Some Black Mirror episodes are filled to the brim with new ideas and crazy sci-fi concepts. “Men Against Fire,” by contrast, is more like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone in that it has one central idea — but a very thought-provoking one at that. Let’s dive in.
The episode opens with a dreamlike vision of a beautiful woman. We quickly learn that vision belongs to Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a new recruit in a gender-integrated military force of the future. After some teasing from his comrade Raiman (Madeline Brewer), Stripe and his squad are sent on a mission to check out an infestation of “roaches” in a nearby village. Shrouded in mystery for now, the “roaches” are apparently some kind of contaminant — vermin with infected blood who prey on innocent people. The grayish landscape and Eastern European-inflected accents of the villagers certainly evoke vampire myths.
After using a translator device to speak to the villagers, Stripe’s commander learns that the roaches escaped in the direction of Heidekker (Francis Magee), a solitary religious freak who may have mental health issues. Suspecting a sympathizer, the soldiers head out for Heidekker’s compound. Here, we get our first view of the military’s sci-fi technology. They plan their raid using holographic maps and data displays, which each soldier has access to thanks to implants in their brains.
Heidekker’s compound is large, but when he answers the door it seems like he might be the only one there. Although reluctant at first, this loner lets the soldiers into his house, and they quickly go about searching while their commander interrogates Heidekker. She sees the religious symbols decorating the walls and figures Heidekker must be looking out for the roaches out of some Christian-like view that all people are worth saving. She attempts to disabuse him of this notion by discussing the supposed sickness in the roaches’ blood, which doesn’t care about ideals of common humanity. In her words, the roaches need to be exterminated if humanity is going to survive.
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Stripe is put to the test about that upstairs, when he finds a cluster of roaches hiding behind a blanket. They are definitely grotesque – between their sharp teeth and discolored eyes, they certainly look like the kind of vampires that show up in I Am Legend or 30 Days of Night. One of them holds up a mysterious device with a green light. The other roaches scatter, but not before Stripe shoots some and falls to the ground tussling with another. Drawing his knife, Stripe repeatedly stabs the roach even after he appears dead – but the sounds produced sound fake. They resemble dull pokes in cardboard rather than bloody, messy squelches. Afterward, Stripe examines the mysterious green light device.
A few roaches escape, but Heidekker is captured after an ill-fated attempt at stabbing the commander. They bring him, hooded and restrained, back with them after torching his compound – including that green light device, which is destroyed.
Back at the compound, Raiman is practicing her sharpshooting against roach targets, so that none get away the next time. Stripe killed two roaches, and Raiman’s jealous; she claims killing even one would have violently turned her on. Stripe tries to join in on the exercise, but a sudden glitch in his implant staggers him and he misses his target. The glitch continues later during push-up exercises, so he goes in for review.
NEXT: The nature of the glitch [pagebreak]
A doctor runs a diagnostic on Stripe’s implant (including a holographic Rorschach test where Stripe has to touch every holographic apple that appears in his vision) and finds everything running fine. Stripe isn’t satisfied, so the doctor directs him to Arquette (Michael Kelly). Judging by Arquette’s office décor, he’s the resident therapist, or at least the sci-fi equivalent of that. Arquette suspects the problem has to do with the fact that these roaches were Stripe’s first kills. But although Stripe keeps referring to his roach victim as “he” instead of “it,” he claims to feel nothing over it — no euphoria, no regret. Arquette’s still unclear on the problem, but promises to get Stripe a good sleep by programming something special for his dreams that night (the implants apparently also have the power to do that).
This dream involves the return of Stripe’s recurring fantasy, of the beautiful woman surrounded by flowing drapes. This time, though, it’s more intense. The lights are red and she asks him to have sex with her — although things get trippy when two copies of her appear. Eventually, the glitch turns up again, and Stripe wakes up in the middle of the night. He sits up in his bunk and looks out over his comrades, who are all peacefully sleeping.
