Every ‘Black Mirror’ Episode Ranked From Worst to Best
[Updated with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]
In case you had forgotten that we live in a technology-riddled wasteland almost certainly bound for doom, Black Mirror is here to remind you. From the seemingly misanthropic mind of Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror – which made waves on American soil a few years ago once the Channel 4 series found its way onto Netflix – has quickly become the 21st century’s answer to The Twilight Zone. But, to qualify it as such would be to shortchange the series, which swaps the original’s xenophobic fears of invasion for the newfound cult of misplaced hubris and updates the show’s technological anxieties for our modern world. Brooker has created a series that packs a serious wallop of immediacy and creeping paranoia.
Taking its name from the screens that increasingly rule our world, the series mines its scares both from tech that we know (smart phones, social media) and tech that has yet to be invented, planting its feet in the future while grounding its more outlandish ideas in gritty, human experience. Marked with a greyed-future pallor and unflinchingly dark tone, Black Mirror certainly isn’t a “pick-me-up” sort of sci-fi series, but it is one of our most creepily prescient.
[Spoiler Warning: to discuss Black Mirror in-depth really involves spoiling a few storylines, so if you wanted to preserve the show’s mysteries, get out of here, now!]
20) The Waldo Moment
On the bright side, “The Waldo Moment” certainly provides the binge-Black Mirror viewer a much-needed reprieve from the crushing darkness of the series. But the fun of the show’s foray into politics almost ends there. Joyless and never quite as clever as it fancies itself to be, there’s little about “The Waldo Moment” that makes a strong enough argument for its existence, despite the boost the outlandish political climate might have given it. Centering on a strange, political campaign that posits what would would happen if an apolitical, brutally honest comedian (who also happened to be represented publicly as an animated blue bear named Waldo) attempted to run for elected office. Not quite sci-fi, more plainly dystopic, “The Waldo Moment” tracks the slow corruption of the political character, as he grows from tasteless leader to a mean-spirited despot that cashes in on his popularity to demand violent acts from his supporters. But by the time the episode bows, with Waldo as a strangely inflated political figure mimicking the movements of some sort of oppressive Reich, there’s little to do but laugh it off and head back to twitter to see what new fresh hell our POTUS has wrought.
19) Men Against Fire
Despite all of its self-serious presentation, it’s awfully difficult to find the edge in “Men Against Fire.” Following a young soldier in a near-future dystopia meant to hunt down monsters called “cockroaches” for what appears to be the U.S. government, Brooker’s exercise in the war and combat genre lacks the visual flair or compelling choreography that marks the best of the style, while slowly uncovering what might have been a genuinely disturbing central secret. The protagonist, who’s characterized by little other than his own incredible desire to bone a beautiful girl conjured up in his mind’s eye, is so smooth-edged and impenetrable that there’s nothing much to hold on to, making the inevitable pain and personal meltdown he’s meant to go through before the episode is up seem more like a narrative imperative rather than emotionally stirring stuff. The strength of “Men Against Fire” lies almost entirely in it’s “gotcha” – an inquiry of racism and prejudice that seems unfortunately immediate, but it’s so strongly hedged in heavy-handed messaging and, frankly, hammy acting that anything worthwhile gets lost in some awfully melodramatic clutter.
It has to be said: no other episode of Black Mirror feels quite as pointless as “Metalhead,” an episode-long chase sequence featuring a particularly nasty bit of violent AI. At 40 minutes long, it’s likely the show’s shortest episode yet, but it drags anyway, somehow unhelped by its manic pacing and thumping score. Shot in black-and-white in an obvious attempt to spice up the actual events on screen, even the capable David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) can’t make hay out of a script that’s already DOA.
