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With the fifth season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker has a total 22 episodes of dystopian delights awaiting the ready viewer — in addition to the franchise’s (and Netflix’s) first interactive movie with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
The anthology series, which first launched in the U.K. before being nabbed by the streamer, taps into collective unease with the modern world by exploiting techno-paranoia themes with each of its stand-alone stories. A common misconception, however, is that technology is the enemy; in fact, the gadgets featured in the stories are meant to be a black mirror, reflecting what the characters are capable of right back at their staring faces.
In interviews, Brooker has often struggled when asked about the order viewers “should” watch the Black Mirror episodes. Season four was the first season in which he released an episode sequence, which still came with a caveat that the new batch can be watched “in whatever flippin‘ order you like.”
Thanks to the anthology’s Emmys win for “San Junipero” and “USS Callister,” and the critical and viral conversation surrounding the release of Bandersnatch, there are bound to be fresh eyes coming to the series. Not to mention, there is always something new to be gleamed from rewatching a Black Mirror episode after learning the shock twist. One season-four episode challenged viewers to watch them all, since it contained Easter eggs to potentially every story in the Black Mirror universe. The season five episodes have continued that trend.
Bandersnatch also launched betweens seasons four and five as a choose your own adventure-style movie complete with many links to previous episodes. Though the offering is the first official film in the franchise, Brooker and Jones refer to all of their stories as “films” and Bandersnatch is included in the rankings below. (You can read all about it here.)
With that in mind, The Hollywood Reporter ranks all 23 stories below to help guide viewers on their Black Mirror binge. The below spoiler-free rankings aren’t “worst” to “best,” necessarily, since they all should be consumed; but the must-watch offerings sit at the top of the list.
23. “Men Against Fire,” season three
A soldier (Malachi Kirby) is tasked with exterminating sub-human creatures called “roaches,” but a glitch in his microchip implant allows him to be the only one in his group to see the world clearly, exposing a government eugenics program. Michael Kelly plays a military psychologist, who is on the front lines of an argument that PTSD can be wiped out with memory, and by using implants to mask the reality and pain. The relevant episode takes on modern warfare, with a Black Mirror-like test of morality, though the ending leaves much to be desired.
22. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” season five
Miley Cyrus plays a mega pop star named Ashley O who is struggling with her image and artistry. But her aunt (Susan Parfour) only views her as a digital entity that she can monetize and assumes control over Ashley’s life and imagery at any cost. The story within that story comes when a fan (Angourie Rice) and her sister (Madison Davenport) crack the “limiter” on their AI smart doll “Ashley Too,” a copy of Ashley’s brain capacity, and the sisters, along with their now digitally conscious robotic doll, set out on an adventure to help Ashley. The episode is a departure in tone and takes a risk with its ending. (The news tickers in the episode are filled with Easter eggs.)
21. “Metalhead,” season four
Maxine Peake is a woman who takes on a machine in the black-and-white, 38-minute episode, marking the shortest and first colorless story of the series. Peake’s character is motivated by her human relationships, an emotional story that contrasts heavily to the bleak world laid out for her in the future where human life is sparsely seen and CGI machine “dogs” are on the hunt for any trace of life. The survival thriller (which contains a “White Bear” Easter egg) is a commentary on society’s reliance on machines overrunning humans, though its simplicity makes it a contained story amid the rest of the season four offerings.
20. “Fifteen Million Merits,” season one
Taking on the reality competition genre, Daniel Kaluuya (below) exists in a sci-fi game-like world where people must exercise in order to earn “Merits” that are used as currency. When he meets a girl (Jessica Brown Findlay), he helps her compete in a televised talent show in hopes that if she wins, she will be able to escape. Taking a closer look at overnight stardom, class systems and a reality star-obsessed culture, the visual feat of an episode was even recreated as an art exhibition in London. It has also been called back as the series has continued, including in season four stories “Black Museum” and “Crocodile.”
19. “Shut Up and Dance,” season three
Playing out like a crime thriller, Alex Lawther kicks off the chase when his character is seen being blackmailed by hackers. He must carry out their cryptic demands, otherwise they will release damaging information into the world. He soon discovers other equally desperate players in the twisted saga, but not until the end is the uniting thread between them all revealed in devastating fashion. Lawther’s performance stands out and the episode will leave viewers questioning both privacy and humanity in a way that rings familiar to a previous episode in the series listed below, “White Bear.”
18. “Crocodile,” season four
Led by Andrea Riseborough, “Crocodile” explores how memory, when advanced by technology, can help to solve crimes. The bleak thriller flips gender roles to show what one mother is capable of when her own life is on the line, and displays how the past can come back to haunt the present — a theme Brooker has not shied away from utilizing in some of his most powerfully daunting stories. The role was initially written for a man, until Riseborough asked Brooker and Jones if she could read for the part, sparking the creator and his executive producer to buck the trope and tell an even more compelling thriller.
