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Recap / Black Mirror: Men Against Fire

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"It's easier to pull the trigger when you're aiming at the bogeyman."

In the far future, a military force equipped with the latest technology is locked in a brutal war of extermination with a race of repulsive mutant creatures. One soldier begins to have his doubts about the nature of the enemy he's fighting and the technology being used.

Starring Malachi Kirby as Stripe and Madeline Brewer as Raiman.

Tropes related to Men Against Fire:

  • Action Girl: The gender balance within the military unit is fairly equal, with more or less the same number of female and male soldiers. Notable ones are Raiman (Stripe's colleague) and Medina (the unit's commanding officer).
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: Stripe is disgusted and outraged when he sees the recording of himself rather casually consenting to have the MASS implanted. That is, rather casually consenting to commit genocide.
  • Artistic License – Medicine: No one, after having suffered a concussive blow to the head, would have been able to walk over a mile or more over the course of a few hours.
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  • Augmented Reality: The MASS system. The soldiers are implanted with it, which helps them communicate, plan actions, and aim for targets. It's also used to make sure soldier's sexual and emotional needs are met through their dreams, which was foreshadowing the way it also distorts what they hear, smell, see, and feel.
  • Blood Knight: Ray is really gung ho about killing Roaches, deriving an almost sexual pleasure from doing so.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: One of the most violent Black Mirror episodes alongside "Crocodile" and "Metalhead".
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Medina is killed.
  • Central Theme: How minority groups become dehumanised and how societies can justify doing anything to them.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right:
    • Anti-social, devoutly religious Parn Heidekker who houses the so-called "Roaches" is the only one in the story who sees them for what they are, doesn't buy the propaganda, and treats them like human beings. And so, he offers them shelter. Unfortunately, the armed forces raid his home, kill nearly all the "Roaches", capture him, and burn his house down.
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    • Likewise, Stripe appears to be losing it after his first encounter with the Roaches but in reality, thanks to them scrambling the MASS implant, he's able to see, hear, smell and think clearly for the first time in six months. This allows him to see that all this time, he and his squad have been killing innocent people.
  • Call-Back:
    • The man who harbors the Roaches is called Parn Heidekker. In "Nosedive", Lacy works for a company called Heidekker.
    • The "V" logo which appears on all the soldiers' uniforms and gear looks like a rotated version of the logo from National Allied Bank in "Shut Up and Dance".
    • After capturing Heidekker, Raiman loudly sings part of the song Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand), from both "Fifteen Million Merits" and "White Christmas", to annoy him.
    • When the MASS-implanted soldiers are looking at holographically projected images, their eyes are seen to fade in colour and become pale and lifeless, just like characters watching their past moments during 'redos' in "The Entire History of You".
  • Chekhov's Skill: Raiman mentions multiple times that she is part of a hunting family, and grew up tracking deer back in the US. This later proves useful when she is able to track down Stripe and the two "Roaches" he saves to their hideout in the woods.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Those who take pity on and harbor the Roaches, such as Parn Heidekker, are viewed by both the villagers and soldiers with almost the same level of contempt as the Roaches themselves. After they find Roaches in Heidekker's manor, Raiman wants to execute him on the spot.
  • Cool Guns: The soldiers carry FN SCAR rifles with built-in grenade launchers, flashlights and holographic sights (which are aided by the MASS implant for accuracy). The sound they make when fired also suggests they use some kind of futuristic ammunition.
  • Darker and Edgier: Not only does it come directly after the Breather Episode that is "San Junipero", it also focuses on themes of war and prejudice and is noticeably more violent than other Black Mirror episodes. Then we have the incredibly dark reveal about who the Roaches really are...
  • Deconstruction: Of the Guilt-Free Extermination War
  • Dehumanization: What happens to the "Roaches". The MASS implants make the soldiers believe they are monsters, and there's also an ideological bent to it, as seen when Arquette insists that Stripe calls one he killed "it" instead of "him".
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The justification Arquette gives for wiping out the Roaches bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the Nazis, no doubt on purpose. It even makes use of the same dehumanizing terms.