17) Shut Up and Dance
If you’ve seen “Shut Up and Dance,” you can commiserate: never before has Black Mirror delivered such a compelling, masterfully handled introduction only to toss it all away with a few final moments. The episode traces a young man who, after having his computer hacked by a malicious tech overlord, is led on a series of increasingly difficult and dangerous tasks throughout the suburbs of England in order to prevent a video of him masturbating on his webcam from hitting the internet. Handled with a cruelly calibrated efficiency, “Shut Up and Dance” speeds along rain-soaked streets all the while ratcheting up the sadism and the suspense. But a final coda, that turns the episode not just into one of the series’ least plausible yet but also one of its shallowest, entirely deflates the cinematic sequences that preceded it. “Shut Up and Dance” certainly has its merits, but it’s also perhaps the most succinct example of just how wrong Black Mirror can go.
16) Black Museum
After the success of Brooker’s three-episode compendium “White Christmas,” Season 4 attempted to recreate the multi-episode magic with an unsubtle (but intriguing) framing device: every devastatingly dark piece of Black Mirror’s technology contained in one very real “Black Museum.” Unfortunately, the unimaginative window dressing is just the beginning, and despite a few bright spots (the hard-to-watch short on pain addiction is near-perfect camp), it lacks the cohesion and ingenuity of previous compendium episodes, and lacks a strong enough identity to distinguish itself from the pack.
15) Hated in the Nation
It’s a bold move to make the final episode of your season feature-length, and while I’m not wholly convinced that “Hated in the Nation” earns its 90-minute runtime, it is a welcome change of pace that nonetheless delivers all of the elements of Black Mirror we’ve come to expect. Leaning heavily into its X-Files influence, the episode follows Karin Parke (a fantastic Kelly Macdonald), researching the sudden death of a political figure who’d recently come under malicious social media attack, only to uncover a slow-growing hashtag – #DeathTo – that seems to be literally killing people, as vindictive social media users take to Twitter and Facebook to “vote” for the person they decide, en masse, deserves to die that week. The whole plot is rather convoluted, involving new, insect-like technology developed by the government after the bee population numbers began to threaten our entire agricultural system, but for all its outlandishness, “Hated in the Nation” certainly manages to be terrifying in its vision of swift, unchecked punishment in the new republic of social media.
For what it’s worth, “Crocodile” has one of the strongest openings of the entire series. A couple speeds along an icy Iceland road dancing to Goldfrapp, but their reverie is interrupted by the sudden impact of a lone pedestrian on the frigid freeway. It’s a terrifying prospect, and John Hillcoat (Triple Nine, Lawless) captures senses of guilt and dread to an impressive degree. But by the time the episode introduces its central technology (a device that can access your raw impressions of events), the inevitable conclusion looms so large as to make the rest of the episode feel like it’s just marking time. That is, until its final moments, when it doubles down on its darkness and quickly transforms from an episode with nightmarish potential to one that’s all-too ready to be lampooned.
On the day of the surprise drop of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Netflix’s answer to long-running rumors about a “choose your own adventure”-style episode of the show, questions flew. In a world where games and books like this have existed for years, how “groundbreaking” could this formula really be? Would giving viewers endless choice potentially ruin the experience of those who resolutely choose the most boring narrative option? And, inevitably, is this the end of traditional narrative television as we know it? As it turns out, the answering those questions often turned out to be more nuanced and challenging than the episode itself, which works pretty impeccably as a gameable oddity, but not particularly well as an episode of television – and even less so as an episode of Black Mirror. As a gorgeously shot choose-your-own adventure game, Brooker and the Bandersnatchcreative crew deeply understand that the charm of the experience is in providing users choices that are both massive and inconsequential: the ability to pick both your breakfast cereal and a person to hurtle down from a balcony makes it feel visceral and detailed; while its meta-story bent feels decidedly fresh. Still, as Adam Chitwood notes in his full review of the episode, the end result is a story that, for all its options, provides no solid satisfying outcome. It’s a wishy washy approach to a show that’s previously built its charm on cruel twists and harsh outcomes, that feels at its best like a stylishly reskinned PC artifact, and at its worst, a betrayal of the show’s original ethos.
