Season three of Black Mirror premiered recently on Netflix, bringing the grand total of episodes to 13. As far as we’re concerned, that’s not nearly enough of this speculative fiction series that takes a look into the near-future to see what technology awaits us and how the effects aren’t always going to be good.
As show creator Charlie Booker puts it, “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
By our count, however, that’s officially enough episodes to start ranking episodes but not so many that the task would take all weekend. Black Mirror has made quite the impact in such a short amount of time and with at least one more six-episode season coming you’ll want to get up to speed now so you cringe and cry along with the rest of us.
Heads up, it’s really hard not to include some spoilers when discussing Black Mirror, so consider yourself warned. We try not to ruin endings but we do talk about some twists.
13. Men Against Fire
In the near-future, mutated humans known as “roaches” are loose in a European country and a unified group of soldiers are hunting them. The soldiers use a technology embedded in their heads that allows them to see drone footage or tactical maps. The tech also seems to give the soldiers pleasant dreams every night of the life waiting for them back home.
On one mission, one of the roaches flashes a makeshift weapon at one of the soldiers, disrupting the tech in his head, and forcing him to face the harsh reality that what he sees as a soldier isn’t what’s actually going on. There were some interesting discussions to be had here about ethnic cleansing, racism, and the costs of war. If only we cared more about the characters involved. For a story all about the ways we dehumanize our enemies in war, there weren’t a lot of human qualities to latch onto so that each reveal could really hit home.
The story of an American man-child who leaves home on a world tour concluding in England. Short on funds, he signs up to be a guinea pig for a new augmented reality experience in which he’s left alone in a house and his fears begin to manifest themselves, leading his mind down some very dark corners, viscerally and emotionally.
There’s some interesting things to say about the future of gaming as well as the way we disconnect ourselves from our own reality. Visually-speaking, it’s among the most inventive and stylish the show has ever done. It just doesn’t stick with you all that long after it’s over. The Inception-y ending of the episode feels cool in the moment but seems to fall apart upon closer inspection.
11. The Waldo Moment
Draw parallels between this episode and the current U.S. presidential election at your own peril. A sad sack comedian who doesn’t care much for politics finds himself thrust into a modern-day election when his tawdry cartoon bear character is taken all-too-seriously in the polls. By the time he realizes what’s happening, it’s too late. The trap has already been set and everyone is playing their part, with or without him.
The episode tries to find a balance between the personal story (a lonely man’s quest to find love) with a societal story (would we vote for a cartoon character who said whatever he wanted (wait, don’t answer that)?). The final scene is supposed to be an “oh shit” moment, but just like the bear Waldo, it’s a bit too cartoonish to be taken seriously.
10. Shut Up and Dance
9. White Bear
It’s hard to talk about one of these episodes without referencing the other, as they’re basically the same story at their core. In Series 2’s White Bear, a woman wakes up with no memory and finds herself at the mercy of bystanders who simply stand by and film her on their cellphones. Without saying too much, after spending most of the episode rooting for her to figure out who these evil people are and how to get away from them, we find out that she’s actually the evil one. In Shut Up and Dance, a down-on-his-luck teen finds himself embroiled in a blackmail scheme in which he’s forced to race from place to place and complete dangerous tasks or else his life will be ruined. Turns out, again, that we should have wanted him to have been ruined from the beginning.
Both stories touch on the perils of technology and child endangerment and both plum some pretty dark depths in order to make their point.
8. Fifteen Million Merits
In a dystopian future, citizens spend their days working out to create energy and collecting merits for their efforts. They are bombarded with entertainment in the form of game shows and obnoxious commercials day and night. Those who have enough merits can skip the things they don’t want to watch, but those who lack the funds are forced to watch. When one man convinces a woman he meets to appear on an X-Factor-type gameshow to show off her singing, it sets off a chain reaction of events that tests our understanding of morality and just how much we’d be willing to sacrifice for money.
There’s a lot of fun, sarcastic commentary in this episode about reality TV and the state of modern entertainment. The ending is classic Black Mirror, as we find our hero basking in a victory that may or may not be any more real than had he not won anything at all.
7. San Junipero
One of the few Black Mirror episodes that doesn’t much time at all delving into some kind of body or mental horror. The fact that it opens in the 1980s immediately puts you on high alert because how does an anthology show about the future and technology have an episode take place in the past?