  • Downer Ending: Stripe breaks down emotionally and is coerced into agreeing to be reinstated, having his memories erased, and continue service in a genocide campaign; the other option was imprisonment with a lifelong Mind Rape. The last scene shows him returning home, his MASS active, with only the audience seeing his beautiful home is actually a rundown house in a bad neighborhood. The girl that had been waiting for him at home was heavily implied to be no more than a MASS implant illusion.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • After realizing the reality of the situation, Stripe becomes confused as to why the villagers hate the "Roaches" so much too, despite seeing them as regular humans (as they don't have the MASS implant). Catarina tells him they view them as subhuman due to the massive amounts of propaganda that demonizes them all as a people. Arquette claims the Roaches' genetics gives them higher rates of genetic diseases and substandard IQ, and criminal and sexually perverse tendencies.
    • It is never revealed what nationality/ethnicity the "Roaches" are, only that there is a lot of "shit" in their genetic makeup. References to genetic testing imply that they may not belong to a single race, but are simply those with genetic factors that were deemed undesirable.
    • Arquette says they created the genetic tests in the aftermath of a great war, indicating that the "Roaches" are either suffering from radiation poisoning or some sort of condition caused by bioweapons. It's also possible that the tests came for the radiation or toxins and just found genetic deformities along the way, prompting the government to become "proactive".
  • Fate Worse than Death: Arquette suggests to Stripe to let him erase his memories about the true nature of the "Roaches", otherwise, Stripe will be locked in prison with the recording of him killing the "Roaches" (but now looking like the way they really are) in the farmhouse, eternally playing on repeat in front of his eyes.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Arquette seems to be a nice guy at first, but after the reveal, he shows to be a really cold-blooded sociopath.
  • Fighting Down Memory Lane: The military psychiatrist uploads the unfiltered sensory stream of the farmhouse action right into Stripe's brain. Instead of showing him killing the disgusting roaches, it instead shows he was killing desperate, terrified regular people deemed to be genetically inferior.
  • First Time Feeling: When his MASS implant starts to glitch out, Stripe experiences sensory-overload and is stunned in awe of suddenly experiencing the smells (grass and blood) and the ambient noises (wind and birdsong) it normally would filter out from his perception. Turns out though, it is not the first time he has experienced these things.
  • Final Solution: Stripe and his squaddies are unwittingly engaging in this.
  • Foreshadowing: Medina is killed by a Roach sniper with a single shot to the head, something none of them would ever be able to do if they really were the zombie-like monsters they are in the eyes of the MASS-implanted soldiers.
  • Glamour Failure: Inverted. The device the Roaches use on Stripe eventually causes him to see them as they really are - perfectly normal humans.
  • A Glitch in the Matrix: The encounter in the farmhouse causes Stripe to experience several, mostly auditory, glitches. Later, his implant shuts down completely.
  • Great Offscreen War: The episode takes place 10 years after a global conflict which saw the spread of the "Roaches" all across the world. They are said to have been defeated and wiped out in the US, but the country has sent troops abroad to more rural areas of the world to try and take down the remaining ones. It is later revealed that the "Roaches" are actually humans, and likely refugees who were displaced during the war, not a terrifying mutant species that the war was fought to defeat.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: To make the soldiers have no gripes about killing the Roaches (normal humans that were deemed undesirable for some vague reasons) off, the government and military invoke this by making the soldiers' MASS implants make the Roaches look like terrifying inhuman creatures while turning the civilian population against them with massive amounts of propaganda.
  • Gut Punch: The reveal that Stripe and every other soldier have been killing humans all along.
  • Hand-or-Object Underwear: While the naked woman in Stripe's dream has her breasts clearly shown, some careful positioning of her legs is used to keep her vulva hidden.
  • He Had a Name: Inverted. One of the Roaches gives out her and her son's names before they are killed.
    Catarina: Before, my name was Catarina. His name was Alec. Now, we are roach.
