Warning: the following contains paragraphs of a spoiler-filled nature. Reader discretion advised.
After the understated melancholy of Be Right Back, and the aggressive aural assault of White Bear, we were wondering where the third and final Black Mirror episode might take us. Somewhere in the middle is the answer, with a dystopian political satire told with bleak humour, yet lacking either the emotional tug of the first episode, or the second’s palpable sense of outrage.
The Waldo Moment begins with two intertwining stories. In one, we meet Gwendolyn Harris (Chloe Pirrie), a young woman on the cusp of a new career in politics, having scraped into the role of a local Labour MP in spite of a less than stellar job interview (“I did commit a series of murders in Huddersfield between 1999 and 2003”). Gwendolyn sees the position as little more than a first rung on a long career ladder, and seems resigned to the likelihood that her Tory opponent Liam Monroe (Tobias Menzies) will beat her in a forthcoming by-election.
In the second story strand, there’s Jamie (Daniel Rigby), a 30-something comedian behind the popular television character, Waldo. A blue computer-animated bear with a voice remarkably like that of BBC Three’s Lee Nelson, Waldo amuses audiences with his foul-mouthed chatter on topical TV show Tonight For One Week Only.
Although Jamie has no interest in politics, a vulgar interview between Waldo and Munroe (the Tory MP mentioned earlier) impresses viewers and producers alike, and the blue bear’s popularity hastens the planning of the creature’s own solo TV show. Spurred on by that first televised encounter, producer Jack Napier (Jason Flemyng) and his underlings devise a high-tech means of having Waldo follow Munroe around on his by-election campaign, which involves a van kitted out with a huge LED screen and some obnoxiously loud speakers. With his protests falling on deaf ears (“I’m not dumb or clever enough to be political!”), Jamie’s soon despatched in the Waldo van, shadowing Munroe and drowning out his political messages with puerile jokes.
Jamie and Gwendolyn eventually meet in a hotel bar, and in spite of their different backgrounds, they find a common ground; neither truly believes in what they’re doing, and both hope their current jobs will soon lead to something better. This particular plot point has an impact later on, as a spurned (or so he thinks) Jamie uses his insider knowledge of Gwendolyn’s apathy to wreck her career on live television, and further Waldo’s status as an icon of disenfranchisement.
In the episode’s second half, Jamie can only look on helplessly as Waldo’s fame continues to grow, with a YouTube hit video attracting American corporate interest, and the bear surfing a wave of cynicism to a second-place win at the local by-election.
Like every episode of Black Mirror, The Waldo Moment addresses a particular current concern – this time about apathy and distrust in British politics. There’s still undoubtedly a technological thread in this episode, with Waldo operated like a virtual puppet with futuristic gloves, and all the chatter of social media and iPhone apps, but this is arguably detachable from the central argument: that self-absorption will be the death of politics. This point was rammed home in a rather abrupt coda, where a destitute Jamie, now cut off from his monstrous creation, literally wakes up in a dystopian police state governed by Waldo’s leering face. It’s such a sudden, on-the-nose image that it’s more blackly amusing than shocking – like one of those public safety commercials from the 1970s (“Remember, kids: don’t take the democratic process for granted…”).
The episode makes valid points about self-interested politicians being as poisonous to democracy as apathetic voters and cynical telly producers, but it’s hard not to sit through The Waldo Moment and feel a little dissatisfied with the stark, undisguised presentation of its underlying message. It’s as well-acted and well-shot as we’ve come to expect from Black Mirror, but neither its characters nor its plot felt as engaging as Be Right Back – nor did its events feel as horribly compelling as an earlier brush with politics, season one’s gut-wrenching National Anthem.
With its message so prominently in place by the midpoint, The Waldo Moment leaves little else for us to discover; protagonist Jamie is powerless to stop the media juggernaut he’s set in motion, and with her brief career in tatters, Gwendolyn eventually shuffles out of the narrative with nothing more to do.
This was a lesser episode of Black Mirror, then, but that’s partly because the quality of other entries has been so high. The Waldo Moment was still full of keenly observed scenes (the toe-curling job interview was one highlight, and the gleeful demolition of a disgraced MP on a topical comedy feels like a pointed jab at the humour in his own current affairs show, 10 O’Clock Live), and Bryn Higgins provided some solid direction.
And while the episode’s story was rather overwrought in the final analysis, it’s still the case that, right now, there’s nothing else on television remotely like Black Mirror. More please, Mr Brooker.
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