2.03- "The Waldo Moment"
This week, Charlie Brooker's brilliantly bleak science fiction anthology series Black Mirror wrapped its second season on a bit of a weak note. Well, weak for Black Mirror. It still ran rings around any other attempt at political satire OR science fiction to see airtime in ages. As with last week's "White Bear," "The Waldo Moment" begins in a manner that makes the viewer think they know what's going on. But by the time the end credits roll, the satire has become more complex and challenges the viewer by implicating them in the dystopia that arises when jaded voters rally behind an empty symbol rather than address actual issues.
Jamie Slater (Daniel Rigby) is a failed comedian who has found success voicing Waldo, a foul-mouthed blue cartoon bear with a penchant for Ali G style interviews with people who don't realize they're not on a children's show. The character is successful, but Jamie is miserable, and when the network pushes for a Waldo spin-off show, producer (and owner of the character) Jack Napier (Jason Flemyng) decides to push Waldo into the political arena, mainly as a way to harass Conservative candidate Liam Monroe (Tobias Menzies), raise the profile of the show, and make some money.
But as Waldo becomes more and more popular, he begins to destabilize the political process with predictably nihilistic results.
I say predictably, and for the most part that's true, making this the weakest installment of either season of Black Mirror. But there was something more going on, something familiar that I couldn't put my finger on.
During the end credits for "The Waldo Moment" we discover that this idea was originally a concept developed by Brooker with Chris Morris for the brilliant, dark, and twisted 2005 Channel 4 sitcom, Nathan Barley, and suddenly it all fell into place for me. Failed comedian Jamie is the bitter, vitriolic stand-in for failed, bitter, vitriolic writer, Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), with Jack Napier fulfilling both the Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns) and Jonatton Yeah? (Charlie Condou) roles.
As with Nathan Barley, "The Waldo Moment" ultimately isn't about annoyingly pervasive technology, or even the vapid idiots who thrive on shallow vulgarity masquerading as success. It's about a man who gets locked into a role as mouthpiece for an apathetic and stupid segment of society, and no matter how he tries to get free he only succeeds in dooming himself further.
The difference is that Nathan Barley was funny. No matter how dark Chris Morris gets, he always brings out the humor in the situation. Brooker's "The Waldo Moment" veers clear of humor and instead locks its sights on the crumbling of Jamie and, by extension, the world around him in a hostile, almost hopeless critique of the world we actually live in. Or almost, anyway.
That's another thing that sets this episode apart from all but the very first episode of the first season, "The National Anthem." This isn't really a science fiction story – despite the dystopia that suddenly appears in the final moments while the credits play. It's an attack on both politics and the disinterested public equally. It's painted in broad strokes and is at times ham-handed, but underneath that is a sympathy for Jamie that allows him to become the emotional core, however juvenile and self-pitying he can be.
Jamie is a creative person who has become successful based on a shallow, crude idea and isn't allowed to let any other ideas come into fruition. To be quite honest, he may not really be that creative. None of his ideas for the Waldo spin-off show sound good or grab anyone's attention, and his creative outlet – dick and fart jokes – may be all he really has to offer.
And that is devastating.
He wants to be so much more and hates that this worthless comedy – if you can even call it comedy – is what the public wants. But ultimately, he doesn't really have anything else to offer. He's just clever enough to realize that he's not clever enough. And because he's so flawed and lonely and afraid of failure he lashes out, isolating everyone around him, until he finally tries to take a stand and is cast aside because of it.
In the end, the point of the episode isn't that the cartoon bear becomes an empty talking head, allowing voters around the world to rally behind a "straight talking" falsehood that empowers fascist policies under the heading of Change. It's about a man who wanted to be better, who wanted to be cleverer, failing and being destroyed by his own creation. If he had towed the line, like he always had, he could be rich and comfortable – not powerful in any way, but a tool of the powerful – but he just couldn't do it. He couldn't hate himself anymore.
And by standing up for himself, he loses everything.
Black Mirror is about as far as you can get from escapist science fiction. And that's what makes even the weakest episode tower above the vast majority of television sci-fi. At the same time, it's not really very hopeful and can be emotionally draining to watch. This becomes its greatest strength in the end, because everything that makes these stories painful, works because it's what makes them real.
Even when we're talking about a big blue cartoon bear who thinks it's funny to show you his cock.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.