12) The National Anthem
It was certainly a bold move to make “The National Anthem” the inaugural episode of the series, as it’s certainly not an episode weird or charming enough to garner rabid viewing. In fact, it’s so perverse that it seems to serve almost as a hazing ritual. Hey, if you can handle this one, you’re officially a qualified Black Mirror viewer. There’s no real delicate way to put the premise: after a darling of British political society is kidnapped, her abductor demands just one thing to ensure her safe return. The request? That the Prime Minister engage in sexual intercourse (to put it politely) with a pig, on live television. Initially uploading a video of the kidnapped under serious duress to YouTube, the viral publicity of the case compels the PM to follow through on the demands, an act that the series depicts in impressive detail as the world watches, unbelieving. The ingenuity of “The National Anthem,” besides its wrenching final twist, is in its ability to make it clear to the audience that they’re just as culpable as the characters in the series, forcing the entire sickening ordeal to unfold. Welcome to the show, everyone.
What “Arkangel” lacks in actual believability, it makes up for in immediacy. The technology on display, a futuristic surveillance tech that allows a mother (Rosemarie Dewitt) to keep a watchful eye on her daughter at all times, via an implant feels like the kind of hyper-marketable, stylish electronic that would indeed prompt rabid excitement in the market. But while “Arkangel” has strong raw ingredients and a searing directorial eye in Jodie Foster, the episode can’t help but embody the worst of Netflix-era Black Mirror – a plot line that inevitably escalates so far into its own premise that it devolves into parody. And by the time the heavily surveilled daughter fights back against her protective mother by literally wielding the technology that tore them apart, the good will of the prior forty minutes blinks out before your very eyes.
10) Hang the DJ
Though not quite at the blissful levels of something like “San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ” is nevertheless a fun and fascinating take on toxic online dating culture that extrapolates the tech of Tinder to its most logical extreme. Like “San Junipero”, the episode is held aloft largely by the sugary charm of its two lead actors (Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) who, separated after an abrupt meet-cute, must overcome the arbitrary structures of their constrictive dating system to find their way back to one another. Sweeter still, where too many Black Mirror episodes are undone by their final moments, “Hang the DJ” has a delicious final tag that brings the events of the episode into larger, incredibly satisfying relief.
9) Fifteen Million Merits
Let’s get this out of the way – ”Fifteen Million Merits” has some of the most intricate world building Black Mirror has ever managed to pull off. Brilliantly populating an ever-growing world that has the visual markers of existing inside a gaudy, blinged out smartphone and led skillfully by Daniel Kaluuya (who you now know for being absolutely brilliant in Jordan Peele’s Get Out) as Bing, a mild-mannered, strangely hopeful cog in an ever-corrupt machine. Forced to spin on bikes day in and day out to earn “merits,” a form of future currency that allows inhabitants of the compound to purchase food and control the entertainment they’re constantly spoon-fed: most notably endless porn and X-Factor type game shows; Bing finds welcome distraction in the charming Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). But when she becomes drawn into the mechanations of the corrupted futuristic society, Bing has no choice but to make life-changing decisions that test his capability and his very will to live. But the problem with “Fifteen Million Merits,” as is the danger with quite a bit of Brooker’s work, is how on the nose it feels. Purposely sidelining its female characters and taking issue with the prevalence of pornography and game shows without actually providing a commentary on the society that makes demands for it, “Fifteen Million Merits” lacks much significant narrative meat beyond its genius starting point.
