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[This story contains spoilers from Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.]
There is a certain level of mystery surrounding the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch endings. Even leading up to the interactive film’s Dec. 28 launch, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker insisted to The Hollywood Reporter that he and his producing partner Annabel Jones still hadn’t agreed on a number. “We genuinely haven’t sat down and chatted about how many we think there are! We haven’t actually sat down to count them,” says Brooker, who wrote Bandersnatch.
As THR revealed, Black: Mirror Bandersnatch is Netflix’s first interactive offering for adults, and the stand-alone film was two years in the making. When Bandersnatch launched, Netflix and the Black Mirror executive producers challenged viewers to go “play” the choose-your-own-adventure story and uncover the endings for themselves.
Officially, Netflix says there are five “main” endings. But there is a caveat: There are variants on all of them. Given that there are millions of unique story permutations created by Brooker’s game-changing script, not every viewer can unlock all of the endings. Also, the way any one person will arrive at those endings will vary, since the interactive experience evolves as viewers make choices.
There is one ending, however, that Netflix determined would be the most commonly reached: the Pearl Ritman ending. That is why the final scene is intercut with a credits sequence — even though the official end to everyone’s Bandersnatch experience will be signified by rolling closing credits. Pearl, as it turns out, is the daughter of Colin Ritman (played by Will Poulter), the famed game developer who mentors the protagonist, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), throughout the film. “It’s not the ‘real’ ending,” Carla Engelbrecht, Netflix’s director of product innovation, confirms to THR of the Pearl flash-forward coexisting among the others. Engelbrecht, who led the tech development of Bandersnatch, says the Pearl ending treatment (which also contains Black Mirror Easter eggs for discerning viewers) was a creative choice made by Brooker. “The original version didn’t have that intercutting, and then it emerged as they started getting into the episode and refining it. We really liked the feel of it.”
Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and follows Stefan, a young programmer who has hopes of creating a best-selling, choose-your-own-adventure computer game inspired by an adventure novel, titled Bandersnatch, that was given to him as a child. As viewers get deeper into the Bandersnatch story, they uncover several parallel realities. A common thread among them is how Stefan reacts to the immense task before him, while wrestling with how much — or how little — control he has over the outcome.
When Bandersnatch flashes forward to introduce Pearl, the ending that viewers get reflects several of the different story branches they will have already reached, or will reach, when Stefan becomes overwhelmed by the creation of the game. Despite her best intentions, Pearl also begins to lose control when she tries to pick up where her father left off and finish his “Bandersnatch” for Netflix. In real life, “Bandersnatch” is also the name of a highly anticipated 1984 game that never materialized. But for Brooker, the ending is even more personal.
“The Pearl ending is quite meta, where it sort of pulls out to reveal someone who has been writing all of this to appear on Netflix,” says Brooker of the wink. “To be honest, the whole thing was extremely meta. Throughout the whole process, we’ve often commented on how life has been imitating art, or the other way around.”
Brooker was experiencing many of the tech problems that Stefan faces when he was outlining the complex “branching narrative” story of Bandersnatch. “There were lots of times where we found ourselves pretty much staring at complicated flowcharts and bits of code, much like Pearl does, and as you see, Stefan does,” Brooker says of the writing process. “We had lots of conversations where we would have to simplify it. All of that stuff that you see in Bandersnatch, we ended up saying in real life. It’s a very odd, meta, fourth-wall-, fifth-wall-, sixth-wall-breaking film. I don’t know really how to classify it: as a film or as an experience? Our ambitions were to make it as cinematic as we possibly can.”
Bandersnatch producer Russell McLean, who has worked on the last two seasons with Brooker and Jones, digs deeper into the Pearl comparison. “She thinks she’s just found her dad’s program and she’s reinventing it as ‘Bandersnatch‘ the interactive film,” he explains, “but then she’s starting to go into the same hole that Stefan went into and she’s forced to do something which would be mad at this point: to destroy her computer, which is the same thing Stefan was forced into. She’s losing control. And she’s almost representing Charlie.”
Indeed, there were no tools to help Brooker create his nonlinear script, which is essentially an interactive story map. Netflix worked with Brooker to create an in-house tool, called Branch Manager, that the streaming giant now plans to use for all of its future interactive projects. The tool allowed Brooker to expand his Bandersnatch map in every direction. “You couldn’t do this in a flow chart because it’s dynamic and tracking what state you are in and doing things accordingly,” says Brooker. The final product — which looks like islands of flowcharts that branch out to include series of if-then options — creates an infinite number of variations to the story because of the “state tracking” technology that tracks viewer choices as the experience progresses.
“Obviously, someone did write the film so, how would you peel back the layers? That is true and we’ve exposed that with the Pearl ending,” explains Jones, who has worked side-by-side with Brooker on the anthology series since the beginning. Then, there are the other endings, specifically the ones that revolve around Stefan’s parents. At a common choice point early on, viewers have the option to pick a path where Stefan opens up to his psychiatrist (Alice Lowe) about his mother. If they choose that option, they will learn that Stefan’s mother died when he was a young boy, and that Stefan partially blames himself for what happened. As a result, he has a contentious relationship with his father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), who becomes so irritating throughout Stefan’s game-development process that viewers will eventually be given the option to kill Peter. Other paths in the story unearth more of Stefan’s history with his father and help explain how the relationship could get to such a turning point.
