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Victim or Monster? Unreliable Narrator as Manipulator of Viewers’ Judgments on Legal Punishment

Written by Riley McKeown
Edited by Lucia Bell-Epstein

Figure 1. Black Mirror, Series 2, ep. 5: “White Bear” (2013). Image source: http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3363045/netflix-announces-12-new-black-mirror-episodes/

Humans respond physiologically to significant emotional events; for example, we may sweat when anxious or nervous, turn red when embarrassed, or tense up when scared. Yet for this reason, humans may be emotionally or psychologically malleable due to a multitude of factors that either cloud our mental clarity or otherwise desensitize us to the ‘shocking essence’ of modernity.[1] Accordingly, structural irony, or “an implication of alternate or reversed meaning that pervades a work”, is utilized within some psychological-thriller films and TV shows to present an interesting lens through which we can further examine just how modern media might manipulate the human psyche.[2] To sustain this literary technique, writers develop “a naïve protagonist…who continually interprets events and intentions in ways that the author signals are mistaken,” thereby inducing viewers’ anxiety as they become privy to information that will eventually bring harm to the ‘hero’.[3] Carl Tibbetts’ “White Bear” (2013), from the television anthology Black Mirror, employs this technique: introducing Victoria Skillane as the seemingly victimized central character, viewers eventually learn that she is a convicted criminal guilty of aiding her fiancé in kidnapping, torturing, and murdering a six-year-old girl; her ‘punishment’ is being humiliated and tormented on live television. It is clear that Tibbetts introduces a dystopic reality in order to emphasize how ‘daily shocks of the modern world’[4] have numbed a society whose over-reliance on devices mitigates human contact; in “White Bear,” society is evidently numbed to the cruelty of torture.

Tibbetts’ recursive layering of plot furthers the complexity of the subjective narration. As Victoria wakes up extremely disoriented, she seems to be experiencing amnesia due to an apparent attempt at a drug overdose. It follows that “mysterious transmitters have turned most of the population into zombie-like voyeurs incapable of doing anything but filming her on their mobile phones,” even as Victoria is chased by a masked gunman and screaming for help.[5] The out-of-text audience—what I refer to as the ‘viewers’—eventually realize that the false interpretations of the deliberately confused Victoria serve as the daily entertainment for people who come to watch and participate in her televised routine punishment. Tibbetts’ deceptive technique therefore poses a conflicting tension between external viewers initially empathizing with this unreliable narrator—thereby confusing Victoria’s situation as ‘torture’—and the in-text audience perceiving the scenario to be both entertainment, and ‘justice served.’ Thus, to the real-world viewers, Victoria’s perverted perspective evokes a sense of horror whereby we feel deeply uncomfortable throughout her apparent suffering. On the contrary, the in-text audience has always been aware of Victoria’s crimes, thereby desensitizing them to the publicly mediated depictions of her punishment as seen on ‘reality’ TV.

Figure 2. “Can you help me? Do you know who I am? I…I-I can’t [gasp] remember who I am…”
The most psychologically damaging element is thus Victoria’s unreliable narration, which simultaneously complicates our judgment while desensitizing the world around her. Upon waking up in an unfamiliar house in extreme physical discomfort, without any idea as to who she actually is, Victoria wanders into the bright yet overcast and wet day, in order to find some explanation of her current situation.[6] Through broken sobs she implores, “Can you help me? Do you know who I am? I…I-I can’t [gasp] remember who I am…” but to no avail. She is dishevelled, sweaty, and clearly unwashed; her face expresses perplexity, and her lip curls in disgusted, fearful confusion (Figure 2) as she begs for help from nearby ‘onlookers,’ who are watching and filming her as she struggles. The quivering of her chin, the tears welling in her eyes, and the way her breathe catches, all indicate a high degree of desperation; these bodily expressions work to influence external viewers to feel terribly for her, as she navigates alone in a world of affectless individuals who do not help or respond to her.

Evidently, Victoria’s narration limits our overall understanding of what is happening. She is subsequently lured out onto the street upon the click of a camera, whose amplified sound is unsettling against the eerie silence of the watchers. This disrupts her sobbing momentarily, jolting our narrator out of her hysterical stupor. The usage of structural irony in this scene—indicated by the sound of the camera snapshot—notifies the viewers that Victoria, in spite of her own ignorance in regard to her identity, is a person of public interest or at least relative ‘fame.’ Yet the immediate response of passers-by to fanatically record her actions—“[l]ike what they’re seeing is just a moment to be captured, unreal”[7]—mimics the reaction one might have, for example, when spotting a famous movie star in a local coffee shop. The noise signifies that she must have—in the past, which is unknown to her and thus unknown to us—done something to make herself such a jarring presence in the public sector. Moreover, the dramatic amplification of the camera’s click has the effect of briefly interrupting Victoria’s attention, reminding us how little she understands and therefore how unreliable she must be.

Viewers become aware of the larger, haunting setting: a uniform, maze-like community of indistinguishable, boxy, brick houses, much like the one from which Victoria emerges at the start of the episode. This transition, from a close-up of her facial expression to a widescreen shot as she rounds the corner, is effectively anxiety-inducing. The dampness of the outside world is consistent with the dreary climate so characteristic of the United Kingdom, making her specific location unnervingly ambiguous. As Sam Parker describes, the episode is a “half an hour of horror movie clichés.”[8] This is evident in the combination of eerie silence and bleak weather that plays on the stereotypical rainy-day aesthetic of archetypal horror films, essentially alluding to “a dread portent of its potential to grow.”[9] The camera panning illustrates the horrifying realization that Victoria’s fate is situated in a depressing labyrinth of mass desensitization. Viewers can accordingly predict that she will have trouble finding her way out of the grim, indistinct neighbourhood.

