Before we discuss White Bear, let’s rewind to when this episode was first released: February 18, 2013.
Four months earlier, Apple introduced the iPhone 5, the thinnest, lightest iPhone ever built. This new model has a stunning 4-inch retina display, a necessary upgrade as we were watching more HD videos on our phones.
In 2012, social media took a leap from being a place to share text-based posts to a place to share graphics, videos, and other image-based content. Instagram hits 50 million monthly active users, and the short-form video-sharing platform, Vine was acquired by Twitter.
With more bandwidth than we knew how to use, we posted some of the most unhinged content during that period. By 2012, user-generated live video streaming service, Justin.tv rebranded as Twitch and reached 20 million visitors, well on its way to becoming one of the most popular websites on the Internet.
Conversations about cults and extremists were bubbling under the surface of our consciousness. In 2012, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, told the fictionalized story of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. This movie demonstrated the process similar to the “Auditing” used by Scientologists, where a cult leader breaks down their followers. In the movie the exercise is referred to by a rather mechanical term “Processing”.
On Dec 14, 2012, 26 people were killed in The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, marking the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in US history.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, 2012 had the second lowest number of death sentences with 78, representing a 75% decline since 1996 when there were 315.
Now that we’re refreshed on the bleak months leading up to the release, let’s jump into Black Mirror, episode 2 of season 2: White Bear.
Did this episode age well? Are the themes still relevant? Has any of the predictions in this episode come true as of 2022? And if it hasn’t, is it still plausible?
Let’s find out.
Memory and the Need to Film
The episode opens with Victoria waking up without any memory, greeted by a symbol on the television screen, pills scattered on the ground, and her wrists bandaged. As she explores the environment, she starts piecing together her reality, reminding us of our mental fragility and how our inability to recognize our surroundings can leave us vulnerable.
As she explores, she discovers that people are filming her every movement, stealing her privacy, and exposing her even more. Only when a masked man started hunting her down in front of all the spectators did she finally reach her lowest point: an animal.
Today, we’re obsessed with filming everything we do. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, and many other options allow us to share an unlimited amount of content: dramatic stunts to sex trafficking to calls for justice. The range of content we create goes from mundane to messed up.
In 2019, the first of two mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand was streamed on Facebook Live for 17 minutes by the shooter. In 2021, a portion of the shooting in Boulder, Colorado was available to YouTube viewers.
The ability to film everything is a double-edged sword, a weapon to harm, harass, and exploit while also being a tool to expose cruelty and corruption. This brings to mind the death of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, a teenager, Darnella Frazier filmed police officer Derek Chauvin with his knees on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. If Frazier didn’t upload the video to social media, there might never have been justice for Floyd or fire to ignite the Black Lives Matter movement.
The repercussion of filming violence and reliving traumatic moments may lead to us being desensitized to the horrors and with a sickening feeling of involvement. How do we wash the sin off of us for helplessly watching a person die? We cannot step through the screens, so like a prisoner, we are held captive.
Hope, Symbols, and Cults
The red herring in White Bear is that the symbol caused the population to become consumed by their devices, so much so that they can’t stop dangerous people from taking over.
Today we’re suffocating under all the information and attempting to break out of our passive state. In doing so, we act dramatically, sometimes following others that can lead us astray.
Jem may be telling Victoria that she needs to destroy the transmitter to save everyone, but in fact, she’s playing a character and guiding her through a tortuous punishment. This heroic quest is also how cults manipulate new followers, how adults can lure children, and how psychopaths can acquire accomplices. As the group starts to form around an idea, like a multi-level marketing scheme, we no longer need to think for ourselves. We follow a symbol and a dogmatic belief.
Whether pressured to commit crimes or to gather and condemn, we are influenced by those around us. In 2022, mob mentality is stronger than ever. Take a look at all the riots and collective rage in the world, physical and virtual, from Capitol Hill to Twitter.
