Since its debut on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2011, and especially since its move to Netflix—with its wider reach and high budgets—Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone-inspired sci-fi anthology series, has gone from cult hit to one TV’s most well-known properties. With its focus on the perils of technology, set in a world not far from our own, it also provokes (and exaggerates) familiar anxieties to craft its brand of dystopian fiction. With the premiere of Black Mirror’s shortened fifth season, we’ve updated Paste’s ranking of the anthology’s entries.
Here are all of Black Mirror’s episodes to date, from worst to best:
23. “The Waldo Moment” (Episode 2.03)
In “The Waldo Moment,” struggling comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) lends his voice to Waldo, and animated bear on a children’s TV program designed to teach British youngsters about politics. Soon, though, he becomes popular with the wider public, before being pushed into competing in an upcoming election. Waldo’s sole purpose is to humiliate the competition, gaining traction with those who’ve lost faith in politicians. When he’s approached by a member of an American “agency” who wants to turn Waldo into a global authority figure, Jamie finally has enough and opts out of the campaign. But that doesn’t stop Waldo from winning second place in the election. “The Waldo Moment” may not be Black Mirror’s strongest episode, but, Brooker has a knack for predicting our bleak future. We’d take Waldo over Trump any day. —Roxanne Sancto
22. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (Episode 5.03)
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is the story of shy, nebbish high school Rachel (Angourie Rice) and her infatuation with colorfully sanitized and equally vacuous pop princess Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), whose fairytale life of fame turns out to be (surprise!) spiritually hollow-a turn of events so inherently expected within the mold of Black Mirror that it would have been far more surprising if Ashley wasn’t surrounded by soulless corporate monsters. Oh, and Jack (Madison Davenport) is there too, even if her role rarely amounts to more than a sounding board for Rachel’s insecurities.
The techie hinge of the episode is the creation of the “Ashley Too” doll; a small robotic companion that is meant to prop up the self-esteem of impressionable young Ashley O fans, while offering makeup tips and saying things like “Want to talk about boys?” Rachel, naturally, is beside herself with anticipation to acquire one, and immediately begins to anthropomorphize the doll (and her “friendship” with it) to an unhealthy degree. It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of the same ground trodden by “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” almost 25 years ago, except this time we’re seeing the unfortunate fixation through the eyes of a true believer, rather than an incensed feminist who knows when she’s being pandered to.
Ultimately, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” feels more like it was built specifically as a star vehicle for Miley Cyrus than as a tool for the kind discussion on complicated morality you find in better episodes of Black Mirror. With clear-cut heroes and villains, seemingly locked in a competition of measuring their own paper-thin degrees of depth, it’s the weakest entry in Black Mirror’s shortened Season Five. And not even some re-written Nine Inch Nails material can change that. —Jim Vorel
21. “Fifteen Million Merits” (Episode 1.02)
In a futuristic dystopia, certain citizens generate power by pedaling exercise bikes all day. This earns them “merits,” a virtual currency that can only be spent on digital entertainment and products. They live in small cells, surrounded by display panels streaming stupefying programming and advertising. Others, even worse off, are subjected to humiliation on vile TV programs, used as shooting targets in videogames, or—if they’re lucky—become cleaners, forced to take the abuse of their betters.
Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) has more than fifteen million merits to his name—which he decides to use to get Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), a cleaner with a mesmerizing voice, appearance on Hot Shots, an American Idol-style competition. While its understanding of such entertainments is shallow indeed, the set design in “Fifteen Million Merits” is appropriately overwhelming, depicting a future of mind-numbing entertainment and screen-dependency. —Roxanne Sancto
20. “Shut Up and Dance” (Episode 3.03)”
“Shut Up and Dance” is an hour-long panic attack, an exhausting reminder of human malice and naiveté. The episode follows Kenny (Alex Lawther), a shy teen who works at a fast food joint, who one night receives an email from an unknown sender: “We Know What You Did.” What ensues is a “treasure hunt” of the warped variety, one that depends on the sympathy established by Lawther’s enthralling performance. When Kenny’s crime is revealed in the final, grueling moments, despite all he’s done to keep it from going public, we’re left in much the same situation as “White Bear,” questioning not only our moral principles, but also our thirst for poetic justice. —Roxanne Sancto
19. “Metalhead” (Episode 4.05)
Despite its black-and-white promise of cinematographic wonder, “Metalhead” is not concerned about beautiful images or intense expressions. Instead, the episode, starring Maxine Peake, meanders for the sake of meandering, sprinkling in spoken attempts to build out its world—a hellishly violent one, in which humans are pursued and killed by goofy-looking robots—with small lines referencing names we’ve never heard. With a longer format or a tighter script, this is the right idea, but there’s no room to pause when you don’t have character, plot, or action: While the sparseness of “Metalhead” is an admirable attempt to defy Black Mirror’s twist-heavy formula, if tension is what you’re betting it all on, every shot better make me nervous. —Jacob Oller
18. “White Bear” (Episode 2.02)
“White Bear” is another example of Brooker’s disdain for TV’s conflation of entertainment and news. The episode focuses on Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), a young woman who wakes up to a bizarre world she doesn’t recognize. The people outside mindlessly chase her around the neighborhood, filming her every move with their mobile phones. We learn it was Victoria’s involvement in the murder of a young girl that brought her to this place of brainless voyeurism, and her punishment involves having her memory erased at the end of each day, only to wake up the following morning to relive the same scenario. “White Bear” plays with the viewer’s emotions—for the majority of the episode, we find ourselves sympathizing with Victoria, making it all the more difficult to find a moral stance when we find out what she’s done—but it’s done in order to land its criticism of the media’s tendency to turn horrific news stories into national spectacles, riling people up to the point of panic and violence. —Roxanne Sancto
17. “Men Against Fire” (Episode 3.05)
In “Men Against Fire,” Brooker channels a sadly common phenomenon—hatred of and paranoia about the Other—into a dystopian military unit and its MASS implants. These are designed to alter soldiers’ primary senses, allowing them to fight without being incapacitated by emotional trauma. By camouflaging innocent citizens of this futuristic world as “roaches”—vile, vampire-like creatures whose screeches echo like the cry of a banshee—the implants succeed in getting soldiers to operate with one purpose: Shoot to kill.
In light of our current political climate, “Men Against Fire”—starring Homecoming’s Stephan James as a soldier who discovers the truth about the roaches—kept me occupied for days. It sums up our past, our present, and our gruesome future, reflecting a moment in which empathy has made way for the desensitization of humanity and we’ve discarded our desire for unity in favor of a system that deserves comparisons with fascism. If you haven’t yet come to understand the path we’re on, let Brooker be your guide. —Roxanne Sancto
16. “Hang the DJ” (Episode 4.04)
Meeting people online is weird, but no more weird than going up to someone cute in public. There are different social codes on apps, but there are still social codes. These come about naturally, through pushes and pulls in the user base, so creating a fictional dating service—as does “Hang the DJ”—is more about creating the social experience than the app itself. This is something Black Mirror can be hit-and-miss at, especially when much of its audience has experience with the topic. Its social media episodes are never quite as effective as its memory- or robot-based ones, because we as viewers have a higher bar for our suspension of disbelief. For example, I’ve met some significant others online, so when a couple (played by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) meets for the first time, the nerves, banter, and expectations all feel familiar. The unmanned golf carts taking them to the next destination and the security guards standing watch, however, do not: There’s light fun to be had in “Hang the DJ,” but as far as commentary goes—which this episode leans on heavily, pushing its social experiment angle hard—it’s softball season. —Jacob Oller
15. “Smithereens” (Episode 5.02)
Sometimes within Black Mirror, there are episodes in which everything that happens could legitimately happen in our own world, tomorrow. And who knows-it probably will, as likely as not. That feeling of plausibility works in “Smithereens’” favor. Chris (Andrew Scott) is a driver for a rideshare company, although don’t think of using the word “Uber.” This episode, in fact, is packed with extremely on-the-nose analogs (Smithereen itself is in the vein of Twitter). The commentary here feels a bit rote, a bit familiar. We don’t engage with each other, turns out. We spend all our time on our phones. We ache for genuine human connection. Or in other words: These are observations that every human on Earth has made on a weekly basis for the last decade. Chris feels the same, albeit with a more personal base for his grudge.