You get your answer soon, which is smart as it clears the way for the heart of the story. A shy woman (Mackenzie Davis) falls for an outgoing party girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and then follows her across San Junipero, although not geographically (it’ll make sense when you see it). Ultimately a touching story about nostalgia and death, it’s the season three episode most likely to bring you to tears.
6. White Christmas
The Christmas special standalone episode features Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men who work in a remote outpost in the middle of a snowy landscape that’s probably too good to be true. Hamm’s character begins explaining why he took this job and what unfolds is a series of vignettes. In a way, this is like getting an entire three-episode series in one fell swoop. What’s unique about it is the way all three vignettes tie together. Of course, they tie together in a very dark Black Mirror-y way.
There’s some big ideas at play about consciousness and reality as well as an ongoing subplot involving technology that allows you to literally block seeing people. You can probably figure out where it’s going before it gets there, but it’s still a worthwhile journey. Plus, you don’t often get to see Jon Hamm go full scumbag.
It’s impossible to watch Nosedive and not spend at least 40 percent of the episode cringing. In the near-future, social media has been taken to the next level and we now live in a world where you are constantly rated by others based on your interactions. In turn, your rating determines where you can live, what you can afford, and who wants to be associated with you. Bryce Dallas Howard is a woman of mediocre rating looking to move up in the world, driven by the notion that the higher her rating, the better her life will be.
What’s so well done about the episode is that while it touches on all of the ways we rate one another online, it also taps into our human nature to do so even when offline. We’re always doing this anyway, aren’t we? It’s more of a fun episode than most, but that works for the characters and the heightened version of our current society that we’re living in.
4. Hated In The Nation
For some, this episode comes across as a generic police procedural, but it actually has its roots in something more specific. Influenced by “Scandi-Noir thrillers” which are popular in England, it imbues itself with the kind of dark tones and morose characters fans of those films and shows will appreciate (even throwing in some references along the way). The story is classic Black Mirror, taking multiple ideas and smushing them together.
In this case, police are trying to solve murders that seem to stem from a social media hashtag. Meanwhile, you just know the tiny drones that have replaced now-extinct bees are going to be involved, don’t you? Kelly Macdonald is wonderful as the sullen detective at the head of the investigation and you could make a case for padding this 89-minute episode with a bit more character backstory and turning it into a standalone movie. Ultimately a story about the way we are with one another on social media, it also touches on government surveillance, and the domino effects that come with both.
3. The National Anthem
“The one where the Prime Minister has sex with a pig.” The very first episode of Black Mirror set the tone for exactly what we should expect moving forward. Rory Kinnear is the Prime Minister faced with a horrifying dilemma when a member of the Royal Family is kidnapped. Either let her die or have live sexual intercourse with a pig on national television. By the time we get to the deed itself, it’s a damning indictment of the way we consume television entertainment and derive pleasure in the mistreatment of others. Worst of all, there’s something about the far-fetched episode that feels very possible in the way it all plays out.
2. Be Right Back
Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson are a young couple living in a countryside house. When he is tragically killed in an accident, she orders a clone of him based on his online communications and social media profiles. While they get on at first, the tiny differences between the real version and the clone become too much to overlook. Stripped down to its essence, it’s a heart-wrenching tale about loss and grief. The future might provide us with ways to “fix” those things, but all the technology in the world can’t truly do it. The bittersweet ending only drives the heartache home further and leaves a lasting impression.
1. The Entire History of You
The Black Mirror-est of Black Mirror episodes, this one takes place in a future where everything you see and hear is recordable and can be played back at any time. A young man who has a penchant for playing back bad moments over and over becomes suspicious that his wife is having an affair. As he analyzes his own experiences, his wife’s ever-changing stories only drive his interest further. As he continues down this rabbit hole, the conundrum of being able to re-live moments from yours and other people’s lives has a dangerous downside.
The story itself isn’t new and is ultimately about the way jealousy can ruin anything. It’s the way it integrates a technology with good intentions and how the human condition will find a way to corrupt it (and themselves) that makes it feel so powerful. Out of the show’s many “if you could, would you really want to” parables, this is the most damning.