As I’d mentioned in a previous article, Black Mirror–the so-far 13-episode long cinematic series on Channel 4 and Netflix respectively–has quickly became a favorite of mine due to its thematic elements, style, and ability to fuck my shit up royally for a few days at a time.
Everyone who reviews this show, aside from insisting that it is the “modern day Twilight Zone” without obviously ever watching an episode of The Twilight Zone, feels the obligation to break it down to its intricate parts and put them in order of subjective quality. It’s sometimes wrongly arranged in a worst-to-best…and more accurately, a list of good-to-great. But I think all of those lists are wrong, so I’ll do an OK-to-OMG because it’s quirky, and that’s what you animals seem to like.
I could go on for hours about all of these episodes, but I’ll try to keep my reasoning and opinions to a non-spoilery minimum. So, without further adieu…all current episodes of Black Mirror ranked from OK to ERMERGERD!!!!!
Nosedive–Series 3, Ep. 1
For many clicking on Netflix and checking out the series everyone seems to be talking about, this will be the first episode they watch. For whatever reason, Netflix wants you to watch their episode 1 before the real episode 1. And that’s a shame. Nosedive isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s a poor introduction to the series, and a poor all-around episode of the show. The main protagonist, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is vapid and forced. The environment she exists in has stakes to be sure, but not dire stakes, and not stakes which should matter to anyone but her. The only real male character in the episode seems to be the only voice of reason until a wise old lady ‘Morpheus’ arrives and gives Howard the choice between the red or blue thermos.
San Junipero–Series 3, Ep. 4
Another episode from Series 3, we start to see a theme developing here. The director of a better episode from Series 2 (Be Right Back) returns for another shot at “romance” in Black Mirror. Where the aforementioned episode was dark and emotionally taxing, San Junipero is slow, convoluted, and plays more effectively into the hands of the weird “member berries” social justice Notebook-loving millennial crowd than anyone else. It’s literally jam-packed with 80’s jams, it’s about interracial lesbians traveling through time, and ends with both of them living happily ever after with zero reason they ever should have. This saccharine follow up to the dark and twisted Ep. 3-3 seemed like another clear example of “Americans need a break and can’t be pounded with darkness like us Brits” which could be a false interpretation of their methodology, but it certainly seemed condescending right after realizing from Season 3, Episodes 2 and 3, that they could easily get back on form if they wanted to. At the risk of being too spoiler-heavy…
…There’s no reason whatsoever why Gugu Mbatha-Raw‘s character decides to spend her afterlife with Mackenzie Davis‘ character. They fucked twice, got married, and Mbatha-Raw regretted every second of it. Enough to attempt suicide. Then everything’s wonderful again? Ridiculous. Sorry…it’s just fucking insane.
Hated in the Nation–Series 3, Ep. 6
This is where it starts to get tricky, because–frankly–every other episode of Black Mirror is great. But I said I’d rank them, so that’s what I’m going to fucking do. Hated in the Nation was the episode that finished out the new Netflix series and it was packed with talented actors who could really sell it as a Hitchcock-style nature-meets-technology thriller. This episode could easily be titled The Bees and it would work as a chilling Hitchcock rip-off. But the real underlying themes were moral punishment and social media discourse, which wrapped up the diverse and intellectually interesting series pretty well. The episode wasn’t phenomenal, but it was able to generate a sense of shock and urgency that almost made it more comparable to a Stephen King story than an episode of Black Mirror.
White Bear–Series 2, Ep. 2
Series 2 gets a little odd. The captivating insanity of Series 1 gets ramped up a bit to episodes that, while still fully functional, become a bit heavy on the side of absurd. White Bear winds up being one of the few episodes that I would actually compare to The Twilight Zone as it leaves the viewer with more questions than answers until the last few moments where the twist appears. Twists are all well and good, but it’s one of the elements that made The Twilight Zone get a little stale, and also any re-interpretation or reboot of the show kinda fall flat. White Bear exists in the center of a series that relies on revelations and exposition and not “twists.” But the occasional twist ending, if unexpected, works. The only reason I rank this episode fairly low is that the twist doesn’t seem practical or believable to me. The “revelation” we’re given at the end is a dystopian enforcement that doesn’t seem to have any value or merit beyond “wouldn’t it be weird if that’s how the world worked?” And Black Mirror can do better.
Men Against Fire–Series 3, Ep. 5
Another example in the genre-based jumble that was Series 3 of Black Mirror, Men Against Fire is a war story.directed by Jakob Verbruggen. If I didn’t know better, I would have though that it was at least written or conceived by Rick Yancey, author of the book series The 5th Wave…which spawned an unsuccessful film franchise of the same name. As far as young-adult sci-fi, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good; but it wasn’t bad. But as far as the plot of an episode of Black Mirror is concerned, I think there are better concepts to borrow from. There is always the chance that I’m wrong and no one involved in the production of this episode has ever even heard of the American teen-dystopian novel or movie The 5th Wave. But if that’s true, it would be one hell of a coincidence. Another twist ending episode, as if I had to explain that.
Playtest–Series 3, Ep. 2
I couldn’t help shake the similarities between the lead actor in this episode and Kurt Russell. He had all of Russell’s mannerisms, a striking resemblance, and just seemed to fit the role in the exact same way as a young Kurt Russell. Weird, I thought. Then I realized that the lead actor is Wyatt Russell, the former-hockey playing son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn…and all of my odd suspicions were suddenly made much less vexing. In the third series which is largely genre-based for the anthology series, Black Mirror takes on horror. This is a slight departure, relying more on creepy effects and jump-scares than psychological self-examination. Until the end…when we get another twist! Oh boy! The saving grace this episode had was that it was different and interesting enough to carry the concept to completion, and left the whole affair with an ironic and sadistic joke.
