‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ Review: Paralyzed by Choice

     December 30, 2018

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Rumors have swirled for quite some time now about a “choose your own adventure”-style episode of Black Mirror. It made sense. After all, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ buzzworthy series is all about telling unique sci-fi stories with some kind of social relevance—usually the kind that makes you feel like garbage at the end of an episode. At long last, this “choose your own adventure” installment of Black Mirror has been unveiled courtesy of Netflix. It’s called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and it’s predictably twisted. But is it good? Is it satisfying? Well that depends on how you look at it.

Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and stars Dunkirk lead Fionn Whitehead as an aspiring computer game programmer named Stefan, who aims to adapt his favorite “choose your own adventure” book Bandersnatch into a groundbreaking video game. He gets the chance to pitch his take to a video game company called Tuckersoft, which is also where iconic game creator Colin (Will Poulter) works. Once he’s given the go-ahead, he sets about turning Bandersnatch into a game, but various obstacles—both internal and external—stand in his way.

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Image via Netflix

That’s the basic setup of Bandersnatch, but the actual plot varies wildly depending on the choices you, the viewer, make. At various points throughout the story, you’re given a prompt to select from two choices. The first is seemingly benign. In the opening few minutes of the episode Stefan’s father asks what he wants for breakfast. You choose from two different cereals, and that’s that. The choices become more complex as it goes along, from what music you want Stefan to listen to, to how you want him to dispose of a body. Ah yes, this is Black Mirror after all. You didn’t think it was going to be all fun and games did you?

The heart of Bandersnatch, thematically, is the question of free will. Do we, as humans, have it? Or do we simply have the illusion of free will? What guides our choices? This manifests in various ways for Stefan, and Bandersnatch is at its best when it’s being meta—in certain pathways, Stefan becomes aware he’s not making choices, you the viewer are. It’s funny in a dark, twisted sort of way.

Indeed, Bandersnatch is also kind of hilarious, again depending on your pathway. There’s a certain portion of the story where you’re given the choice to show Stefan one of two symbols, and one of these choices leads down a path that had me howling with laughter. It’s one of the best and most metatextual things Black Mirror has ever done, and it also really works well within the story. To my mind, it also leads to the best Bandersnatch ending.

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Image via Netflix

But there are also other paths for Stefan. Some are heartbreaking and emotional, some are dark and sick, and some are just confusing. And therein lies the “problem” with Bandersnatch. If being viewed simply as an episode of Black Mirror, it kind of misses the mark. There are a number of endpoints to Stefan’s story, and they vary wildly in tone and theme. There’s a lack of cohesion, which I guess is kind of the point. If Brooker (who wrote the episode) was concerned with thematic cohesion, he’d probably lock you into the first ending you choose, and perhaps that might be more satisfying. But Brooker and Co. understandably want to show off the intense amount of work that went into Bandersnatch, and so you’re given the option at various endpoints to turn around, go back, and choose a different path with a very different outcome. Some of your choices still track along your second and third pathways, but when you get to another ending, you can’t help but shake how different said ending is from the one you just saw. Which is “correct?” How, in your mind, did Stefan’s story end?

The answer, of course, is all and none at the same time, which is frustrating. And that’s why Bandersnatch kind of works better as a game than as a satisfying episode of Black Mirror. It’s incredibly fun to play through, and it’s delightful to see the wildly varying endpoints to Stefan’s story. The key to kind of sort of maybe keeping track of all of this in some sort of cohesive manner lies in a sequence set at Colin’s house, where Colin rambles about multiple realities and lack of free will. It’s meta, sure, but it also somewhat explains how these very different branches of Stefan’s story could conceivably all exist at the same time.

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Image via Netflix

But explaining and believing are two different things, and the various pathways for Stefan are so different from one another that if you play through a number of them, at the end of the day you leave Bandersnatch feeling sort of empty. Previous episodes of Black Mirror told one story, and you either liked it or you didn’t. With Bandersnatch, there is no one “story” for Stefan, and so while it’s oftentimes delightful to either put him through the ringer or try to help him through his mental illness, once you’re done messing around with different pathways, you don’t really feel like you’ve experienced one thematically cohesive story.

So while Bandersnatch falls far short of the emotional highs of “San Junipero” or “Hang the DJ”, or even the shocking twists of “The Entire History of You” or “USS Callister”, it remains a very enjoyable experience as an innovative video game of sorts—especially given the production value, thanks to director David Slade’s execution. Just don’t go in expecting a full, complete meal.

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