The next day, it’s back to work. Having extracted information on the roaches’ whereabouts from Heidekker, Stripe’s squad heads out again. Stripe is surprised, upon arrival at the roaches’ hideout, that he can smell the grass. That’s not supposed to happen. Well, neither is the squad commander getting killed by a headshot, but that’s exactly what happens next. Apparently one of the roaches is holed up with a stolen rifle. Shooting their way into the compound, Stripe and Raiman find some kind of makeshift electronic workshop — probably the source of that green-light device from earlier. Shortly after, Stripe finds something even more surprising: A normal-looking woman hiding out in one of the rooms. She doesn’t look like a roach, so Stripe tells her to get out of there, promising not to hurt her. She slowly backs into the hallway, where she’s immediately shot by Raiman. Raiman then goes on a bit of a killing spree, mowing down everyone in the building. Several of the shots here are from behind Raiman’s weapon, giving the impression of a first-person shooter game and reminding that those video games can be quite dehumanizing.
Stripe soon finds another normal woman cowering, this time with a young son. Stripe is so shocked by this that when Raiman moves to kill them too, he knocks her out. He tries escaping with them in one of the military’s jeeps, but he’s bleeding and soon passes out.
When Stripe comes to, he’s in some kind of underground lair, made up mostly of dirt and twigs. It looks a little like the resistance movement from Children of Men, actually. The woman declares, “you see me as I am,” and the mystery is revealed. Roaches are just normal-looking humans; it’s the implant that makes them appear to be dirty vampire creatures. The green-light device was built to mess with the implants and make the soldiers see their victims as human. Stripe then asks why the villagers despise roaches too, when they have no such implants. The woman (who identifies herself as Katarina and her son as Alec) says that they just do what they’re told, and it’s hard not to remember Nazi Germany, where most German citizens went along with the Nazis’ rhetoric about Jewish people being insects who needed to be expunged for the health of the country.
NEXT: Arquette’s ultimatum [pagebreak]
As Katarina explains it, 10 years ago DNA checks changed everything. People with genetic predispositions to illnesses were scapegoated as roaches, a campaign instigated by television and internet media. But now Stripe sees them as they are, and that recognition is so powerful that Katarina smiles — just as Raiman bursts in to kill her and Alec. Stripe tells her that none of it’s true, but she knocks him out.
The next time we see Stripe, he’s in a white-walled cell, getting a visit from Arquette. Arquette apologizes for not catching the glitch earlier, and calls the green light a “virus” that seeped into the code (again, it’s worth remembering that this rhetoric of viruses, insects, and infections has been commonly used throughout history by people justifying genocide). Stripe says that the roaches look just like them, and Arquette says that’s why they’re dangerous. He says that the military had to figure out a way to work around humans’ natural empathy, so they designed this MASS implant to remove the common humanity that would cause humans to pause. In his words, this implant is the ultimate military weapon. It’s built to absolve soldiers of responsibility; he tells Stripe to just do his job of protecting the human gene pool and let MASS help him.
Apparently the implant is more extensive than Stripe thought. Arquette notes it also allows for the removal of memories, and uses it to blind Stripe completely. He offers the soldier a choice: Either allow them to reset his implant, wiping out his memory of the past few days and this very conservation, or be incarcerated and blinded forever. All Stripe has to do is say the word, and all these difficult moral choices go away. He’ll be a regular, know-nothing soldier again. Here, Arquette has basically become a common character archetype in dystopian sci-fi: the calm, business-like villain who explains and justifies the nightmarish setup (think O’Brien in 1984 or Mustapha Mond from Brave New World). Kelly, of course, imbues the character with a terrifying deadpan charm. His performance is definitely one of the episode’s highlights.
We don’t see Stripe’s answer to Arquette’s ultimatum. Instead, it cuts to a final scene featuring the beautiful woman of Stripe’s dreams — except this time she’s real, standing in an actual doorway. Stripe is there, too, in formal military dress, albeit with a tear running down his cheek.
So the episode ends Watchmen style (“I leave it in your hands”), but heavily implies that Stripe struck the devil’s bargain, opting out of feeling the consequences for the violence that allows him this comfortable life. It’s a thought-provoking parable about the military’s role in genocide and the difficulty of maintaining humanistic empathy in the face of dehumanizing technology, but ultimately feels a little more thin than Black Mirror’s best episodes, and relies a little too heavily on classic tropes of dystopian science-fiction.