The Waldo Moment: Black Mirror, Did it Age Well?

Before we discuss The Waldo Moment, let’s take a trip back, about a decade ago, to when this episode was first released: February 25, 2013. 

On January 21, 2013, the United States inaugurated Barack Obama for his second term as President. In March, China appointed to power Xi Jinping, who was set to turn the page and regain a sense of national greatest. 

Donald Trump was only speculating about running for the 2016 election. And in the coming weeks, The Apprentice season 13 would air on NBC. 

A year prior, Sasha Baron Cohen released his political satire The Dictator. And in 2013, the first Netflix hit, House of Cards proved original series created by streaming services could succeed. Kevin Spacey wasn’t canceled yet for sexual assault but rather acclaimed for his role as the power-hungry Frank Underwood. 

Jon Stewart was reaching the end of his tenure as the host of the Daily Show. In June 2013, he stepped away from the desk to direct a political drama, Rosewater, allowing John Oliver to fill in for a couple of months.

In January 2013, the first video episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience were uploaded onto YouTube. These videos would get hundred of thousand to a million of views regularly. 

While it may have felt like it was all fun and games, someone was bound to get hurt. The Kony 2012 online campaign fooled many. Cyberbullying became ever more prominent in the news, including the story of Amanda Todd’s death in October 2012. Eight months earlier, Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by vigilante George Zimmerman, fueled tribalism and demonstrated the ineffectiveness of social media as a communication tool. 

The flowery utopia we were hoping for was wilting. The joke was over. The systems were breaking, and no one was capable of fixing them. According to the political online magazine AlterNet, 1.4 million Americans voted for Jesus Christ as the president in the 2012 write-in ballot to show their displeasure for both Obama and Mitt Romney. 

So that’s where we were in February of 2013. A simpler time, when we have only started to divide, forced to pick between two unsatisfactory options on all levels. With all that said, let’s get into our discussion of Black Mirror episode 3 of season 2: The Waldo Moment. 

Did this episode age well? Are the themes still relevant? Did any of the predictions come to fruition, and if not, is it still plausible? 

Let’s find out. 

The Jester King

The Waldo Moment follows Jamie, a comedian who plays Waldo, an animated blue bear that makes vulgar jokes on television. Set during a political campaign, his opportunistic producer, Jack, convinces him to run as a member of parliament under the guise of Waldo. This episode mirrors modern political satire and its power to reflect important talking points in an approachable way, while being implicit in sparking its own misinformation. 

Satire can be used to raise awareness without the drabness of journalism and public records, and it’s an effective method to criticize factors in a society without applying the full weight of the problem. In another word, satire is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. 

Many young people of my generation got news from comedians as opposed to reporters. There was often more truth in the comedy, and that’s what made The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report so influential. 

Recently, satire and the freedom of speech in these realms have been under attack. With the rise of fake news, including the Russian-backed stories shared all over Facebook during the 2016 election, the role of satirical publications was placed under the microscope. A rising concern occurred when various third parties began citing The Onion as a real news source, including such gems as “Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive For 2012″ and “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.” 

On January 2015, two Islamic terrorists stormed into the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people and injured 11 for publishing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad. 

Our trust in politicians and the press were decreasing, and we wondered if we could reign in satire without limiting freedom of speech. And that’s what makes The Waldo Moment so interesting. This episode shows that given the right circumstances a joke can take a life of its own. 

Comedians running for government is not a new concept even during this episode’s time. In 2007, Stephen Colbert, playing the role of his well-intentioned, poorly-informed character, ran for office during the 2008 Presidential Election. Although Colbert ended up dropping out, the Facebook group “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T Colbert” surpassed its one million member mark in less than ten days, making it the fastest-growing Facebook group in the site’s history. Did Colbert ever intend on becoming President or was it all for the show? 

Comedy and politics share a lot in common; they’re show businesses. While both may seem like it’s a one-person performance, there are many behind the scene pulling the strings. The figurehead ends up being the puppet that protects the party. 

Jamie can make Waldo say whatever he wants because the blue cartoon bear protects him. Characters and personas can create invisible shields. A politician can protect himself as long as he plays himself up as a character that’s defending a group of people or an ideology. 

Donald Trump did that during his first impeachment, which incidentally involved an allegation that he withheld military aid from Ukraine, attempting to influence them to investigate Joe Biden. Of course, we are now familiar with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. So in that exchange, we had Trump, a former reality television star in negotiation with Zelensky, a former comedic actor. 

See the wild ride we’ve been on this past decade? You’d think we’ve learned our lesson, but no. Voting an animated blue bear to a leadership role seems plausible, and the scary thing is that it might not even be the worst option. 

Democracy is a Joke

A key marker in this episode was when candidate Liam Munroe explained why he wanted to run for the position. He answered that he wanted to make the world a fairer place, and that’s the role of a politician. 

This brings up the question, why do people want to run for office? While they might say all the right things in front of the voters, we can sometimes see their underlying reasons. 

In 2011, during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Barack Obama gave a speech commenting on the “birther” movement, a conspiracy theory where Donald Trump, along with other Republicans, demanded to see the President’s birth certificate to prove he was actually born in America. In a mic-drop moment on stage, Obama roasted Trump, bringing all the influential people in the room together with laughter. 

Trump’s anger likely fueled his campaign in 2016, and the rest is history. 

