The fifth episode of Black Mirror, ‘Man Against Fire’ was interesting to watch, given its relevance following the 2016 election. How the military assists in the perception and monitoring of marginalized communities is on full display in this episode. Strike is a young Black man who is on his first day as a soldier on the military base; he is unsure of himself and of his place in his battalion, with his fellow soldiers, including a young yet very hostile girl, Raiman, being more seasoned than he. Within a few days, he quickly learns his way of surviving in the military and who his true enemy is as a soldier.
On multiple missions, Strike and Raiman’s battalion are keeping citizens supposedly safe from the ‘roaches,’ who have been causing perceived economic and sociopolitical issues for everyone. They eventually kill about a dozen of roaches, but Strike encounter a group of roaches who have this homemade anti-cloaking device to ward off the soldiers. In true Black Mirror continuity (similar to Season 2’s ‘The Entire History of You’), all the soldiers have been outfitted with an ocular implant, or MASK, that assists them with combat, intel, and other skills necessary to be effective military personnel.
The device made by the roaches interferes with Strike’s MASK implant, causing him to get blinding headaches and glitchy sexual nightmares featuring a young Black woman. After reporting about his headaches to his squad leader (Medina), Strike goes to the sick bay to only be told about an existing side effect about MASK and being in combat. Strike meets Arquette, a military personnel member who comes across as nice yet very emotionally manipulative. He asks Strike why people called him Strike, and it’s because people refused to pronounce his real name correctly.
Strike and Arquette discussed the possibly emotional toll Strike has dealt with since becoming a soldier, and Arquette only prescribed him a good night’s sleep. Strike does just that, but the girl and glitches plague his dreams enough that he wakes up to see everyone in the barracks soundly sleep with their hands constantly moving. Medina, Raiman, and Strike go on their final mission together to remove the roaches from a house. During the mission, Strike’s MASK implant continue to malfunction further; he could now smell the grass, something no soldier can do. Medina gets killed by a roach, Raiman and Strike finish the mission by themselves, and Raisman kills more ‘roaches’ than Strike. His MASK implant completely stopped working for the first time. He now sees ‘roaches’ as people who were frightened and ready to fight for their survival. Strike tries to save a woman and her child from being killed by Raiman, so he fights with her. Strike was able to escape with the woman and her son from the house after being shot by Raiman. The woman and her son take care of Strike inside of a cave in the woods. The woman tells Strike about all the ordeals they go through as a people–having to register, a DNA check, and having everyone else question their humanity, all of which sounds historically familiar.
Strike feels guilt about what he was complicit in their suffering for a minute. Raiman arrives, kills the refugees, and hits him with the butt of her gun. Strike wakes up back at the base, but in a big white room without windows. Arquette greets him with coffee and apologies. Assuming that Raiman told him about the anti-cloaking device the roaches made, Arquette exclaims that the ‘roaches’ are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. Strike tries to stand up for the refugees by noting that those people look exactly like them. But Arquette discusses the history of dissent in the military world, with soldiers disobeying orders in different wars, and how the MASK implant would end that. He ignorantly suggests that the refugees do not contribute to society, so it’s necessary for them to be exterminated. Arquette also reminds Strike that he and all of the soldiers consented to having the MASK implant and that they won’t remember the conversation around doing so.
Strike becomes appropriately irate towards Arquette as he tried to chase him around the room. In return, Arquette turns Strike’s MASK implant back on, causing Strike to lose his vision and explicitly saying that Strike will see only what they want him to see. Arquette gives him an ultimatum of (1) resetting his MASK implant and erasing his memories of the past three days or (2) remembering everything he did without the cloaking of the MASK implant and getting sent to jail. Arquette has Strike relive the past three days without MASK, which causes Strike to become overwhelmed with emotion. He chose to reboot his implant. After Strike finishes up his military service, he returns home to nothing and no one, implant intact.
The psychological component of the episode is what gripped me from beginning to end, especially the brief history of dissent Arquette gives Strike. There are well-known psychological experiments around the idea of obedience, specifically Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and most of Stanley Milgram’s experiments, that speaks to Arquette’s arguments of how MASK would make it difficult for soldiers to disobey. With the current state of affairs, I could see this type of technology being developed for both the military and business sectors. Overall, this episode was fast-paced and timely. I hope Strike’s story gets revisited in a future Black Mirror to explore how MASK could help soldiers who experience difficulties reentering civilian life and the lengths the MASK program will be used in war and conflict.