‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: White Bear

This episode targets our instinct of reaching for our phones when something shocking happens and creates a scenario to help you identify the extent of your empathy.

‘Black Mirror’ is a satirical anthology series that examines the dark aspects of modern society, particularly as it relates to our relationship with technology. Each standalone episode presents a picture of a world that’s futuristic, yet believable; cool, yet horrifying. Each of these study guides will touch on some of the themes the episode explores.

What’s The Relationship Between You, Your Phone, and What’s In Front of You?

A girl wakes up tied to a chair with no memories of who she is and pills spilled on the ground. She walks outside trying to figure out where she is. Not a single person is in sight, until she walks onto an open field and people start to appear at the windows of the surrounding houses. They’re all filming her, like they know she’s walking into impending doom. She walks onto a suburban street. A car appears in the distance, then out walks a man in a ski mask. He takes out a rifle, loads it while slowly walking towards her, then, at a moment’s notice, starts dashing straight towards the girl, gun raised.

It’s a thrilling moment. One that would probably warrant you taking out your phone to film, perhaps? That’s exactly what all the bystanders do. While hiding giggles, they film this nameless girl as she’s hunted down. The hunter makes nothing of the bystanders, and nobody intervenes. This can hardly be considered satire. When was the last time you watched a video of something bad happening to somebody and you didn’t see other bystanders in the video also filming the occurrence?

Because it’s later revealed why all the bystanders are filming and not helping our heroine, the target of this criticism isn’t the reluctance to intervene; it’s the reactionary instinct to reach for your phone and start filming. Why do we do it? To go viral on the internet? To use as proof that you were there? Perhaps maybe it’s just because everyone’s doing it? We spend so much time documenting things for later, when we should be fully living in the now. By reaching for your phone, you’re taking one step into the future, but the cost is taking one step out of the present.

What Is The Extent of Your Empathy?

Throughout most of the episode, we see a nameless girl being mercilessly hunted down by people who seem downright psychotic. We inevitably root for her. But then the curtain is lifted, literally, and it’s revealed that — spoiler alert — our nameless heroine was actually an accomplice to a child murder who’s being punished in the same way she made her victim suffer: having a bystander film you being killed rather than save your life.

This White Bear penal system is a great rorshach test to help you understand yourself better. Our “heroine” is not only innocent, but has committed a horrible act. However, is this elaborate form of psychological punishment just? The “what goes around, comes around” form of punishment makes it a little more palatable than punishment of the “an eye for an eye” variety, and the fact that she’s had her memory wiped makes things even murkier, forcing you to really think about where your line is, and the extent of your empathy.

Bonus: Two Small Details I Loved

  1. That moment when Victoria first meets the man with the gun.
  2. The completely unrevealing episode title.