While a grudge can be one reason to run for government, another reason is for fame and notoriety. Munroe’s competitor, Gwendolyn Harris was using the campaign as a “stepping stone” to build her showreel. 

This is a common practice in politics these days. Running for the government doesn’t need to pay off in having a seat in the House, because public appearances, keynote speeches, and book deals can make up for that investment over time. Not all the numbers are disclosed, but according to a report by Insider, members of the US Congress earned $1.8 million in 2020 from book advances and royalties, with at least 26 members earning a large amount in their side projects. 

We can often feel cynical looking at the democratic process. Gerrymandering, the electoral college, and other nonsensical procedures can make one feel like their votes don’t matter. 

Trash votes have long been a protest against a dysfunctional system. This act of wasting votes can take form in two ways. It can be a high-profile celebrity running to steal votes from a challenging party, like in 2020 when Kanye “Ye” West ran for president as an independent. What caused suspicion was that he was getting support from former Republican Party operatives. Who knows what Ye’s real reason for running was? But if nothing more, it distracted us from real talking points and swayed a few undecided voters to waste their votes for a laugh. 

The other way is by spoiling their votes right in the ballot or not filling it out at all. In a primary election in Finland and Sweden, Donald Duck earned a significant amount of votes. In Ukraine, the Internet Party nominated Darth Vadar. In the 2017 French presidential election, 4 million blank or spoiled ballots and 12 million abstentions won Emmanuel Macron the position. Protest or absenteeism in voting are symptoms of dissatisfaction with the political system. When society sees a rise in this, they must question their candidates and their processes. 

The responsibility of a politician is to make the world a fairer place. That’s a tough order. And we no longer believe that is something our leaderships are capable of, not with the system in place at least. While it may be scary, many are choosing instead to tear it all down. In 2019, Joaquin Phoenix played Joker, a character that encapsulated that feeling. It makes us all feel like clowns when, in reality, it’s the ones in power that are jokes. 

The Vote for Violence 

At the end of the episode, Jamie abandons his role as Waldo. As he doesn’t own the right to the character, his boss, Jack ends up taking over. When Jamie tries to destroy what he’d built, under Jack’s control, Waldo incites the public to attack Jamie. This type of violence occurs again when Munroe wins and Waldo tells the crowd to riot and strike Munroe. 

This call to violence brings back recent memories, most notably the January 6 incident on Capitol Hill. On the day Joe Biden’s presidency was to be certified, in an attempt to overturn the election, more than 2000 Trump supporters broke into the Capitol Building. The result was five deaths and a black eye for democracy visible around the world. 

This event was not spontaneous. For a few months, Trump stoked his loyalists, sowing mistrust, and giving permission to prepare an insurrection. 

Politicians have the power to embolden people, giving them a sense of righteousness and a feeling of immunity if they take action into their own hands. Much like how people listened to Waldo, people listened to Trump. All they needed was a symbol to band together on. 

But this amplification of violence is not only available to politicians anymore. Misinformation and validation for hate can come from anyone who has a platform. Take, for example, the criticism against Joe Rogan these past few years. With the largest podcast in the world, millions of people hear his words. That’s why when he questions vaccination or repeats conspiracy theories, even with a frame of innocent curiosity, he divides people. Despite claiming, on multiple occasions, that he’s not a doctor and he’s a “fucking moron”, his words can rouse other morons to act dangerously. 

A repercussive example was on July 14, 2022. On his podcast, Rogan joked about shooting homeless people in LA. The joke itself wasn’t particularly funny, but what was most surprising was that it came during a time of crisis. In 2020, over half a million Americans were unhoused. While we can all defend a joke in a society where everyone is of sound mind, we, unfortunately, live in a world where all a crazy person needs is a spark to unleash violence on others. Therefore, we, like Rogan, must examine whether there is a relation between crimes around us and what high-profile individuals say. 

Six days after Rogan’s joke about homeless people, I woke up to an emergency alert on my phone. The message warned me that a shooter killed three homeless people in my neighboring city of Langley, BC. Whether Rogan’s words had any influence we will never know for the suspect was shot dead by the police, but the fact remains. 

Recently, the news has been about “Ye” and his antisemitic comments on social media. When one of the loudest voices of our generation starts spewing hate, the world notices. Many condemned the message, while some flew banners on the Los Angeles freeway saying, “Kanye is right about the Jews”.

Violence does not begin with gas chambers. That’s where the story ends. Violence begins with hate speech and blame aimed at a group of people. Whether we are trying to bring down a government or clear out vermins, violence has always been effective. But what happens after? What happens when a government is overthrown and the so-called vermins are gone? 

At the end of The Waldo Moment, we find Jamie homeless in an Orwellian world ruled by Waldo. Out of all the episodes I have rewatched so far, this episode felt real, almost cutting too close to home. 

The ridiculous theater of politics is more ineffective than ever. Any attempt to improve it creates more risks of having it crumble completely. In many ways, we are already living with the consequences portrayed in the conclusion of The Waldo Moment. Many are already worshiping a cartoon character and will act violently if called upon. 

So how did this episode age? Like the previous political episode, The National Anthem, what seemed to have been preposterous a decade ago had already come true. That is why when watching this episode, we can only laugh and shake our heads. How innocent it must have felt for the Black Mirror creators when conceiving this concept. 

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