Ultimately, this is Andrew Scott’s show. The episode revolves entirely around his poorly planned attempt to abduct a Smithereen employee, holding that young intern (Damson Idris, best known for FX’s Snowfall) hostage and demanding to speak to Smithereen founder and tech icon Billy Bauer (guest star Topher Grace) on the phone for mysterious reasons. One gets a sense, watching Chris, that he’s at war with himself over this decision, which translates to a spastic, explosive sort of nervous energy. We fear his intentions less than we fear his deteriorating state of mind, and what will happen when something else inevitably goes wrong. The human drama here is often top notch, even when the plotting doesn’t quite know how to resolve itself. —Jim Vorel
14. “Hated in the Nation” (Episode 3.06)
“Hated in the Nation,” Brooker’s first attempt at a “Scandi-Noir” coppers episode, offers a different approach from the usual Black Mirror format—in fact, for those new to the series, it may be an effective way of easing into the sinister world of Brooker’s creation. The episode works brilliantly as a stand-alone, particularly for those who enjoy a strange mix of sci-fi and crime drama: In it, an investigation into the strange circumstances surrounding the deaths of a number of people involved in “online shit-storms” leads DCI Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and her partner, Blue Colson (Faye Marsay), to Granular, a company that’s invented ADIs (Autonomous Drone Insects) to replace the extinct bee population). It seems ADIs have managed to burrow through their victims’ ear canals (BrainDead, anyone?) and in into their brains’ pain center—and when it’s revealed why, “Hated in the Nation” highlights the fine line between our virtual lives and reality, and the problem of confusing cowardice for courage. —Roxanne Sancto
13. “Nosedive” (Episode 3.01)
“Nosedive” explores the cruel reality that social media and its world of FOMO (“fear of missing out,” for the uninitiated) and fake friendships aren’t just for bullying teenagers who want to make sure you know you weren’t included in the slumber party invite. It follows Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard), an insecure woman living in a society so tethered to the approval of others’ technological “likes” and “hearts” that she practices looking gracious in the bathroom mirror—hoping all the while that a reunion with her beautiful and awful childhood friend (Alice Eve) will give her the perfectly filtered life she wants. It’s a humorous story, yes, but it’s not too distant from our own reality, in which it’s not uncommon to care about the number of one’s Instagram followers or stay in contact with someone who didn’t invite you to that slumber party a decade ago. (The fact that this episode is co-written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, who were involved in bringing one of TV’s best female friendships to fruition on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, should not go unnoticed). —Whitney Friedlander
12. “Crocodile” (Episode 4.03)
Directed with unflinching, up-close grotesquery by John Hillcoat, “Crocodile”—in typical Black Mirror fashion—follows its logical conclusion down a dark alley, where it promptly bludgeons it to death. It’s written well enough that the dread precedes the groans, with dominoes falling in perfectly timed acceleration: A woman (Andrea Riseborough) has a close encounter with her tragic past, thanks to the appearance of an insurance adjuster (Kiran Sonia Sawar) wielding a device that can access people’s memories. But there’s still enough overkill that its cautionary tale about slippery slopes gets more than a bit silly before it ends—especially the bleak usage of “We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be” from kid crime-musical Bugsy Malone. The unrelenting pessimism at the heart of the story, that our choices damn us and we are complicit in our damnation, becomes so suffocating that the “Crocodile” becomes less “Oh, no!” and more “That, too?” —Jacob Oller
11. “USS Callister” (Episode 4.01)
Just as Westworld has its robo-populated Old West, Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” has its Star Trek, where Kirk has a great head of hair, balls of steel, and a commanding presence. With low self-esteem, bruised masculinity and the issues to back it up, the Chief Technical Officer (Jesse Plemons) of a VR gaming company is living a double life. There’s the one in the physical world, where he’s a bumbling, balding lump of men’s rights activism waiting to happen, and the one in the technicolor Star Fleet world of his creation, where his captain is worshiped and beloved. And it’s people he works with in real life (including characters played by Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, and Cristin Milioti) who man his ship, because he’s used their DNA to put copies of them—their personalities, souls, consciousnesses, or what have you—into the game.
