Following its move from a British free-to-air TV network to a global streaming giant, Black Mirror has evolved from a cult favourite to a show which keeps watercooler conversations a little juicy. Netflix has turned Charlie Brooker into a cash cow milking his chilling “what if”s about our technological tomorrow and the day after for ready-to-binge bite-sized stories. British TV’s auteur-in-chief had initially conceptualised the series, hoping to caution society on its current technological trajectory. But now, it has grown into an assembly line of techno-dystopian cautionary tales, commodified and Americanised, for mass consumption. Strangely, it has become the very thing it was critiquing as more and more viewers disconnect from reality and turn to their black mirrors to catch the latest episode of, well, Black Mirror.
Stranger still, that may be one of Brooker’s central points. However, this is not a condemnation of the show in any way. His eerie clairvoyance has after all given us some of the finest short-form storytelling in the past decade. While most sci-fi films and shows imagined aliens, AI and apocalypse of some kind in a distant future, Brooker’s scenarios seemed more nightmarish because they are mostly set in the near future. His attention to contemporary details gave his future-gazing a remarkable plausibility — like these stories were logical extensions of our current obsessions and behaviours. So, he often extrapolated existing technology into these scenarios to demonstrate how our tech dependency could have potentially horrifying implications.
While each Black Mirror episode explores different themes, they all act as deterrents to our current path where technology seems to be evolving faster than our humanity. Although all 23 of them are worthy of attention in their own right, not all episodes are created equal. So, we’ve ranked every episode — from the pilot “National Anthem” to its Season 5 finale “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” — to see which ones most vividly define this landmark series.
23. Smithereens (Season 5, Episode 2)
What makes “Smithereens” mildly interesting is it is the kind of story you could have pulled from today’s newspaper. But it’s a story that feels less like a Black Mirror episode and more like a PSA stretched to feature length. It draws its emotional heft by focusing its story on a helpless and guilty man (played by our favourite “hot priest” Andrew Scott) looking to shift the blame on those dealing in “tech-cocaine” — a social media app masterminded by a Jack Dorsey-type tech/wellness guru (Topher Grace).
However, by writing itself into a corner, “Smithereens” can’t find a clear direction in which to take the premise and thus ends in a terribly disappointing way. It is the weakest entry in not just the substandard fifth season but the overall series, which — for the first time — is starting to feel like it has overstayed its welcome.
22. Bandersnatch (2018)
Black Mirror‘s standalone interactive film exists primarily as a gimmick and nothing more — thus becoming a meta-commentary about its own format. It is neither as ground-breaking nor as clever as it likes to think it is. It’s caught between a Choose Your Own Adventure-style video game and a straightforward Black Mirror episode and refuses to commit to either.
21. Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (Season 5, Episode 3)
We’ve already had Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson and Tupac’s holograms perform in recent years and Amy Winehouse’s hologram is set to embark on a multi-year run with a backing band. Is the music industry celebrating their artistic legacies, or exploiting them?
The first half is typical Black Mirror before an abrupt tonal shift in the second half, which turns into comedy caper/rescue mission. In the process, Brooker makes stirring points of how fame is exploited as a commodity — and how it can in fact imprison the famous, as they lose all agency to manipulative leeches in the industry. But the characters written to drive home these points are inauthentic and stereotypical. Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too thus starts off with an incredibly promising premise but it sadly turns into an incoherent mess.
20. Arkangel (Season 4, Episode 2)
Implants are a pretty common piece of technology in the Black Mirror universe. Its application in most episodes make you question the circumstances which led to its approval. But in “Arkangel”, it is a little too incredible for even sci-fi extrapolation because it’s not a question of “What if” but “WTF were they thinking?” Though it makes for an interesting thought experiment, it doesn’t hang together well in story form.
The episode’s concerns about helicopter parenting have plenty of real-world analogues as it presents ethical and legal conundrums about privacy and consent. It is still a major misstep in Black Mirror‘s hit-or-miss fourth season.
19. The Waldo Moment (Season 2, Episode 3)
What if a loud, obnoxious cartoon with a hit TV show ran for political office and begins to resonate with voters disillusioned with the mainstream political landscape? No, not Donald Trump. Waldo, a racy little animated bear voiced and motion-captured by a failed comedian named Jamie (Daniel Rigby), hosts an Ali G-style show where he conducts interviews with unassuming politicians, who believe they are actually participating in some kind of children’s talk show.
