When it comes to groundbreaking TV, Black Mirror hijacks the conversation.
The anthology series explores humanity’s relationship with technology. It’s Netflix’s prized child. There’s an episode where a games programmer tortures people in a Star Trek-inspired virtual reality. There’s one set in a dystopia where Boston Dynamics-inspired metal security dogs chase down and kill humans.
Black Mirror is insane, but great. Some episodes are greater than others. Here’s our ranking of every Black Mirror episode from best to worst. (But watch them all regardless, obviously.)
1. Be Right Back
Be Right Back wins based on its original concept and deeply human story. A woman brings her dead husband back to life in android form using his online identity. What a log line. Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson play the couple, and as Marvel and Star Wars fans now know, they’re incredible. The story explores grief, humanity and the inauthenticity of social media. A soppier Black Mirror about our modern, social media entrenched relationships. It epitomises the best of the show with an ultimate thought-provoking twist ending.
2. The Entire History of You
Another high concept delivered through the lens of relatable characters. In an alternative reality, everyone has implants in their eyes that let you record everything you see. So you can replay memories on a screen and watch exactly how something happened, the implications of which are explored through Liam and Ffion’s relationship. They watch a memory of themselves having sex instead of doing it in real life. The story plays on the paranoia of relationships and the problems of knowing a partner’s history. The Entire History of You is proper Black Mirror car crash TV.
3. USS Callister
USS Callister is just movie-level thrills on TV. An outsider at a virtual reality games company duplicates his colleagues in a Star Trek-esque spaceship. He uses their DNA, cloning their consciousness. He then torments what are effectively real people using God-like powers. Deleting someone’s face so they’re alive but in a constant state of suffocation. Seeing how the characters escape is disturbing and gripping, helped by such high stakes. It’s also funny. A rare Black Mirror that doesn’t end in total misery.
4. San Junipero
San Junipero has arguably the best and most memorable characters in all of Black Mirror. Yorkie is a timid, shy newcomer to San Junipero, a party town set in the ’80s. (Incredible soundtrack: check.) She meets Kelly, a party girl, and they fall in love. As their story plays out, we the audience experience the mystery of figuring out where they actually are. This is one of the happiest Black Mirror episodes using technology in a positive way. It also features the best use of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth. You’ll fall in love with it.
5. White Christmas
White Christmas is creator Charlie Brooker’s precursor to the multiple storylines of Bandersnatch. Two men appear to be telling stories inside a cabin on Christmas Day. Matt, played by none other than Jon Hamm, tells the story of how his wife “blocked” him in real life with technology that turns her into distorted noise in his eyes and ears only. He also talks about his job and how he duplicates people’s consciousness to create artificial intelligence with the sole purpose of running the ultimate smart home. Not only a look at yet more disturbing Brooker technological creations, Matt’s stories inform the story of Joe, who also gets blocked by his partner. It leads to reveal after reveal for a lovely Black Mirror Christmas. Worth multiple viewings to see the clever tweaks to the set implying not all is as it seems.
Joe Wright directs this. He directed Atonement and Pride and Prejudice and brings that same filmic beauty to Nosedive’s cutesy pink and gold-hued world. It’s essential for the materialistic society created by writers Rashida Jones and Michael Schur. People use their phones to give each other a rating out of five a la Uber. If you don’t appear to be super-friendly and up-to-the-minute in real life and on social media your rating goes down and society shuns you. If its credentials weren’t good enough, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the lead and Max Richter who made the stunning The Leftovers’ soundtrack composes the score. The ending lacks a punchy message but it’s all about the journey and sending up today’s influencer culture.
7. Hang the DJ
Black Mirror on dating. A matchmaking computer system pairs people up for a specific period of time, gathering information from their various relationships until it can find their perfect partner. Some encounters last 12 hours, some five years. Hang the DJ’s relatively simple concept plays on the brevity of Tinder and all the big questions that come with trying to figure out if you’re compatible with someone. A simple yet affecting storyline with a creative take on one element of modern society.
Black Mirror as an interactive film is some of the most complicated, meta viewing you’ll see. Bandersnatch follows a wannabe games programmer in the ’80s who tries to turn a choose-your-own-adventure book into a video game. Any choice he makes leading up to the creation of the game is determined by us in real life watching on Netflix. It touches on philosophical questions like free will, includes allusions to Alice in Wonderland and is set in 1984. Maybe it’s too gimmicky for some, but the massive feat of creating multiple endings is as awesome as its inclusion of XTC in the soundtrack.
