Netflix snuck into the narrative video game business late last year when it released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Ostensibly a film based on the hit Black Mirror series, Bandersnatch followed the structure of a “choose your own adventure” story, allowing viewers to make choices for the movie’s protagonist that would produce branching narratives. You can play through an initial viewing in about 90 minutes though puzzling out all the endings and how to get their can take hours and at least one trip to Reddit.
The innovative format has renewed interest in the series, which has always delivered a few standout episodes each season but has started to feel stagnant. Its formula is now familiar and it’s writers have had a hard time being scarier than the actual news. Black Mirror’s fifth season is coming out sometime this year and due to the anthology nature of the show you don’t have to watch any previous episodes to enjoy it or Bandersnatch. In fact given the inconsistent quality of the show, you shouldn’t. Instead I’ve put together a guide to 10 of the best and most referenced episodes so you can delve into the dark intersection of technology and human nature without getting too depressed or bored.
Fifteen Million Merits, Season 1, Episode 2
Black Mirror kicked off with a grotesque episode about the British prime minister being blackmailed into having sex with a pig, turning plenty of viewers off immediately. Whenever I recommend the series to anyone I tell them to skip right to “Fifteen Million Merits,” which remains my favorite episode of the show because of how it was able to surprise me multiple times. The stuff of Karl Marx’s nightmares, the episode is set in a world where young adults spend their days pedaling stationary bicycles — presumably generating electricity — and are rewarded with “merits” they can use to improve their digital avatars, tune out commercials, or buy a chance to escape their dreary capitalist nightmare by competing on an American Idol-style talent show. This is the role that got Daniel Kaluuya cast as the star of Get Out. Versions of the “Fifteen Million Merits” talent show and it’s signature song, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” appear in multiple other episodes.
The Entire History of You, Season 1, Episode 3
The best science fiction often involves a world like ours with just one thing changed. That one thing in turn changes everything. That’s true in “The Entire History of You” which imagines a fairly plausible future where most people have implanted cameras that allow them to record and playback everything they see. The technology renders life a constant anxiety nightmare where you’re able to endlessly dwell upon miserable moments like a bad job interview or your partner flirting with someone else. Black Mirror’s writers are clearly fascinated with this technology, making it the foundation for several other plots. “The Entire History of You” is strong on its own but it’s a must see to better grasp some of the later episodes.
White Bear, Season 2, Episode 2
As a science fiction anthology series, Black Mirror draws obvious parallels to The Twilight Zone. “White Bear” starts off feeling very much like an extension of Rod Serling’s series, with a woman waking up in a world where everyone around her is obsessed with filming her every movement, refusing to acknowledge her panic as she desperately tries to figure out what’s happened. Then it twists into something distinctly more in line with Black Mirror’s established principals. The episode is also referenced in Bandersnatch.
White Christmas, Season 2, Episode 4
Jon Hamm stars in this meta episode as a smart home installer who acts as a sort of high tech Cyrano de Bergerac by night, using a version of the technology from “The Entire History of You” to realize his creative vision. It’s a twisty tale that combines several stories in one and stands head and shoulders above “Black Museum,” a season four episode with a similar structure.
Nosedive, Season 3, Episode 1
Imagine if your Instagram skills and Uber rating were the most important things in your life. That’s the plot of this deeply unnerving episode which chronicles a young woman’s attempts to raise her status by reconnecting with a more influential old friend. Along with being referenced in “Bandersnatch,” Nosedive has its own tie-in board game.
San Junipero, Season 3, Episode 4
The first episode of Black Mirror with a happy ending, “San Junipero” is a beautiful, twisty queer love story that pairs a heavy dose of nostalgia with musings about the intersection of technology and metaphysics. It follows two women, one experiencing first love and the other far more jaded, as they fall for each other and come to terms with how they want to spend the rest of their lives and whatever comes next. It will also get “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” stuck in your head forever.
Men Against Fire, Season 3, Episode 5
This episode about soldiers exterminating inhuman monsters has one of the best twists in the series so the less you know about it the better. It’s a particularly chilling story about war, the toll it takes on the young people who fight, and how we treat them when their service is done. It also shows a natural evolution of the same technology from “The Entire History of You” and “White Christmas” as those visual implants are used to allow soldiers to see through drones and get a jump on their enemies.
USS Callister, Season 4, Episode 1
Science is rarely relevant in Black Mirror’s science fiction, which is much more interested in how technology affects society than how it actually works. Even so, the science is particularly bad in this episode where having access to someone’s DNA allows a manipulative game developer played by Jesse Plemons to create digital replicas of their consciousness. Some of the character actions taken to progress the plot are also particularly implausible like the main character breaking into her boss’ house to avoid having embarrassing pictures disseminated. But if you can get passed that you’ll be rewarded by a uniquely creepy critique of escapist entertainment, male fantasies and classic Star Trek.
Hang the DJ, Season 4, Episode 4
Carved in the same romantic vein as “San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ” imagines a world where a dating app matches people up and gives every relationship an expiration date until it finally pairs couples up with “the one.” It nails the awkwardness of first dates and the misery of relationships that should end.
Metalhead, Season 4, Episode 5
Playing on fears of those extremely creepy Boston Dynamics robots, “Metalhead” is the only episode to be filmed in black and white and feels more like classic post-apocalyptic science fiction than the rest of Black Mirror. I think it’s skippable since you’d be better off just rewatching The Terminator, The Matrix, or even 9 if you’re in the market for killer robots, but the episode is heavily referenced in Bandersnatch so you might want to watch it just to be in the know.