17. “Smithereens,” season five
Andrew Scott delivers a powerful performance as a grief-stricken rideshare driver seeking revenge against a social media company called Smithereen. He takes an employee (Damson Idris) hostage as leverage to get the company’s CEO Billy Bauer (a character who was foreshadowed in Bandersnatch and who is played by Topher Grace) on the phone. Their conversation plays out to surprising impact, as Billy acknowledges the flaws of his addictive platform. Scott has attracted the interest of the local police and the piqued the curiosity of the users of Smithereen (the hashtags are a Black Mirror Easter egg library) and the emotive episode ends more ambiguously than would be expected.
16. Striking Vipers, season four
“Striking Vipers” does what a Black Mirror story does best by raising morality questions and sparking a larger debate. The action-romance stars two college friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reconnect when a game they used to play called Striking Vipers gets a VR upgrade. The Street Fighter-style fighting game mimics physical sensations and the behavior the pair engage in while in the alternate universe impacts their lives both in and out of the game. The story raises questions about monogamy (Mackie’s wife is play by Nicole Beharie), sexual identity and fluidity.
15. “Arkangel,” season four
Jodie Foster became the first female to step behind the camera for a Black Mirror episode with this mother-daughter tale. The story follows a protective single mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) as she raises her daughter, whom she had test out an experimental parental tracking device when she was a young girl. Appealing to a generation of children growing up with Find My iPhone and helicopter parenting, the indie movie-like episode questions the lengths a parent will go to keep their child safe, and how long a child can be restrained.
14. “Hated in the Nation,” season three
Clocking in at a whopping 90 minutes, the pacing of “Hated in the Nation” was the longest of the series before Bandersnatch. Kelly Macdonald stars as a detective who attempts to stop the deaths of people who are being targeted by a social media “game.” The mini-movie takes on cyber-terrorism when robotic bees, used to pollinate the planet amid the insect’s extinction, are hacked and used to carry out the game’s mission. The episode was inspired by detective thrillers like The Killing and also contains a key reference to another episode that took on voyeurism, “The National Anthem” (mentioned below) — more proof that the worlds of the episodes are all connected.
13. “The Waldo Moment,” season two
The politicized episode that put Brooker on the U.S. map, “The Waldo Moment” was later praised for predicted the rise of Donald Trump. The story, which aired in 2013, tells of an outsider (Daniel Rigby) who voices a cartoon bear that goes on to win an election by utilizing anti-establishment rhetoric. The human controlled the avatar, named Waldo, with a sort of face technology that is now similarly used in the new iPhoneX — until the avatar ultimately outgrows its handler. Waldo (pictured below) insults voters, who lapped it up because they are sick of the status quo, one tactic that was later utilized by Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. After Trump’s election, along with Brexit, Brooker and Jones said they didn’t plan to tackle politics head on for 2017’s fourth season, since the climate is moving too quickly.
12. “Be Right Back,” season two
One of a few of Black Mirror‘s romances, “Be Right Back” tells the story of a woman (Hayley Atwell) whose boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson) is killed in a car accident. While in mourning, she enlists a new technology that can create an AI version of her loved one, putting him back together by his social media footprint and information found online. The touching story explores grief, how people linger on through their online presence after death and the difficulty of letting go, especially when an android can fulfill, and essentially rewrite, a relationship that has been lost. The episode was directed by Owen Harris, who later returned to direct both “San Junipero” and “Striking Vipers.”
11. “Hang the DJ,” season four
Black Mirror‘s first version of a rom-com, “Hang the DJ” serves as a social commentary on online dating. Singles played by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole are matched together, but an unfamiliar dating system sets their time together to only 12 hours. The ensuing and mysterious romantic tale explores human relationships through the endless options and dating cycles women and men go through in order to find their perfect match. One of the most well-received of the new season, due to its unsuspecting ending, the story is one of many in the series (along with “San Junipero” and “White Christmas”) to tackle digital consciousness from a new angle.
10. “White Christmas”
This extra-long episode starring Jon Hamm (above) aired between seasons two and three and over Christmas when it launched first in the U.K. As episodes were migrating over to Netflix, “White Christmas” arrived on delay for U.S. viewers and when it did, it delivered a compilation story that can be similarly seen in season four’s “Black Museum” (ranked below). Two men harboring secrets who are stuck in a remote cabin share their life stories with one another and the episode plays out with three mini-stories within the larger story from there. Ending with, yes, a twist, the whole is better than the sum of its parts — a narrative tactic that pays off best by season four.
9. “Black Museum,” season four
No one should attempt to watch “Black Museum” until they have seen all 18 other Black Mirror episodes. Named last in Brooker’s season four sequence for a reason, the story at one point contained an Easter egg reference to every single episode in Brooker’s catalog — proving once and for all that all stories do exist in one Black Mirror universe. Brooker said he isn’t sure all of the nods will make the final cut, but viewers’ eyes should stay peeled for references when a woman (Letitia Wright) visits a secluded museum of techno-horrors run by an expert in the history of all the criminology on display (Douglas Hodge). Once again telling three vignettes within its larger story, “Black Museum” evokes a range of emotions while exploring new hypothetical technologies and digital consciousness.