Of all the unsettling prescient visions of the future dreamed up by Brooker, no one expected “The Waldo Moment” to predict a real-world event. But the strengths of the episode end with its prescient examination of global politics. Even at 44 minutes, it feels unevenly paced and it’s not a particularly flattering example of Brooker’s talents.
18. Striking Vipers (Season 5, Episode 1)
When Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II meet as their video game counterparts in a VR fighting game, it turns into an intense makeout session before turning into a love affair. The episode makes for an intriguing exercise in self-enquiry on how VR could make us reconsider the parameters of cis hetero masculinity and sexual identity itself.
Though there’s a real intimacy and tenderness between the two leads in the VR game, there’s no chemistry whatsoever once they return to reality. The episode also fails to explore its themes on a deeper level and offers no insight to the questions it raises about queer identity by taking the easy way out with an unimaginative conclusion. Thus, its observations are superficial, essentially reducing their dalliances to a mere fetish.
17. Metalhead (Season 4, Episode 5)
“Metalhead” is essentially an episode-long chase sequence. Shot entirely in black and white and choreographed to perfection, it follows a woman on the run from killer robotic dogs through a barren post-apocalyptic landscape. For a Black Mirror episode, it is unfortunately just all bark and no bite. But fans of genre films will certainly appreciate this tightly controlled thrill ride as it builds up excitement and tension with a well-developed sense of pathos.
16. Crocodile (Season 4, Episode 3)
What if our minds and memories were probed and studied by law enforcement officers like they were surveillance cameras? Sure, it would make it easier to find killers, like Mia Nolan (Andrea Riseborough) finds out in “Crocodile”. But such a technology does raise some obvious privacy and ethical concerns. Brooker doesn’t explore this fully though, instead focusing on the Fargo-esque tale where one bad decision can have untold lethal consequences.
He chooses to pile on the Nordic noir horrors to its Icelandic setting that any social commentary he’s trying to impart gets completely lost in all the paranoia and bloody mayhem. Of course, “Crocodile” is also one of those Black Mirror episodes which showcase how technology is not half the villain as its human wielder.
15. White Christmas (2014)
Black Mirror‘s 2014 Christmas special is built around three interwoven “what if” scenarios anchored by Jon Hamm, Oona Chaplin, and Rafe Spall. But these thought experiments also distract you from the main plot. Brooker pumps the episode full of major and minor twists and hopes they all tie in somehow. They don’t. The dark side of some of the technologies on display have been explored in a much more compelling way in other episodes. Though “White Christmas” features one of the most poignant moments of the entire series, its ending is highly cynical in its bleak examination of the human capacity for torture.
14. Black Museum (Season 4, Episode 6)
For every Black Mirror episode with a truly horrific twist, there’s an episode with an ending you probably saw coming right from the beginning. For every original idea, there’s an idea Brooker repeats multiple times throughout the series. “Black Museum” curates the best technological threats and thematic treats we’ve seen on the show in a Cabin in the Woods-style commentary on the show itself. It encapsulates what makes this show work by stringing together three cautionary tales in a mini-anthology.
Barring a predictable final segment, there are a few good ideas at the heart of “Black Museum”, which could have been better explored in standalone episodes. It is still powered by Black Mirror‘s engine of chills and dread, combining David Cronenberg’s B-shockers with Drew Goddard’s twist-filled meta mash-ups.
13. Playtest (Season 3, Episode 2)
Another Black Mirror implant and VR-gone-wrong episode. This time, an American backpacker Cooper (Wyatt Russell) signs up to test a new VR technology for a sinister-looking, highly secretive video game company.
While there is a kernel of a decent idea here, “Playtest” doesn’t offer any new genre thrills which films like eXistenZ, Tron and The Matrix haven’t already provided. But the episode does recognise how our unacknowledged personal demons can often be a lot scarier than spiders, ghouls or any technology. And the episode shines when it digs deep into this deep, dark pit of man’s fears and desires. Thus, it’s the personal drama which offers some currency, but you expect more from a series like Black Mirror.
12. Shut Up and Dance (Season 3, Episode 3)
If hackers blackmail you by threatening to leak videos of you in a compromising position, how far would you go to protect your reputation? Teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther) finds this out the hard way after cybercriminals hack his webcam and catch him engaging in an act he wouldn’t want anyone to see.