The National Anthem–Series 1, Ep. 1
There is likely no better episode to start off this series than The National Anthem. It only really shares a a thematic quality with Shut Up and Dance, and otherwise stands alone as a weird and wholly disturbing vignette about the day the Prime Minister fucked a pig on television. Sorry–spoiler alert–the Prime Minister fucks a pig on TV. No twist, no turns, no sudden revelation right before the end. Just pure pig-fucking. Deal with it.
And that’s precisely what The National Anthem forces you to do. While the title of the series (Black Mirror) refers to computers and mobile devices specifically, this introductory episode truly lives up to the “mirror” analogy. The premiere holds a mirror to its audience, reflecting the citizens in the episode, anxiously awaiting the Prime Minister fucking a pig. The audience wants to see it, we kinda want to see it…and once we do, we immediately wish we hadn’t and try to forget what we’ve just seen. Gross episode. But one of the more effective in the series.
Be Right Back–Series 2, Ep. 1
Starring Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Domhnall Gleeson (The Force Awakens), this episode seems to typically top most people’s lists of “bests.” And while it’s a fine episode, I can’t help but feel that American audiences valued the familiarity they have with the actors involved over the content of the episode itself. Be Right Back is a relationship drama that culminates in a theoretical think-piece about the implementation of social media and artificial intelligence, and what effects bringing back the dead would have on the psyche of your loved ones. It’s heavy enough without ever seeming heavy-handed; sad, well-constructed, and unsettling. The fact that the person who directed this episode also directed that awful San Junipero episode leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and the episode ends up feeling a little like Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man.
The Waldo Moment–Series 2, Ep. 3
When this episode was released in 2013, it wasn’t the most well-received. Even Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator, admitted that it missed almost every mark that it set out to hit. But watching it in 2016, juxtaposed to possibly the weirdest presidential election in recent history, The Waldo Moment becomes a masterpiece of political satire. The premise of the episode sounds a bit absurd, even for Black Mirror: a company decides to run a foul-mouthed blue bear cartoon character for office…and the man who provides the voice of the bear gets caught up in the vitriol. Perhaps if elements of this episode didn’t become a reality in the United States, I would rank this episode a bit lower–but it’s a lot of fun and captures the zeitgeist with accidental perfection. But it’s not all fun, it also gets into the psyche of a man with no business in the political world falling apart at the seams, despite his honesty and popularity, and seeing the people he’s destroying in his wake.
Shut Up and Dance–Series 3, Ep. 3
Undoubtedly and unarguably the best episode of Series 3. Anyone who says it isn’t (and there are plenty) are lying to you and to themselves. This episode does not relent and will not let you rest, it’s chilling and dramatic from start to finish and truly relies on no elements of sci-fi tech or futurism. This could easily be (and unquestionably is) going on all over the world right now…as we speak. Which makes it unique in that it’s not “the horrors that await our technology addictions” as much of the series is, but “look around. We’re living this now.” Of course, the episode is over-the-top and extreme in scope and scenarios, but it works so well. And even though I thought I was off the roller coaster when the episode ended, it stuck with me, and I can’t shake it. Much like my top 2 favorites.
White Christmas–Series 2, Ep. 4 (Christmas Special)
The Christmas Special is difficult to place, as it almost functions as Black Mirror: The Movie, highlighting almost every theme the series has delved into by the end of the 2nd series. It stars the incomparable Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Rafe Spall (Shaun of the Dead). It’s a twisty-turny collection of shorter vignettes as told by two men inexplicably trapped at a snowed-in outpost on Christmas. Jon Hamm starts talking about his life and his work in dating help and breaking the spirit of personal assistants. Then Rafe talks about his fight to find his long-lost daughter. There is a huge turning point and everything ends in tragedy…which is par for the course in Black Mirror World. If you only ever watch ONE episode of the show, this may be the one I’d recommend. It’s got it all.
Fifteen Million Merits–Series 1, Ep. 2
The next two episodes I advise to approach with caution, as they will inevitably fuck your day up. Fifteen Million Merits is deceptive in its use of bright colors and digital silliness. The main character exists in a digital world that revolves around accomplishing and consuming digital tasks. It seems rather stereotypical and contrived until you realize that it really has nothing to do with the environment at all. It’s a character piece, and a romance, and a tragedy. I can’t go into too much without completely ruining the nature of the human interactions, the tie-in to Britain’s Got Talent-type reality shows, and possibly the most heartbreaking recreation of The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry ever told.
The Entire History of You–Series 1, Ep. 3
I made the mistake of watching this episode in bed at night, and cost myself almost an entire night of sleep. The episode stars Toby Kebbell of the failed Ben-Hur remake…and the failed Fantastic Four reboot…and the possibly abandoned RocknRolla sequel…and is the only episode that was optioned for a potential film version to be made; specifically by Robert Downey Jr.’s Team Downey production company (which sounds more like a Down Syndrome Charity than a production company, but who am I to judge?). Unless they stretch the concept out considerably, I can’t imagine this working as a movie, but I’m sure they’re only interested in the principle: an implant that enables users to rewind, replay, review, or delete memories from your brain database. Like all of the best episodes of Black Mirror, they take a high concept and put it into a story that could almost just as easily be told without it. This is the story of a married couple having their worlds fall apart, and it’s absolutely devastating. Don’t make the mistake I did and watch it before bed. But despite being utterly heartbreaking, it is, in my opinion, the best episode in the entire series thus far. Perhaps one day they’ll get back to this high point. Only time will tell!