Playtest is next-level haunted house storytelling with a specific message to make sure you call your mother. A traveller stuck in London gets a job with a lucrative video game company and playtests their latest horror survival. The virtual reality simulation changes based on his personal fears, and the story comes satisfyingly and disturbingly full circle. It’s directed by Dan Trachtenberg of the excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane, another mix of sci-fi and scares.
10. White Bear
People just stand there and record things with their phones. That apathy is the horror of White Bear, which sees a woman chased down the streets by thugs with guns. She has memory loss and doesn’t know why she’s being hunted. The story manipulates our feelings toward her, until the truth unleashes an avalanche of moral questions on media witch hunts and the public’s hunger for justice. One of the most intense Black Mirrors.
11. The National Anthem
The very first Black Mirror was heck of a story to stomach. In The National Anthem, the UK’s prime minister is blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on national television to save the life of a princess. The realistic take on how the authorities could deal with such a situation keeps you watching despite how absurd it is. It plays on the public’s love of celebrity humiliation a la Big Brother and sets audiences up for the shocks of Black Mirrors to come.
12. Hated in the Nation
Bees, tech and murder. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this relatively straightforward Black Mirror episode that takes on the detective procedural format. Hated in the Nation features two female leads trying to figure out how celebrities are dying after being targeted by social media hate campaigns. It’s Black Mirror showing how it can twist an aspect of the media and a current scientific mystery within lower-key genre boundaries.
A black-and-white dystopia with a simple but terrifying concept. Ruthless metal dogs chase down humans and kill them. It’s survival horror against Terminator robots inspired by the real-life robots at Boston Dynamics. Metalhead explores the fears of AI going wrong with a surprise sweet touch in the end. Amid the suffering.
14. Men Against Fire
Men Against Fire is Black Mirror exploring the potentially controversial minefield of technology misused in a war zone. A technologically-enhanced soldier in an unnamed foreign country hunts down disfigured enemies who aren’t as they seem. The story touches on the philosophical consequences of technological warfare, but lacks in empathetic characters. It gets ahead of itself with on-the-nose social commentary without a complex enough story to do such a big topic justice.
One of the best things about Crocodile is a Pizza Hut self-driving delivery truck just rolling in the background. In a futuristic Scandi noir setting, an investigator uses a special device that lets her look at the recent memories of witnesses to crimes. As she gets closer to piecing together the fragments, one of the witnesses goes to lengths to hide her memories. The high levels of violence make this one of the hardest-to-watch Black Mirrors.
16. The Waldo Moment
The Waldo Moment’s parody of government is so accurate it isn’t funny anymore. An animated blue bear that insults everyone and doesn’t listen ends up in the running in a national election. The story doesn’t have much steam beyond the central premise but its reflection of the current political climate makes it worth another viewing. Black Mirror knew what was coming.
Black Mirror venturing into indie movie territory. The focus is on family and helicopter parenting and what using parental monitors, like phone location tracking, can do if taken too far. The Arkangel of the title is a chip parents can implant in their child to not only track and monitor them, but prevent them from seeing potentially disturbing images. That’s Netflix parental controls taken to a new level. While the technology is compelling, its pairing with family drama feels slow and restrained.
18. Fifteen Million Merits
Fifteen Million Merits sends up talent shows and the people who obsess over them. In a futuristic world where the outside doesn’t exist beyond digitised rolling plains and fake rooster calls, unhappy people generate power on their exercise bikes with the sole dream of winning what’s essentially The X Factor. Fifteen Million Merits features an early-in-his-career Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out but it’s the least original of the Black Mirrors, with a final rousing speech to top it off.
19. Shut Up and Dance
Shut Up and Dance is unique for Black Mirror in that it’s a story set in the present. A teenager is blackmailed into committing crimes by a hacker who threatens to release a video of him masturbating. While there are no creative technology ideas, the story leads to a typically ghoulish Black Mirror twist ending that explains the lead character’s desperation. It draws on the fear of personal content going up online but isn’t the most compellingly thoughtful Black Mirror.
20. Black Museum
This is White Christmas 2.0, but with weirder, nonsensical technological concepts. A girl visits Black Museum where the owner tells her about some of the pieces he’s collected. One of them is an implant that lets a doctor feel what his patients are feeling. Another is a man agreeing to have his comatose wife’s consciousness transferred into his own brain. Then there’s a holographic copy of a criminal that can be executed over and over again by visitors to the museum. This divisive episode derails from realism into the outlandishly macabre and stands out for being as un-Black Mirrorish as Black Mirror gets.
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