“Shut Up and Dance” is perhaps Black Mirror‘s most deranged exercise in bleak nihilism. Like “The National Anthem”, its technology and transgressors are more or less recognisable to the world we currently live in. It is a morbid tale of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, as they find themselves stuck in — and running out of — time. Though there is no clear moral takeaway, it keeps you on edge and entertained.
11. The National Anthem (Season 1, Episode 1)
Was there a better way to set the Black Mirror blueprint? This grotesque request for public display of bestiality shocked us and made us take notice of Brooker’s flair for the dystopic.
Its commentary was stinging, exhibiting the terrifying power of social media and public appetite for scandal. While real horror is more effective when left unseen and to the viewer’s imagination, watching a man forcibly fulfil his coital obligations disturbs you in a previously unforeseen way.
So, it puts our humanity, rather than technology, to task. The sardonic but thematically spot-on twist at the end was a fitting way to introduce us to Black Mirror‘s unsettling world.
10. White Bear (Season 2, Episode 2)
What “White Bear” does best is shift our sympathies amid all its frantic action. Though it shares a similar sense of nihilism to “Shut Up and Dance”, it also condemns society’s almost Medieval desire to punish the guilty in the most gruesome ways. In a Purge-like world where punishment becomes amusement, it questions the extent of our voyeurism and sadism. Thus, it is another episode which makes you wonder if technology is really the villain in the series.
9. Men Against Fire (Season 3, Episode 5)
As we know, life-augmenting synthetic implants have been at the core of many Black Mirror episodes but “Men Against Fire” features its most disturbing application. It imagines the future of hightech warfare where soldiers can kill as many enemies as they’d like and completely forget about it the next day as their memories are erased. They don’t have to feel remorse or face the moral implications of their actions. But it takes away their free will and conscience. There’s plenty of nifty action sequences to enjoy too.
8. Hated in the Nation (Season 3, Episode 6)
Trolls find it easy to hide behind their wall of anonymity, spewing venomous bile without ever being held accountable for their hateful words. “Hated in the Nation” sure holds them accountable and how.
The episode plays out like a standard murder mystery until of course the killer bees maker their entrance. Tense, mysterious, and thrilling pretty much from the first frame to the last, the episode delivers its broad social critique in a way that’s fresh, timely and biting.
Given that the robotic bees are being used for pollination following the extinction of their biological ancestors, it makes you wonder about the ramifications of their waning populations in the real world. Though its condemnation of our growing surveillance state and drone warfare is timely, its commentary on the toxicity of social media #activism delivers the biggest gut punch of them all — giving you hope that the keyboard warriors will think twice before they fill the world with hate and anger.
7. Hang the DJ (Season 4, Episode 4)
What if Tinder promised to find you the perfect match (or even a 99.8 percent compatibile match)? What if it also gave you an expiration date on your relationship?
We already depend on algorithms to recommend what to watch, what to read and what to buy. Maybe in the near future, we will trust it find us love. After the utterly delightful “San Junipero” (which we’ll come to soon), it is refreshing to see Brooker give us another sweet love story; this time of “boy meets girl; boy and girl turn out to be simulations; boy meets girl in real life and they live happily ever after.”
Only, is it a happy ending? Because we seem to forget one crucial detail. The concept of digital consciousness has been a recurring theme throughout Black Mirror. So, whatever happened to all the digital avatars of Amy and Frank in 998 of 1000 simulations? We forget the people and experiences behind the data. But there has been too much of cynicism already. So, let’s hope for their sake — and love in tech-obsessed 21 century’s sake — they had happy endings too.
6. Nosedive (Season 3, Episode 1)
“Nosedive” is a deeply relatable portrayal of our obsession with social-media approval through likes, followers and ratings, to which we tend to attach way too much meaning. It makes us feel inadequate and thus breeds artificiality in our personality but we still fixate on it to the point of insanity. You can read into the episode dozens of parallels to the real world as Brooker shows how alienated individuals become slaves to social media, enchanted by its artifices. Thus, the world of Nosedive does not feel like an alternate reality but an embellished extension of our own.
5. Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1, Episode 2)
An utterly heart-rending piece of science fiction, “Fifteen Million Merits” may be difficult to watch but it leaves you contemplating about its unsettling ideas long after its one-hour runtime. Brooker’s dedication to world building is evident in the free-to-play games, the adverts, the cycling chambers and, of course, his takedown of reality TV. Its world seems eerily recognisable to ours; only these technologies have taken on a larger, weightier role.
The twist, as always, involves a heavy dose of irony and it makes Brooker’s commentary about the commercialisation of dissent all the more potent. In the end, we’re all cogs in a similar system; whether we conform or rebel, our voices are all co-opted by it.
4. USS Callister (Season 4, Episode 1)
“USS Callister” is more than a love letter to Star Trek. It hooks us with its homage to the classic sci-fi series and then boldly goes where TV has rarely gone before — straight into the dark core of a fan culture that’s getting more and more toxic. It aims its lasers at a culture of sexual entitlement, workplace harassment and misogynistic attitudes by marking a clear distinction between public identity and private reality.
This episode is an obvious fan-favourite because it lets us revel in its nerdiness, before it makes its searing indictments. With its meta-narrative, it directs its ire towards toxic fans suffering from a God complex, hoping to make them understand that being a fan doesn’t mean what you love belongs exclusively to you — and serves as a kind of wish fulfilment. You can’t permanently reside in a simulated reality because you’re afraid to deal with your actual reality.
It also brings up another timely point on how their power, authority and position. This perfect mix of commentary and entertainment makes USS Callister one of the strongest episodes of Black Mirror.
3. The Entire History of You (Season 1, Episode 3)
Have you ever received a text from your significant other and spent all night trying to decode the meaning of each word and punctuation, dissecting its structure, inventing subtext before passing it around to your friends the following morning hoping for more insight? After a while, overthinking about these aspects turn your insecurities into irrational fears as you start reading everything as signs of a relationship’s demise.
Jesse Armstrong, who wrote the episode, brings his POV camera approach from Peep Show and uses it to great effect. Unlike Brooker’s sleek, expansive vistas, Armstrong opts for a simpler suburban home setting. This makes the relationship drama unfolding on screen seem all the more real. And he does an excellent job of weaving a deeply disturbing melodrama around technology. For when technological innovations outpace our privacy protections, it has the power to completely ruin human relationships. There’s a reason why the human mind doesn’t have access to our entire existence. Because life is about moving forward, not looking back.
2. Be Right Back (Season 2, Episode 1)
“Be Right Back” epitomises what Black Mirror does best — take a thought experiment, add equal parts emotion and existential horror, stir it with genre concepts, garnish it with a touch of irony and then let the whole thing marinate in metaphor and commentary. While a lot of its stories look at technology through a cautionary lens, “Be Right Back” uses it to reflect on philosophical issues about our humanity and mortality.
The episode uses the idea of a sentient digital consciousness to the detriment of its characters to greater effect than in other episodes like “White Bear” and “Black Museum”, which don’t have the same emotional payoff. Brooker walks a fine line in balancing grief and healing, without ever going over the edge to either way. He pulls off this tightrope act by diverting his focus from worldbuilding and putting greater emphasis on the domestic drama and performances. Hayley Atwell steers the story with her powerful and emotionally resonant rendition of a grief-stricken spouse, while Domhnall Gleeson brings a touch of horror and humanity to an android.
1. San Junipero (Season 3, Episode 4)
“San Junipero” is the most un-Black Mirror-like episode because it is a tender-hearted whimsical delight that leaves you smiling in the end. There’s a real vein of warmth — of hope and possibility — that runs through it. It’s an antidote in the form of nostalgia therapy to all the cynicism we’ve witnessed or binged through. Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Brooker uses this sweet-natured premise to explore themes of nostalgia, love, death and the afterlife. Mankind has forever wondered if there’s life after death and if our consciousness continues to exist beyond the physical body as a soul or spirit. So, Black Mirror adds a technological element to this philosophical query and gives us a refreshingly hopeful answer with a befitting conclusion — one which leaves you feeling a little optimistic. This radical shift in tone is achieved without slipping into schmaltz.
“San Junipero” belongs in the hallowed pantheon of the most moving sci-fi films of the 21st century, alongside Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Upstream Color, Her and Arrival. It will be fondly remembered because it offered hope amid all the darkness, death and despair. And that heaven could be a place on Earth.
Updated Date: Jun 26, 2019 17:06:39 IST