Step into the gloomy and brilliant alternate realities of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Be warned, there may be a bit of mental scarring.
Technology, you devilish old trickster you! If you believe the warnings of Black Mirror, then we’re all in for a pretty grim future. Our phones, virtual reality, new media, all of them will take us to dark, dark places. The beauty (and horror) of Black Mirror’s cautionary tales is in the execution – it’s all too possible. Each episode is set close to the here and now, spinning a yarn focussed on technology which either exists today or is on the cusp of becoming a reality, and the effect that the technology has on the lives of those who interact with it. More often than not to depressing effect. Fascinating, yes. But depressing all the same. Even the Christmas episode is suitably harrowing.
It’s moreish, beautifully acted and asks the most compelling questions of humanity. Here are the episodes ranked, from worst to best:
13) The Waldo Moment (Season 2):
The Waldo Moment finds itself bringing up the rear in the line of Charlie Brooker’s efforts. The tale of Jamie Salter’s motion-capture TV personality Waldo becoming a real-life political juggernaut just doesn’t track for me. Because really, he’s not all that funny or interesting. And still, even in the lesser entries Black Mirror can boast great performances, and Daniel Rigby in the lead is both intense and likeable. It’s a shame that his character’s creation, Waldo, is less so.
12) White Bear (Season 2):
Victoria Skillane wakes up in a bedroom with no recollection of who she is, or why she is there. What she soon finds out is that there are people out to kill her, and that she won’t be getting help from the locals who film her every move.
I’ll say this much about White Bear: There’s one hell of a twist. It’s heart pounding and fast-paced, but to the point where it’s difficult to make any real connection with Lenora Critchlow’s Victoria unfortunately.
But again, one hell of a twist.
11) Men Against Fire (Season 3):
Considering how nuanced Malachi Kirby is as military man Stripe, the rest of Men Against Fire’s execution feels at odds with him. He might be subtle, but the rest of the episode certainly isn’t, making it perhaps the heaviest-handed of the chapters on offer. There’s still plenty of dramatic tension to be mined from Stripe’s internal struggle with the army’s culling of mutant “roaches”, but the balance between character and the technological conundrum that comes to the fore isn’t as well struck as in the better instalments coming up in this list.
10) Shut Up and Dance (Season 3):
The Mr. Hyde to White Bear’s Dr. Jekyll. Shut Up and Dance mirrors the Season 2 entry almost identically in its structure. But where its predecessor struggled to provide a character worth caring for, this time around that issue is sidestepped. Which makes it extra gut wrenching when reaching the episode’s own big twist, which is even darker than White Bear’s, and all the more powerful for it.
9) Nosedive (Season 3):
Check out Black Mirror, going all Hollywood on us! Nosedive marked the opening instalment of Season 3, and the show’s first on its new home at Netflix (having started its days on Channel 4). The budget is evidently bloated, but even more jarring is that the firmly British show all of a sudden finds itself in America. All worries are quickly alleviated though, thanks largely to Bryce Dallas Howard, who makes her chirpy social media obsessed character Lacie worth rooting for as she strives to climb her way up the social ladder.
8) Hated in the Nation (Season 3):
Bees: Essential? Yes. Terrifying? Absolutely.
Robot bees: Essential? Apparently they will be soon. Murderous? Very much so.
Fortunately the ever-sympathetic (and excellent) Kelly Macdonald is on hand as DCI Karin Parke. Hated in the Nation offers up a double whammy of issues, questioning man’s control over nature, and the power of social media in the series’ longest episode to date.
7) Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1):
How far would you go for fame and comfort? What would you do for love?
Black Mirror’s second instalment upped the scale of the series, with a complete 180 of the opener’s grounded setting. Welcome to the future, where the material is all that matters, and The X Factor has really gotten out of control. Shitty X Factor.
Besides being visually gorgeous, Fifteen Million Merits also introduced the song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” to the show, memorably performed by Jessica Brown Findlay, which pops up again later down the line in White Christmas and Men Against Fire.
6) Playtest (Season 3):
Virtual reality and horror, a format and genre that go hand in hand. Whilst the themes the show explores are often terrifying, Playtest is the scariest of its stories in the traditional sense.
Director Dan Trachtenberg gave us the impressively taut 10 Cloverfield Lane early in 2016, and he delivers an episode of TV here which tonally is of the same ilk, as skint traveller Cooper (Wyatt Russell) takes a trip into the most extreme version of VR imaginable.
5) The Entire History of You (Season 1):
If everything you ever did and said were recorded and available at your disposal, how would you use that power?
It would allow you to recall and relive your greatest memories. Or for the paranoid, it would let you obsess over those moments that niggle away at the back of your mind. Which is exactly how Liam (Toby Kebbell) opts to use the implant behind his ear that captures his life. His wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) may well be throwing coy looks towards an old friend at a dinner party, but that’s a thread Liam probably doesn’t want to start pulling at.
The technological advancement proposed here seems tempting on the surface, but in the wrong hands it proves to be the perfect tool for self-destruction.
4) Be Right Back (Season 2):
Yeesh, this is a tough one. Spectacular but bleak, restrained yet captivating. Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) excel as a couple struck by tragedy, with the prospect of artificial intelligence offering them the opportunity to continue their life together.
It’s an emotional tour de force, and seriously thought-provoking stuff.
3) White Christmas (Special):
A beautifully layered puzzle of an episode, aggressively clever, and easily the most heart-breaking of Christmas specials you’re likely to see any time soon. Happy Christmas from Black Mirror!
2) San Junipero (Season 3):
Finally, an episode that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. San Junipero is genuinely euphoric, but not without throwing one or two major speed bumps at would be lovers, the shy and retiring Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), and the confident, vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
With decade hopping “time travel”, and perfect costumes, set design and music coming from each period our heroines land in, there’s more than meets the eye here than it first seems.
1) The National Anthem (Season 1):
The first entry of Black Mirror, and its finest hour of television, with the most twisted of central dilemmas. To save the kidnapped Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) the British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) must have sex with a pig…whilst being broadcast on national TV. Which is just as a horrendous proposition as it sounds.
Sitting right within the realms of possibility, it’s gripping from start to finish.
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