by Josie Kafka
“Men Against Fire” is one of those we’re-almost-there episodes of Black Mirror, drawing on debates about drone warfare, services for veterans with PTSD, and hegemonic structures that split the world into us and them, good and bad, human and roach.
Stripe is a new recruit with a military unit that appears to be run by a corporation rather than a country or geo-political unit. Throughout, Malachi Kirby does a phenomenal job of communicating Stripe’s complicated reaction to both the technology of war and the impact of violence on his psyche.
It’s the psyche that’s really up for grabs here, since Stripe’s is being manipulated. When he enlisted, he received an implant: not just a retinal uplink, but one that allows the corporation to manipulate his thoughts and perceptions.
The purpose of that manipulation is pragmatic, as Arquette (the excellently creepy Michael Kelly) explains. Soldiers are more willing to kill if they think they are killing monsters, not people. The slang “roaches” is intense, and evocative of how soldiers throughout history have used various pejoratives to describe their enemies. But the corporation takes it a step further: the neural implant makes Stripe see regular humans as vampire-esque monsters who move like zombies on meth. That makes them easier to kill, which makes the eugenicists happy.
Why? Because the “roaches” are political dissidents, people with genetic disorders, people with illnesses and disabilities. The war against the roaches is a fight for eugenics and single-doctrine policy.
Once Stripe knows the truth, he has two choices: he can refuse to fight and become a victim of his own memories of slaughter. Or he can continue to fight the roaches and have access to a false, but convincing, vision of reality that allows him to imagine he is doing good, killing monsters, and able to visit a lovely home with a lovely wife.
That choice is a blunt allegory for [insert any political conflict here]. Demonizing the other side is easy, deluding ourselves about perfection is easier. And what other option does he have?
Although the allegorical element is a bit heavy-handed in this episode, the portrayal of the soldiers is not. Raiman (Madeline Brewer of Orange is the New Black) seems to be a clichéd (albeit gender-swapped) gung-ho killer who connects death with sexual urges—but really, it’s that when you kill a “roach,” the company rewards you with more pleasant dreams. Medina (Sarah Snook) truly cares for the soldiers under her care. And Stripe himself is the everyperson: conflicted, trapped, and desperately seeking comfort in an uncomfortable world.
Four out of four dreams.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, 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?)