'Black Mirror' and the 2020 Election

Why "the worst" episode of 'Black Mirror' is the most important.

Posted Nov 27, 2019

In the wake of editing Wiley-Blackwell’s new book Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, this semester, I taught a course at King’s College on the famous Netflix series Black Mirror. The course consisted primarily of having the students watch the episodes, discuss them, and then read and discuss chapters from the book devoted to those episodes.

We talked about everything from criminal punishment, digital dating, and dealing with death to the abuse of social media, artificial intelligence, and the dangers of technology. Black Mirror is, top to bottom, an outstanding series.

Black Mirror Netflix
Jamie Before Waldo
Source: Black Mirror Netflix

But one episode stood out to me this semester, and it was the episode that, oddly enough, was originally panned as the worst by my students (and critics): Season 2 Episode 3, “The Waldo Moment.” It tells the story of a blue cartoon comedy bear (named Waldo) whose creators decide to have him run for political office as a publicity stunt.

His campaign gains traction, and although he doesn’t win, he ends up with enough support that, at the announcement ceremony, when he offers “500 quid” for someone to throw a shoe at the winner, someone does, and a riot starts. The show ends with Jamie, the original voice of Waldo, who quit the campaign when he realized its danger, being beaten by Gestapo-type police for throwing a brick at a screen displaying Waldo’s image. 

One of my goals for the book and my course was to identify the question raised and/or the moral of each episode. In the book, Greg Littman does an excellent job exploring the question raised by this episode: the extent to which disrespect and uncivility should play a role in political discourse. It’s one of my favorites in the book. But my conversation with my students about the episode made me want to probe deeper and try to figure out the moral message of the episode. It’s not easy to suss out.

A first viewing might make one think that the episode is a criticism of how politicians are fake. When Waldo appears alongside the other candidates on a talk show, the only point he makes (among fart jokes and swearing) is that all the candidates are “fake.” “[You’re] less real than me, and I can do this,” Waldo says, as he pulls off his cartoon head and juggles it around.

“That's what you said that really hit home,” his producer Jack says. “[Waldo’s] not real, but he's realer than all the others.” Indeed, Waldo himself seems to simply be a satire of how politicians operate: “All the other MPs have got teams, we're just more honest about it.” What we see from politicians is a front, a persona created by a team—focus group tested, researched, and polished. The only difference, one might argue, between them and Waldo is the fact Waldo’s fakery is obvious and upfront.

Black Mirror/Netflix
One of Waldo's slogans: Believe (in what?)
Source: Black Mirror/Netflix

But the message can’t be that simple. First, that’s a bit sophomoric. Of course, politicians have a persona; we all put on personas and social masks in daily life. You behave differently at work than you do at home.

But second, the end of the episode has Jamie living in a world ruled by Waldo. You see him on every billboard, in classrooms, on military planes, and used as a mascot (with vague promises like “hope,” “change,” “future,” and “believe”). It’s not clear whether the world is united under Waldo's rule, or whether different political parties in different nations have used Waldo to rise to power.

But when the police tase and then beat Jamie up and just walk away (they don’t even arrest him), you get the impression that the world is universally fascist. Neither Waldo nor his message was a force for good.

The clue to the episode’s message, I think, lies in the scene that explains how Waldo made this fascist world possible. And it is to that scene that we will turn in my next entry.  

(For all four parts of this article, in full unredacted form, go here.)