The murder in White Bear was inspired by the Moors murders in the 1960s, however, the satanic sacrifice reminded me a lot of the disappearance of Tylee Ryan and JJ Vallow in 2019. Lori Vallow, the mother of the two children, is currently being charged with first-degree murder, in addition to desertion and nonsupport of her dependent children. Manipulated by a man obsessed with certain apocalyptic beliefs named Chad Daybell, Vallow was brainwashed to think that she was saving the world from “dark spirits”, her own children, in preparation for a doomsday.
In this episode, the white bear symbolizes the hope of recovering the little girl and the justification for Victoria’s punishment. This point brings to mind all the symbols that have opposing purposes. The Swastika was highjacked from Asian scripture, and the OK sign turned into a white power salute. Today tech companies are becoming symbols of free speech and oppression. Communities online are forming around ideologies that start with hope and evolve into hostility.
More than ever, we must be conscious of how our desires are manipulated, how symbols are twisted, and how groupthink and mob mentality drives us down a path of destruction.
The Morality of Punishment
At the end of the episode, we discover that Victoria and her fiance had abducted a young girl, crucified her, and filmed it all in progress. After their arrest, her fiance committed suicide in prison, and Victoria was sentenced to daily psychological punishment where she had to face the same cruelty and humiliation that her victim had experienced.
Does this sentence match our modern theories of punishment? Does it act as a deterrent? Is it retributive? Does it reform the prisoner?
There is a belief that the punishment should fit the crime, but in the modern day, we often find that the judicial system is inconsistent. Some punishments are too harsh, while some are too lax, with criminals going through a lengthy legal process to only serve a short sentence and return to society. But shouldn’t the goal be to have them return and act as model citizens? How can we know if punishment is ever fully served?
In North America, an eye-for-an-eye punishment is no longer believed to be effective, as it could cause an endless chain of victims. Yet, all types of punishment are affected by the force of momentum. The more death sentences we give, the more we would continue giving. In a world where execution is the optimal choice, we see all criminals are irredeemably evil.
A common misnomer is that the death penalty is the cheaper option. It’s understandable, after all, we just kill them. We don’t have to pay to feed and house them for years. But a single death penalty trial can cost millions — or even billions — of government dollars. Once that is understood, then perhaps the immersive Justice Park experience is not that crazy of an idea. After all, since so much taxpayer money is already wasted trying to understand the moral thing to do, maybe charging admission can help relieve the budget.
When something upsetting happens, the court of public opinion is quick to suggest the worst form of punishment. We relish it. Given the chance, we’d treat criminals like animals because, to many, they are worse than animals.
Every few years, trophy hunting would spark a debate online. In 2015, American dentist and recreational game hunter, Walter J. Palmer, paid $50,000 to go to Zimbabwe and kill a lion. That lion was named Cecil. This killing went viral and fueled outrage among animal rights activists. The Internet aimed to destroy Palmer, vandalizing his home and sending death threats, claiming they wanted to turn him into a trophy.
The popularity of Tiger King in 2020 reminded us of our curiosity for dangerous animals. How far away are we from putting dangerous people into an interactive environment for us to feel the rush of fear and superiority? Perhaps we would never go that far? Or if we do, we would be able to justify it just like how we’ve justified all the other shitty things we’ve done in the past. Feeling the temperature, we may be one violent mob away. What hot-button issue will push us over the edge?
Cults catch us at our moments of weakness and vulnerability, often at a transition when the world is uncertain. They lead with hope and opportunity, and they make us feel righteous. We see the leader as our savior like how Baxter is celebrated for conducting torture.
So I ask again, can the events of White Bear happen? While logistical and technological advancement needs to take place first, I believe our human psyche is already starving for it. We are seeking someone to blame all our problems on, we are looking for a way to express our rage, and countless events have made us view each other as less than humans.
White Bear was an episode that I didn’t think much about the first time I watched it, but this time, after all the turmoil that happened in the world, and with awareness of the twist at the end, I appreciated the simple theme: Beware of what you film or you might become a part of the show.
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