Last night marked the final episode in the second series of Black Mirror, the ultra-dark UK show that explores the future of media. This series, like the first, was a set of three short stories (we reviewed the first episode here), each set in the near future. Though this second series was more uneven than the first (the second episode, "White Bear," was a mess), Black Mirror is still one of the very best science fiction shows you will ever see on television.
The final episode, "The Waldo Moment," was fantastically funny, mean, and sad. Set five minutes into the future, it's about a comedian named Jamie whose claim to fame is inventing a character named Waldo, a blue animated bear who likes to scream obscenities and pop boners at his pretentious guests. Waldo is an animation controlled and voiced by Jamie in real time, using a futuristic lo-tech motion capture rig. Waldo rules the interview segment on a popular news satire show, and the hook is that his guests don't realize they'll be talking to a nasty animated bear. The skit blows up into a wildly popular meme when Waldo interviews Liam Monroe, the local Tory candidate for Parliament, and completely freaks the politician out.
Soon the execs want Jamie to spin Waldo up into his own show, and they hit on the idea that Jamie should follow Monroe around in a truck, trolling him with Waldo from a giant flatscreen monitor. Jamie, already a little unbalanced, starts to go into a tailspin when he's pushed to do more political humor. He's not interested in politics, he yells. Still, he agrees to allow the network to do an "Elect Waldo" campaign. That's when things get really dark. Jamie takes Waldo on a news show with the other candidates, and manages to rip into all of them — including the Labour candidate, a young woman who spurned Jamie after sleeping with him for one giddy night. Waldo reaches new heights of popularity on YouTube and Twitter, where people love him for pointing out that all politicians are just as fake as CGI bears.
The bear is such a huge hit that he draws the attention of an American from "the agency," who suggests that Waldo could be a global political entertainment product, the "perfect assassin" in any arsenal aimed at unseating local regimes. In this clip, you can see the show creator Charlie Brooker's satiric genius at work as he has this guy basically explain how to weaponize a meme, turning a foul-mouthed bear into an agent of mass manipulation. The "Waldo Moment" is basically the tipping point when I Can Haz Cheezburger or maybe 4Chan becomes Big Brother. It's the kind of ugly futurist insight that makes Black Mirror such a riveting show.
After that meeting, Jamie gets more and more disenchanted with what's happening to Waldo, and eventually quits in disgust. His producers take over Waldo — they own the intellectual property — and Waldo comes in a close second after the Tory candidate in the local election. Then, in a coda, we flash forward a few years to Jamie living on the streets, being harassed by what seem to be semi-robotic soldiers. Leering down from glowing billboards is Waldo's blue face, surrounded by words like "hope" and "change."
The meme has won. Dystopia wears a cute blue bear's digital face.
Brooker, who wrote this episode, does a brilliant job realizing this genuinely disturbing vision, which comes from an unexpected place. The episode begins as a fairly standard critique of media politics but becomes something far richer — an exploration of how seemingly harmless internet icons who appeal to our sense of nihilistic apathy could be used to exploit us. There is something quite simply haunting about the idea that this glorified LOLbear might trick people into treating politics as fiction, and handing over the (now invisible) reins of their nations to anyone who controls Waldo's joystick.
If you want to see where your clicky habits online might lead you, watch "The Waldo Moment" episode of Black Mirror. It will leave your conscience feeling stained, even when you turn off your monitor.
Black Mirror aired on Channel 4 in the UK.