The consistency of the bright lighting in combination with the grim background creates an ominousness that looms overhead and ostensibly reflects on the misery of Victoria’s terrorizing confusion. Anxiousness results because of the ‘real-worldness’—i.e. the believability of Victoria’s situation as it is presented by Tibbetts—that allows the viewers to be fully consumed by the horror their protagonist is facing, in spite of the separation between ‘our’ world and hers. Yet even as flashbacks arise and Victoria alarmingly states, “No, this is all wrong—this is all wrong!”[10], we remain on her side because of how closely she embodies the powerlessness typically experienced by torture victims.[11] In contrast to the opening scenes that allude to as little outside context as possible, the conclusion to her nightmarish day reveals much more than just her name.[12] Subsequently bowing exaggeratedly, there is an ironic display of theatrics that includes ‘actors’ and an announcer who all profess their gratitude for the crowd’s show of appreciation as they appear on a stage in front of a loudly applauding auditorium.

Figure 3. The big reveal of Victoria’s identity on public TV.

All of this evidently leaves Victoria—strapped to a chair and blinded by stage lights (Figure 3)—more confused than she started, and further subjects the viewers to her unreliability, as we continue to share her pain and confusion. The bright lights flash across her face and her gaze darts around erratically; the light washes out her complexion and presents her, yet again, as the doe-eyed victim, subject to terror and inexplicable torment. The striking alarm captured by her face suggests that perhaps her near-‘death,’ from which she seemingly ‘escaped’ only moments before, would have been a happier end to her story. Her anxiety leaks through the screen, manifesting itself as the totalizing effect of the scene: Victoria’s worried confusion evokes a similar feeling in the external viewers, as we become aware of the fact that her torment, experienced across the span of an entire afternoon, was all for the purpose of game-show-like entertainment.

Indeed, the realization that while she was terrorized incessantly for hours, she was actually being monitored and publicly humiliated on live television, ultimately diminishing the immediate ‘horror’ that took place within the gloomy little housing complex. Respectively, Seumas Miller explains that “given the extreme suffering being experienced and the consequent loss of autonomy, the victim would presumably rather be dead than alive during that period.”[13] Axiomatically, as Victoria’s tormentors reset the course of her punishment for the following day, she helplessly pleads, “Kill me. Please, just kill me.”[14] Evidently, throughout her torture, and apparently thereafter, “[Victoria]’s world is almost entirely taken up by extreme pain,”[15] which is apparent in her physiological expression of anguish as her eyes widen with disbelief and she noiselessly, pathetically sobs.[16] The fact that this was all conducted to punish Victoria to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion elaborates on the decadent desensitization of the modern, technologically-mediated world. The torment of her psyche is thereby ‘justified’ because it provides entertainment for the desensitized masses. As such, Victoria’s punishment is presented to us as inhumane because her narration is completely bereft of any background information: we see her not as the murderer that she truly is, but instead as the amnesiac whose physiological responses encompass the degree of intense terrorization to which she is victim. This perhaps portrays her as that much more ‘human,’ in spite of the inhumane crimes that she has committed.

As illustrated by Victoria’s narrative, first-person points of view can be “unreliable…biased, devious, or naïve” to portray a lens that is exaggerated or misleading.[17] Hence, throughout this episode, Tibbetts shows the tainted accounts of subjective narrativity in order to provoke more horror in the fact that we, as external viewers, have empathized with a torturer and murderer. In the age of modern media, it is clear that society’s “response to stimuli without thinking has become necessary for survival.”[18] This accordingly reflects the real-world viewers’ desensitization more than that of the internal audience’s because, as Leigh Alexander aptly notes, “it is hard to feel shocked anymore; it is hard to feel moved.”[19] We are therefore willing to accept the limited point of view of the protagonist—and in doing so, fail to consider the possibilities that she has been placed in this position for a very particular reason—because the severity of her punishment, from her limited point of view, emphasizes the treachery of social numbness. In sum, Tibbetts’ use of structural irony, fabricated around Victoria’s unreliable subjectivity, ultimately exposes a collectivized numbness of modernity in which society tends to navigate through judgements, emotions, and understandings of the world at large via mediated and technologized – rather than empathy-based – interactions.

 

Notes

[1] Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October 62,

1992: 16.

[2] Sharon Hamilton, Essential Literary Terms: A Brief Norton Guide with Exercises. New York: W.W. & Norton

Company, 2007: 45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Buck-Morss, 16.

[5] Sam Parker, “Black Mirror ‘White Bear’ (REVIEW).” HuffPost UK. April 21, 2013.

[6] Carl Tibbetts, “White Bear.” In Black Mirror, written by Charlie Brooker. Channel 4. Feb 18, 2013. 4:11-5:24.

[7] Leigh Alexander, “Black Mirror ep. 2: White Bear and the culture of desensitization,” Boing Boing. 25 Feb 2013.

[8] Parker, “Black Mirror ‘White Bear’ (REVIEW)”, 2013.

[9] Alexander, “Black Mirror episode 2… “, 2013.

[10] Tibbetts, “White Bear,” 2013: 14:23-14:40.

[11] Seumas Miller. “Is Torture Ever Morally Justifiable?” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 19, no. 2

(2005): 180.

[12] Tibbetts, “White Bear,” 2013: 28:20.

[13] Miller, 180.

[14] Tibbetts, “White Bear,” 2013: 35:14-35:29.

[15] Miller, 180.

[16] Tibbetts, “White Bear,” 2013: 28:28.

[17] Hamilton, 157.

[18] Buck-Morss, 16.

[19] Alexander, “Black Mirror episode 2… “, 2013.

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