8. “Playtest,” season three
With its extra twisty ending, “Playtest” pulls on the heartstrings. The horror romp warns of the near-future dangers of virtual and augmented reality, and the story’s protagonist (Wyatt Russell) is a likable character — a rarity in the Black Mirror world. The episode takes Russell’s character through a techno-fun house, testing both its star and the viewer on what is real and what isn’t. Ultimately, the technologies employed here are not too far off in the future and as it shows, the consequences can be devastating.
It took a nearly two-year process for Brooker, Jones and the product team at Netflix to bring the streaming giant’s first interactive offering for adults to life in December 2018. The branching-narrative story plays out in choose your own adventure-style, asking viewers to pick between two choice points as the protagonist, Stefan (Finn Whitehead), tries to achieve his goal of making a top-reviewed interactive game. The meta plot contains trillions of permutations, thanks to Brooker’s unique script, that result in many story paths and multiple endings. The genres range from comic to tragic and a satisfying viewing experience can be anywhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours (more than five hours of footage was filmed). The groundbreaking offering, directed by “Metalhead’s” David Slade, was praised for its innovation and Netflix has since rolled out additional interactive projects. The storyline raised critical debate and, within the universe, the ’80s period piece serves as an origin story by showing how TCKR — then Tuckersoft with top gamer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) — began to impact the world of Black Mirror.
6. “Nosedive,” season three
Bryce Dallas Howard (above), set against a pastel palette, lives in a near-future world where everyone is rated on a scale of 1 to 5. With her 4.2-rating, her character is obsessed with climbing up the ladder in a society that awards those with the highest ratings the best of life’s offerings. A commentary on social media and those who use it, versions of the seemingly far-off technology can already be seen popping up across the world today, not to mention ranking systems utilized by popular technology apps like Uber and Postmates. The episode was written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur.
5. “USS Callister,” season four
The feature-length space epic stars Jesse Plemmons as a CTO to a virtual reality gaming company. The Emmy-winning episode contains homages to Star Trek (and Star Wars) as it charts a journey aboard fleet USS Callister — a spaceship was actually created on the London set — and also stars Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson and Michaela Coel (who also appeared in “Nosedive”). Cinematic feats and Easter eggs aside, the 74-minute sci-fi story was received similarly to “San Junipero,” as its empowering theme of reclaiming power under tyranny was another relevant message that struck a chord with viewers in late 2017.
4. “White Bear,” season two
A woman with amnesia (Lenora Crichlow) wakes up to find herself in a nightmare scenario, as she appears to be prey to “hunters,” humans who have no remorse and who are controlled by a television signal. A commentary on many aspects of society — from the media to violence and human empathy — the ending shows just what Brooker is capable of along this Black Mirror ride, and is a story that tends to stick with those who make it through. The symbol of the episode was evoked in the branching narrative tale of Bandersnatch and Crichlow’s character, Victoria Skillane, along with Prime Minister Callow (from below’s “National Anthem”), is one of the most referenced characters in the universe.
3. “San Junipero,” season three
The Emmy-winning episode was designed to come as a surprise. Before winning the TV trophy, “San Junipero” became an instant cultural phenomenon, thanks to its neon palette, addictive ’80s soundtrack and story between lovers, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis (pictured below). In an alternate place called San Junipero, Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) helps Yorkie (Davis) accept her sexuality and the star-crossed love story plays out to the tune of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” The story, the first one Brooker wrote when the series jumped to Netflix, was praised for its LGBTQ storyline and, of course, unexpected ending. It also introduced TCKR technology later used across the show’s universe.
2. “The Entire History of You,” season one
One of Brooker’s earlier offerings, “The Entire History of You” best displays what paranoid humans are capable of when technology is in their hands. Introducing a now-common Black Mirror gadget, a man (Toby Kebbell) questioning if his wife (Jodie Whittaker) has been faithful uses an implant in his temple to revisit their memories, which have been recorded to have the ability to played over as “re-do’s.” Two years after the twisted love story originally aired on Channel 4, Robert Downey, Jr. optioned the episode to be made into a film with Warner Bros. (though no updates have been announced) as the story has spawned think-pieces and a believable future reality worth exploring.
1. “The National Anthem,” season one
The first Black Mirror episode to air on Channel 4, “The National Anthem” is the story that should be used to indoctrinate viewers into Brooker’s universe. The political satire is polarizing, and if it’s viewed as a turnoff, it serves as a reminder that this series isn’t for the faint-hearted. It also forces the viewer to confront an impossible hypothetical scenario, which is the Black Mirror DNA. When a member of the British royal family is taken hostage, the only way U.K. Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) can save her life is if he satisfies the kidnapper’s outrageous demand to have sex with a pig on live television. The prescient episode, infamous in the Black Mirror universe, along with PM Callow, has been referenced in many subsequent episodes and is commonly referred to as “Piggate.”
The fifth season of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix. For more coverage, head to Live Feed.
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