  • Humans Are Good: Arquette believes that humans as a species give themselves a bad rep, and that actually deep down they don't want to hurt and kill each other (even on the battlefield), and even when they do, they tend to almost inevitably break down psychologically from the experience. However, he sees this as an impediment instead of a virtue, and praises the ability of MASS to remove that virtue in the soldiers, stating that if it had existed in the past, many wars would have been won much quicker.
    Arquette: Humans. You know we give ourselves a bad rep, but we're genuinely empathetic as a species. I mean, we don't actually want to kill each other. Which is a good thing, until your future depends on wiping out the enemy.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Arquette is briefly puzzled by Stripe's description of the Roaches by their gender ("he") and Stripe later corrects himself by referring to them as "it".
  • Looks Like Orlok: The Roaches sport a very generic vampire mutant look that would fit well into an average first-person shooter or a low-class horror movie. That's probably exactly what the military devs behind their character design were going for.
  • Loophole Abuse: Arquette assures Stripe that all the soldiers know exactly what they're signing up for with the implantation of MASS, having signed a contract that outright states that MASS induces a state of hypnosis... Only problem is, once MASS is activated, it wipes all memories of said contract from the host's mind. Then again, it's implied the whole contract-signing scene might have just been another illusion.
  • Meaningful Name: The episodes title is derived from the book "Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command". It was written by SLA Marshall, a veteran of World War I and a combat historian during World War II who wrote about soldiers' reluctance, even on the battlefield, to harm their fellow man even if they were the enemy. Arquette talks about this phenomenon in detail to Stripe after he is detained at the end of the episode.
    Arquette: British army, World War I. The Brigadier would walk the line with a stick and whack them in order to get them to shoot. Even in World War II only 15-20% of men would pull the trigger. Fate of the world at stake and only 15% open fire, now what does that tell you? It tells me those wars would have been over a hell of a lot quicker if the military had got its shit together.
  • Mildly Military: Although the soldiers in the episode speak with American accents and wear what appears to be ACU combat uniform, they are never explicitly stated to be the US military. Furthermore, the only insignia seen throughout is the mysterious "V" logo on both their uniforms and flags, and their body armor and helmets are different to those issued by the American military, as are their rifles. It is possible they are private contractors or simply an updated version of the army, given that like most episodes it is set 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • Mind Rape: Arquette subjects Stripe to this by playing his memory of killing people in his head, forcing him to watch it which causes Stripe to suffer a Heroic BSoD. Arquette says he will put Stripe’s memory of killing innocent people on a loop, forever, while he sits in a solitary cell if he doesn’t agree to reset his MASS and have his recollection of the last few days erased.
  • Mind Wipe: Stripe experiences this. Willingly. Twice.
  • Mind Virus: The Roaches reverse-engineer the brain implants and create a virus causing them to crash.
  • My Girl Back Home: Subverted. Stripe keeps having dreams/visions of a girl in a house. While she does show up in the final scene (when he's being discharged), it's heavily implied that she's just a MASS illusion.
  • New Media Are Evil: One of the Roaches reveals to Stripe that after the war, her people became displaced but nobody wanted to take them in. Then newspapers, TV, and internet networks all began referring to them as "Roaches" to dehumanize them to the rest of the public, thus starting the Trauma Conga Line that culminated with the military planning to wipe them out.
    Catarina: Soon everyone calls us creatures, filthy creatures. Every voice. The TV. The computer.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the final mission, Stripe is now able to see the Roaches as the humans they actually are. He sees a woman cowering in the corner and tells her to hurry and get out of the building, because it's dangerous to be in there. He's right- when he finally coaxes her out into the hallway, Ray immediately shoots her, seeing her as a Roach.
  • No Communities Were Harmed:
    • The episode takes place in a rural area of Europe, but the country or nationality of its citizens is never specified. However, the language spoken by the locals and the Roaches is Danish, implying it takes place in a futuristic, post-war Denmark.
