirror typically asks us to identify with its protagonist, to feel bad for them when one single mistake led to a horrible, blown-out-of-proportion outcome. “White Bear” unnerves us by confusing our sympathies, leaving us feeling disgusted with everyone involved.

Perhaps the most chilling element of this episode is how it implicates the audience. If the structure had been different, with us knowing what Victoria had done before seeing her amid her punishment, would our sympathies be so nobly confused? Would we feel that she is worthy of our hate? Would we perhaps applaud the creators of White Bear Justice Park for the genius of their punishment?

As it stands, we as an audience are equated to the attendees of White Bear Justice Park who record Victoria as she struggles. “White Bear” offers a view of society that we would probably rather not face: an exceptionally cruel presentation of mob mentality. Those going to visit the park seem akin to visitors of something like Disney World in the sense that they regard Victoria’s struggle as an opportunity for entertainment. The implications of this punishment don’t appear to phase the masses who play an active role in it.

It’s easy to think we’d never let it get to this point, that we would never be so cruel or would never be implicated in punishment in the ways this episode’s audience is. But Black Mirror, true to form, doesn’t want us to find comfort in the most comfortable conclusion. We very well could be the audience in “White Bear,” just as surely as we could be the protagonist of any other episode. This particular episode, however, stands apart because it isn’t about one person who caused things to go wrong— it’s about an entire section of society that allowed it to get to this point, a culture that we not only could theoretically see ourselves in but are already a part of.

In the grand scheme of Black Mirror, this episode doesn’t necessarily have the scariest implications, nor the saddest or most shocking, but it manages to be deeply unsettling by removing any degree of separation we might have found solace in. Even without being explicitly about technology, “White Bear” is quite in line with the show’s premise by being disturbing; it leaves you questioning what you thought you believed about yourself.

Aliya Jones: @allyajoness Studies film and its relation to society at NYU Gallatin. Still hurt that 'The Florida Project' got snubbed.