“There are moments where Stefan spirals into such a mental breakdown that he’s convinced there is a conspiracy and he kills his father,” explains Jones of the several story branches that revolve around Stefan and his dad. “At the same time, because he’s so consumed by guilt over what he perceives to be his hand in his mother’s untimely death, he’s obsessed with branching narratives because he wishes he could go back and change things.”
In one ending — where Stefan ends up on the train ride that killed his mother — Stefan is able to go back in time and have his own alternate ending. Whether or not that is a fantasy or reality remains up for debate. “There’s a truthfulness in his longing to go back and be reunited with his mother,” explains Jones. “Hopefully, these things don’t feel arbitrary. Hopefully, it seems they are all truthful to Stefan and keeps the whole experience in a cinematic feel, because there is one character and he is always truthful.”
Stefan’s fascination with branching narratives and his desire to find a better reality is what threads together the choices viewers will be asked to make on his behalf. The decisions alter whether or not Stefan finishes his Bandersnatch game and will impact his ultimate fate. As Brooker and Jones have expressed, none of those endings is wrong. At the same time, there is also no “right” ending. If viewers continue to play for about two hours, they should be able to unlock most, if not all, of the endings. Each one will add a new layer onto Stefan’s journey and enrich a player’s Bandersnatch experience as a whole.
“It’s a little bit crude to think of it in terms of specific endings, because they could all co-exist,” says Jones. “We tried to create it so that all of the endings make sense for Stefan. He would like a few of those experiences to come true. And then we want people to experience it and have their own emotional reactions.”
Director David Slade, who previously helmed the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead,” said they devoted a lot of time to Stefan’s subconscious because “a lot of those things that are happening are dreams.” One hallucination scene is obvious — when Stefan embarks on an acid trip with dire consequences for either himself or Colin, depending on the viewer’s choice — but beyond that, Slade says it’s up to the viewer to determine which parts of Bandersnatch are playing out in Stefan’s conscious or subconscious mind.
“For instance, in terms of what’s real and what isn’t real, the video game [he creates] has corridors with piping on the ceiling. That same piping is also on the ceiling from one of his dreams, when his father is leading him down a corridor when he’s a small kid in pajamas,” says Slade of one of the major story paths. “Which doesn’t prove anything, it’s just very strongly in his subconscious. These things may have happened. They may be based on memories; they may not be.”
If some of the darker paths are dreams, will viewers feel less guilty about their decisions? The concept of complicity has come up in every conversation with the team behind Bandersnatch. By giving viewers control over the story, “you’re inviting the audience to be complicit,” Slade says matter-of-factly. That is especially displayed in the case of killing Stefan’s father — a choice that Engelbrecht had previously described as one that 90 percent of people won’t want to make, but will make anyway. “I don’t make you kill your father. I make sure that when it happens, it doesn’t disappear and that it hits you. I tried to make sure that you don’t gloss over it and that you have an emotional reaction,” Slade adds.
But if viewers choose not to kill Stefan’s father, they won’t arrive at one of the endings. That, McLean acknowledges, makes the audience “think they’re in control and then they realize they’re not.” One choice in the story convinces Stefan that he is being controlled by a futuristic company called Netflix. That leads to an action-packed ending where he fights his psychiatrist and breaks the fourth-wall to yell at the viewer.
So, in the end, who is controlling the narrative: Is it Stefan via the storytellers, the viewer — or Netflix?
“It’s probably the Russians — an army of Russian bots,” Brooker jokingly answers. “That’s a good question. Because in some versions of our story, it’s as close as we get to it being almost a supernatural force, and then in others it’s more pragmatically and literally you, the Netflix viewer, telling him that you are doing that.”
That’s when Jones adds another meta layer onto the question. “As the storyteller, you have to be able to relinquish some control, just like Stefan,” she says. “We can’t dictate which order things are going to go, just like you can’t dictate how a viewer is going to respond to every scene and what they’re going to take out of it. As long as every experience gives you something different and is entertaining, we hope you’ll stay and explore other experiences — whether that be one young man’s mental breakdown, grasp on reality or parallel reality path.”
The debate around who is controlling Stefan is what Brooker focused on when writing Bandersnatch. Now, as viewers spend the holiday weekend exploring the film (and awaiting a premiere date for the forthcoming fifth season, which is set to arrive in 2019), Brooker is again offering up a challenge.
“For the writer, your characters are defined by their actions. But in this story, you are deciding the actions. So, who is that character?” he says. “That was partly why we landed on the story that we’ve got because part of our narrative is this tussle of: Why is that happening and who is controlling it? That aspect is baked into the story because that was one of the biggest struggles I had. One of the other challenges is slightly letting go. Normally we make the decisions but with this, it’s both liberating and terrifying to not have to do that.”
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