    • The soldiers, despite being American, are never stated to be members of the US military. The only symbol that appears on their uniform and vehicles is an ambiguous "V" logo. This is later subverted somewhat in Hated in the Nation where it's revealed on TV that the "US military announces MASS project". At the very least, the US military is funding MASS and possibly training the recruits.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: When Arquette plays an unfiltered version of Stripes' first raid to him, it reveals the wailing mutants were, in reality, unarmed people begging for mercy.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Nobody is able to correctly pronounce the protagonist's surname, Koinange (Co-Nah-Guh), so he is known to everyone as Stripe.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Medina is supposed to be American like the rest of the military, but Sarah Snook's Australian accent frequently creeps in at certain points.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Arquette. He initially seems pleasant and mild-mannered, but after Stripe is detained after his MASS fails, he is shown to be much more sinister. Not only does he actively praise the fact that the system can get rid of the soldiers' pesky emotions and hangups about killing people, but also views the "Roaches" with pure contempt, supporting the eugenics war that is being fought against them. In addition, he is also very manipulative towards Stripe to force him into having his MASS reset.
  • Rousseau Was Right: An insanely dark example. At their core, people find the thought of hurting and killing each other abhorrent and unnatural, and no matter how much the political systems attempts to train soldiers to kill and try to invent motivations for them to kill, it never takes for long, and the vast majority of people just tends to break mentally down from the stress of it fairly quickly. The only way to turn people into effective, remorseless killers is to remove what arguably makes them human, namely numbing their senses and altering their perception of reality. And since they don't want to know that they're hurting and killing others, they go along with this willingly.
  • Sadistic Choice: Stripe is presented with one. Either he agrees to undergo a mind wipe and continue to kill innocent people, or he spends the rest of his life reliving his traumatizing memories.
  • Sensory Abuse: When Stripe's implant fails, he hears a loud, whistling noise.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Name-checked but scrupulously averted. (Mostly.) The implants are used to make the soldiers think they're killing monsters, not humans, making it much easier for them to avoid feeling regret about what they see and do. Stripe becomes this very briefly after Arquette shows him what he saw in the farmhouse, but without the benefit of the MASS. It was an effective mean of coercing him into choosing to get mind wiped and reinstate his MASS.
    • Arquette does mention shell shock when talking about the Vietnam War, stating that despite the fact that more soldiers willingly fired due to propaganda that dehumanized the Viet Cong back home, the fact they knew they were killing humans in the field still messed them up considerably. He says this is why MASS is so effective, as it dehumanizes the enemy right in front of soldiers so they will know nothing but propaganda from start to finish, and thus won't get PTSD.
  • Sigil Spam: The unnamed military organisation Stripe is working for (heavily implied to be a Mega-Corp) plasters its 'V'-like insignia all over its soldiers' vehicles, uniforms and equipment.
  • Temporary Blindness: When Stripe tries to attack Arquette, the doctor is able to blind him simply by pressing a handheld button. This is again due to the power of the MASS implant.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The story of how the Roaches became persecuted. After the Great Offscreen War, they became displaced refugees. However, no country wanted to take them in. Then a smear campaign from the international media began, dehumanizing them to the public. Then came a screening program, DNA testing, registration and finally the "emergency measures", which later transformed into them being hunted down and killed by soldiers.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Not worth the guilt trip or murdering innocent civilians, apparently...
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": The Roaches are hideously malformed, vicious, mutated beasts and no-one has any problem killing them. Later it's shown that the Roaches are actually humans who, for one reason or another, are deemed to be "undesirable".
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Both Subverted and PlayedForDrama. Stripe is shown to be a highly moral soldier who cautions Raiman against shooting Heidekker and, once his MASS implants fail, goes so far as to knock her out to prevent her killing Catarina. Of course, this means he's hit especially hard by The Reveal.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Raiman and Stripe get into a fairly brutal fistfight when she tries to kill the "Roaches" that he now sees as their natural human selves. It ends with him hitting her in the face with his rifle, knocking her out with a large blood spatter.
  • Would Hurt a Child: After tracking down Stripe and the two Roaches he saves, Ray shoots Catarina's young son in the back before killing her as well.