Note: I was out of the country for the past week, with limited wi-fi. I am back in Canada now but my schedule will still be busier than normal, likely until the end of August. With that said, I will still do my best to post three times a week.
Also, this piece has spoilers for “Men Against Fire”.
When I started watching “Men Against Fire” I thought it would end up on the bottom half of Black Mirror. The acting was some of the weakest the show’s given us in a while and I initially didn’t find the characters or the world as enthralling as the ones in preceding episodes. Initially, the story was about marines with hi-tech equipment killing zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I love sci-fi and zombie stories but the plot was a sharp contrast to the previous episodes. However, I figured that if I can watch an episode about a man being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, I can give this episode a chance.
The end of some episodes were disappointing, such as “Playtest”, which was dulled by numerous fake-outs throughout the episode. Other preceding episodes also have great ending, especially “White Christmas” and “Shut Up and Dance”. However, those endings were paired with episodes that I found enthralling and entertaining from start to finish. The endings were brilliant, but they only helped to immortalize amazing episodes. “Men Against Fire” might rank as my favourite ending (last 20 minutes) simply due to its ability to elevate what came before it.
“Roaches”, the pale, humanoid monsters that the soldiers eliminate turn out to be humans. Their MASS implants limit their sense of smell and hearing, drowning out the smells and sounds of war. Michael Kelly is a stand out on House of Cards as Doug Stamper, and is also a stand out here as Arquette, the psychologist who shares the twisted truth with “Stripe”. As always with Black Mirror the technology itself isn’t the most interesting part of the story; the most interesting part is the human behaviour it highlights.
Arquette uses the statistic that only 15-20% of men fired their rifles at the enemy in World War II, even when under the threat of immediate danger. Although this statistic is hotly debated, a comment on this page did add that most deaths in the world wars came from artillery fire: long-range, impersonal attacks that avoided the Rambo-esque hacking and shooting of close quarters combat. Scholarly books such as Denis Winter’s Death Men also assert that most military deaths came from artillery fire, especially during advances.
“Men Against Fire” gets more interesting after a roach shines a laser into Stripe’s eyes. It was obvious that the laser must have some impact on the plot, when Stripe’s senses were affected after being exposed to it. When Hunter and Stripe raid an apartment building there is also a blueprint of the laser in the roach nest. Some online discussion shows that plenty of people say they saw the twist coming, and then also argue that the episode is poor because of that. I have to say that a predictable twist doesn’t have to bring down an episode if it is executed well. I thought I saw a twist coming, but I actually misinterpreted what it was.
Although the roaches appearance is terrifying, you realize that they didn’t initiate an attack in the first raid. Their first instinct is to run, and the sniper who kills squad leader Medina is an exception, probably because the soldiers are closing in on their refuge. The roaches weren’t depicted as the mindless predators we’re familiar with from zombie films. They seemed like mutants trying to live peacefully. The characters frequently mention a global war that passed, and I thought the roaches were the offspring of radiation from that war. For that reason, I thought the laser was a device that was meant to make them only appear normal to others, before they were mutated. I had an inverse understanding of the twist until it was revealed. The roaches weren’t trying to make Stripe see them as they used to be, they wanted Stripe to see him as they are.
“You see me.”: The words of a refugee on the run from a genocidal society, relieved someone finally sees her as human. The military might be the ones killing the roaches, but the general public are brainwashed to see the roaches as literal monsters. Civilians don’t have MASS implants, the roaches are just other humans to them. However, they are humans that threaten the strength and purity of humanity’s bloodline. Arquette lists a range of defects present in the roaches, from higher susceptibility to diseases, to sexual deviancy and criminal tendencies. Arquette’s speech has all the cornerstones of eugenics and racism, and Trump’s comments on hispanics sadly mirror some of the ideas that criminality is ingrained in certain people.
In the aftermath of the war, one side went through great trouble to dehumanize the other. Cockroaches or “roaches” is what the Hutus called the Tutsis leading up to the Rwandan genocide, and even more recently used by a British politician to refer to refugees. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same term is used here. Dehumanization is a key part of genocide, birthed from propaganda that makes it easier for law-abiding civilians to engage in or support violence against the other. Civilians won’t even touch the food the roaches touched simply because they don’t want to get contaminated by a lesser breed.
“Men Against Fire” transitions from a war movie, to a piece that delves into the dark corner of the human psyche where prejudice reins supreme. As Stripe stands alone outside a dilapidated, graffiti-stained house, he sees a beautiful woman waiting to welcome him to their home. I couldn’t help but wonder, how many other soldiers in this army had their memories wiped after they found out the truth.