by Josie Kafka
“Waldo” is the weakest of the six episodes of Black Mirror that I’ve seen. It not only reiterates many of the ideas in the superior Season One episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” but also offers very little new insight into political class struggles at either the micro- or macro-level.
Jamie (Daniel Rigby) is an infantilized and infantilizing comedian who had moderate success in a sketch-comedy troupe in his twenties. Now thirty-three, he is stuck doing bit pieces on a talk show, where he voices a crude cartoon bear named Waldo knowing for “taking the piss” out of politicians and celebrities. Jamie knows just what a child he is: when people alternately compare him to a twelve year-old and a fourteen year-old, he looks sad. He recognizes the truth of the statement and is unable to see how he could change.
Gwendolyn (Chloe Pirrie) is an up-and-coming wannabe Labour MP. She enters an election knowing that, given the district’s conservative leanings, she won’t win against the Tory candidate. Yet she needs to try, in order to use the election process as a political marketing campaign. She is torn between her inherently humorous view of the world and the staid, noncontroversial front she must present in order to succeed in politics.
After a bit that skewers the stiff Tory MP candidate Liam Monroe (played, of course, by Tobias Menzies), Jamie’s bosses decide that Waldo, the cartoon character, should run as a write-in candidate to bump up publicity for a potential spinoff TV show. Despite his misgivings, Jamie, who doesn’t “do politics,” agrees, and develops a relationship with Gwendolyn.
Their encounters highlight the commonalities between celebrity culture and political culture. Jamie points out that Gwendolyn running for office is like “doing a showreel” or audition tape for a sketch comedy show, and wonders why she wouldn’t just speak her mind, given that she has the platform and nothing to lose.
Jamie says this, however, despite possessing very little mind of his own. He uses comedy to attack rather than to probe, and the Tory candidate provides an easy target, as all conservative, wealthy politicians do. But once Gwendolyn gives him the boot to protect her political career, Jamie directs his ire her way.
The result is uncomfortable (this is Black Mirror, after all). We can interpret Jamie as standing in for all the disenfranchised voters out there, seduced by apparently Labour- or labor-friendly politicians but ultimately betrayed by their seducers. We can interpret the show as a response to prominence of pop-culture over nuanced political thought.
Troublingly, it is Tory candidate Monroe who gives that idea a voice. (I don't even know what to do with the significance of the Tory candidate being the voice of reason.) Jamie-as-Waldo’s only response is rage at inherently superficial nature of political competitions in modern culture: “What are you for?!” he asks Gwendolyn. There is no response.
But what is Jamie for? And what is Waldo for? Well, that’s the twist: they stand for no ideas other than rage, and that rage is coopted by both the pop-culture industry and—in the oddest twist—the American CIA. Waldo the character becomes an icon advocating change, belief, ideas, and other empty buzzwords. Jamie becomes homeless and miserable.
Jamie’s story mirrors Bing’s (from “Fifteen Million Merits”). Both characters start as shells, develop a rage-response to culture, and have their dissent commodified. Bing winds up with personal wealth but inner emptiness; Jamie winds up with no wealth and nothing inside but an even deeper anger.
Those are firm ideas, I suppose, but between the repetition of themes from “Fifteen Million Merits” and the unbearable crudity of the Waldo cartoon character, I found this episode tedious and almost grating. The most interesting part, for me, was learning that during their campaigns, MPs are forced to wear flashy ribbons that appear to be stolen from horses who won a dressage competition:
Two out of four crude bears.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)