A perfect choice as Black Mirror’s Season 3 opener, “Nosedive” builds its artificially sunny world on the presupposition that the rating culture of Uber and Tinder has become applied on a macro-level, to every social interaction we have with the ones around us. Lacie (Bryce Dallas-Howard) is obsessed with her score, hovering around a 4.2 for too long despite her utter commitment to boosting her rating through unrelenting positivity and diligence. In search of a ratings boost, Lacie reaches out to a childhood friend, Naomie (Alice Eve), whose past cruelties are quickly outweighed by her eyebrow-raising score of 4.8. To Lacie’s utter shock, Naomie invites her to her upcoming wedding, an event sure to be stuffed with elites that would no doubt send her score skyrocketing. But what should be a simple event is sabotaged by Lacie’s tryhard obsession (and some serious bad luck), as her score tumbles from respectable to absolutely abysmal, kicking off a full-scale meltdown that burns up Lacie’s happy-to-please facade from the inside out. Written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur (both of The Office fame) and directed by Joe Wright, “Nosedive” unsurprisingly lacks the sadistic snap of Brooker’s usual work. It’s a fun one to watch, with a central idea that certainly pays off in “Nosedive’s” final satisfying moments, but there’s still something about the episode’s predictability that feels woefully surface-level and a bit off-brand, the combination of which ultimately muffles its impact.
7) USS Callister
Though not the only feature-length episode that Black Mirror has churned out over the last four seasons, “USS Callister” is easily the best of its kind. An unexpected, candy-colored genre exercise,“Callister” isn’t just one of the best surprises of the show, it’s the kind of episode so specific it seems as though it could easily spawn a series of its own. A Star Trek riff undercut with commentary on toxic male entitlement, “USS Callister” is thankfully far more interested in pulling off a satisfying narrative arc than it is about crafting a classic doomsday scenario for its cast of characters (Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson and Michaela Coel). Ringing with confidence and incisiveness, Callister’s combo of dark humor and whizz-bang action makes it the kind of Black Mirror episode that’s just as fun as a late-night sci-fi bingeathon.
Following his impressive bow in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Dan Trachtenberg’s got another corker of a (semi-)chamber piece in “Playtest,” a playfully dark outing that’s steeped in gamer culture and laced with Brooker’s characteristic acerbic wit. When we first meet Cooper (Wyatt Russell), he’s fleeing his family home on the hunt for adventures around the world, before ending his pilgrimage in the U.K. Out of money and looking to buy a ticket back home to finally soothe his mother’s anxieties around his whereabouts, Cooper responds to a vague advertisement looking for thrill seekers in search of a big payday. Led to the headquarters of one of the biggest game companies in the world, Cooper’s happy to acquiesce to the requests of the test, until that “test” becomes the biggest mental trial of his life, and things spin slowly (inevitably) out of control. “Playtest” is easily Black Mirror’s most visually ambitious episode to date, no doubt cashing in on Netflix’s hefty budget with some surprisingly good special effects. And though the episodes Inception-esque narrative might strike some as redundant, Trachtenberg seems aware of the deeply silly nature of this cautionary tech fable, eventually cashing in on a kitschy, pseudo-Twilight Zone kicker that might feel like cheating – that is, if the journey to “Playtest’s” ending wasn’t quite so fun.
5) White Bear
What “White Bear” lacks in pointed societal commentary, it no doubt makes up for in its ability to truly disturb. And while “White Bear” has put off many a viewer as spinning on a cheap twist, there’s little in the episode that even feels remotely rote. Opening on a young, amnesiac woman suddenly beset by murderous assailants and mute, camera-happy onlookers, “White Bear” follows her frantic attempt to stay alive, only to ultimately reveal that she’s caught in a carefully orchestrated loop, a day-to-day punishment designed to pay her back for the crimes she’d committed years prior. But the true kicker comes in the show’s final minutes, as the calibrated track the young woman is doomed to traverse is revealed to be a theme park of sorts, including the light-hearted involvement of every day men, women and children, committed to doling out perverse road justice that takes joy in the pained screeching of a woman too drugged up and isolated to atone for anything much. Touching on the glee of remote punishment we regularly dole out via the anonymity of the Internet as well as the tabloidization of criminal cases, “White Bear” might not be Brooker’s most subtle, but it is one of his best.
