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Black Mirror Is A Challenge To The Senses In 'Men Against Fire'

Humanoid mutants terrorizing country villages? No problem. Doug Stamper shows up? Uh-oh.

Does anyone even remember a world without Doug Stamper anymore? As played by Michael Kelly on another bingeable Netflix commodity, House Of Cards, Stamper exudes a quiet cunning and menace as President Frank Underwood's chief of staff. How menacing? He's murdered people. (Well, so has President Underwood, but at least Stamper never turns to the camera and says something corny like, "My daddy always said, sometimes if the fish ain't biting, you gotta bite the fish." Or whatever. You know how he talks.)

So when Kelly shows up partway through "Men Against Fire" as Arquette, a doctor/psychologist dealing with the problems of a grunt named Stripe, you are forgiven if your bowels involuntarily clenched. You know that whatever he's telling Stripe, something is lurking underneath.

Stripe's a a solider who's experiencing haunting glitches in the display of his implant, which allows troops to see data, schematics, and the like through an implant called MASS. As is revealed through the episode, MASS controls, oh, every one of their five senses. Stripe is part of a unit that is hunting and killing "roaches": feral humanoids terrorizing villages for food.

In a raid on a farmhouse belonging to a person who sympathizes and harbours the roaches, Stripe kills two, despite one of them setting off some sort of disruptive device that futzes with his brain in ways that would make you restart your computer.

The revelation that comes -- that roaches are as human as the soldiers, and that it's only the MASS implant that makes them appear grotesque and unable to communicate -- isn't a difficult one to predict early on, but the episode isn't as hampered by the predictability as you'd think; Stripe shakes off MASS in an ultimately futile attempt to help a woman and child among the "roaches" targeted by the army in what turns out to be a eugenics program designed to eradicate human "defects" like muscular dystrophy or usage of the phrase "git 'er done."

Stripe's job, as Arquette eventually acknowledges, is to help protect the bloodline. Stripe's choice, inasmuch as he has one, is to be reset and return to the army. He's horrified at the prospect and refuses, even knowing he'll be jailed.

But it turns out jail isn't the worst part. Arquette shows him what he actually did when he thought he was killing roaches, and it proves too much for him: we end with Stripe in his dress uniform arriving at what was once a home but is empty, dilapidated and vandalized. Stripe sees a happy home in Technicolor, and the woman he's been dreaming about for the entire episode, including during an intense sexual fantasy that's doled out as a reward for roach-killing.

It's a little unclear whether the house was once Stripe's own home with his own memories processed for use as fantasies (otherwise why did this even need to be a house instead of a warehouse?) or an entirely fictitious woman being offered to the good soldier, although I lean toward the latter.

But with tears streaming down a less-than-ecstatic Stripe's face at the end, I'm haunted by the implication (and it could be just me) that despite his re-upping, at least a part of Stripe is still aware of the difference between MASS and reality.

Fuckin' Doug Stamper, man. Every damn time.

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