4) San Junipero
Certainly the most uplifting episode of Black Mirror, “San Junipero” works largely due to its perfectly cast pair of leads in Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who expertly play Brooker’s star-crossed lovers for the Snapchat generation, with empathy and chemistry to spare. But the episode’s technological core – an essential “afterlife” for ill or dead people to return to the ‘80s, ‘90s, even 2002 to relive their glory days, studded leather jackets and all – just isn’t that interesting or unique, and the episode is hurt by it surprising lack of originality. “San Junipero” is absolutely gorgeous to look at in all ice cream pastels and filtered light, but the episode is perhaps too pretty for its own good, carefully avoiding the dark side of the happily-ever-after coin in favor of a blandly positive ending that fails to follow through on its own ironic promises. But still, with stars as charismatic as Mbatha-Raw and Davis, it feels wrong to complain too much. Directed by Owen Harris, who helmed the similarly stirring (though far superior) “Be Right Back,” “San Junipero”, like its nostalgic namesake, lacks depth, but makes up for it in wells of gorgeous human emotion
3) White Christmas
Difficult to judge as a single package considering the series’ Christmas special consists of three, interconnected episodes tied together by the smarmy charm of a strikingly American Jon Hamm, “White Christmas” nonetheless is so rich with ideas that it seems Brooker could easily have mined an entire season from the mini-narratives contained in the extended installment. With each segment unveiling a new kind of disturbing technological advancement (the show’s version of a real-life “blocking” feature is beyond inspired) heralded with a new, rather surprising dash of humor and that trademark undercurrent of nastiness, “White Christmas” never stops delivering the very best of Black Mirror’s brilliance. Just don’t expect this one to bring any holiday cheer.
2) The Entire History of You
Taking the ever-growing trend of documenting every moment of our lives through social media and filtering existence through the lens of a smartphone to its most unseemly end, “The Entire History of You” unravels in a alternate, future reality in which people possess a small implant that allows them to record every waking moment of their lives, with which to played back (“re-done”) on a screen or in front of a person’s eyes. A useful tool in arguments and for recalling certain choice memories to be sure, but for Liam (an outstanding Toby Kebbell) and his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), the ability to carefully analyze becomes the excuse by which slithering relationship anxieties are allowed to grow. Set off by a curious interaction at a dinner party, Liam begins to fixate on a possible infidelity, his paranoia spreading upwards until he allows himself to be pushed towards an increasingly violent and self-destructive breaking point. Somehow at once totally eerie and remarkably human, the episode’s climax is certainly predictable, but it’s handled with such visual aplomb (the careful choice of what we see and don’t see is masterful in the case of these “re-dos”), that the final minutes of the episode are likely to set up camp in your mind for good, just as the vine of deceit does in Liam’s.
1) Be Right Back
Anchored first by incredible performances from both Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, “Be Right Back” combines all the best bits of a Black Mirror episode: a crushingly human storyline, seamlessly integrated technology and some masterful construction in a haunting soundtrack and brilliant pacing to easily mark itself as the best of the bunch, as it asks the question: what would you do to bring back the one you love? A lonely, grieving Martha (Atwell) attempts to cope with the loss of her late lover with the investment of a newly developed beta technology, one that compiles all digital records of the deceased into an AI – first one that is real only in voice, and later one seemingly indistinguishable from her long-gone love. Tempted by the immediate stay of pain that the presence of her substitute boyfriend provides, things get a little weird (and continue to be heartbreaking as hell) as Martha finds herself tested by her ability to let go, as technology provides her with a comforting, insidious lie for respite. Emotionally down to earth and easily the most affecting of the series, “Be Right Back” is rich enough with ideas to host a compelling feature film, but at its lithe 50 minutes, the episode is easily some of the most emotionally intense television of the last decade. And that ending? Gutting.