Overpackaging its message, Charlie Brooker and William Bridges’ script buries the episode’s vicious premise (OK, one of its three or so premises) under so many references that it feels like an experimental Saturday Night Live skit that’s gone off the rails. The CTO has created a virtual world where he’s in charge, but also the people in it are sentient and they need to contact themselves in the real world to escape, and it’s also told through Star Trek plotlines and… Ugh. I’m exhausted already. —Jacob Oller
10. “White Christmas” (Episode 2.04)
“White Christmas” opens with Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm) starting their day in a little cottage, surrounded by nothing but snow. They’re at the remote outpost on a job and seem to have been so for the past five years. After it becomes clear that they are strangers to one another, Joe insists on hearing Matt’s story: Matt’s job used to consist of developing computer programs called “cookies,” which are extracted from human consciousness and subjected to a life of emotional and psychological distress—trapped in a white space with no stimuli other than their designated work tasks. And that’s not all.
“White Christmas” examines just how fast we are approaching a future in which we succumb so fully to our fascination with technology that we become slaves in a world of our own design. Divided into three different parts, the episode offers a multi-layered experience that ties in perfectly with its heartbreaking ending. —Roxanne Sancto
9. “Playtest” (Episode 3.02)
“Playtest” offers a new approach to self-discovery, in the form of a virtual reality game that puts users face to face with their inner demons. The episode ultimately hinges, then, on the vulnerability and unpreparedness of the protagonist—a game tester named Cooper, played with such vigorous emotion by Wyatt Russell that viewers have no option but to live through the increasingly upsetting scenarios alongside him. (The final moments are particularly powerful, as Russell’s expressions of hopelessness and confusion enhance the impact of abrupt ending.) “Playtest” is an ideal fusion of Brooker’s fascination with the human condition and director Dan Trachtenberg’s knack for psychological horror, served with all the ingredients necessary for another night of blood-curdling nightmares. —Roxanne Sancto
8. “The Entire History of You” (Episode 1.03)
In “The Entire History of You,” people have a so-called “grain” implanted behind their ears. The grain records everything they do or say, and these recordings can be played back on a screen at any given time. That’s called a “re-do.” Liam (Toby Kebbell) has come to depend on the re-do for professional as well as personal reasons, often replaying conversations and situations over and over. When he learns that his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), had an affair with Jonas (Tom Cullen), Liam spirals; ultimately, he’s left wandering around his empty house replaying memories of happy times with Ffion and his daughter, before steering towards the bathroom and cutting the grain out of his head. The concept of “The Entire History of You” is exciting until you fully understand what it means to be stuck in the past and unable to move forward. Even more relevantly, perhaps, it also questions the definition of “privacy” when your memories are no longer your own. —Roxanne Sancto
7. “Be Right Back” (Episode 2.01)
“Be Right Back” explores what it would be like if state-of-the-art technology could grant us our greatest wish: to speak to those who are no longer with us. When Martha’s (Hayley Atwell), boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), dies in a car accident, she signs up for an online service that allows the bereaved to communicate with the deceased—one that collects the deceased’s online data and creates a new virtual persona based on the info provided. Martha starts communicating with this “virtual Ash” through email, but soon finds it’s not enough. When the service offers her a synthetic body based on photos and voice recordings of Ash, she readily buys it—only to come to realize that, while it may look and sound like Ash, it lacks her late boyfriend’s emotional traits. “Be Right Back” examines our own mortality and our desire to play God. It shines a spotlight on our desperate need to reverse a natural and necessary part of life without considering the consequences on our emotional well-being. —Roxanne Sancto
6. “Bandersnatch” (Interactive Film)
Love it or hate it, consider it a circular, self-conscious gimmick or an attempt to capture the modern experience, exploitation, and commodification of grief, Black Mirror’s super-sized choose-your-own-adventure episode, starring Fionn Whitehead as a young developer adapting a choose-your-own-adventure novel into a videogame in the year 1984, promises to change the way we watch television. While not the only recent experiment of its ilk—Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic premiered, on HBO and in app form, in January 2018—it is, given Netflix’s footprint, likely to be the most influential, with an increasing number of interactive experiences that blur the line between TV and videogames just as Netflix has already blurred the line between movies and TV almost to the vanishing point. Add to that Netflix’s mastery of the increasingly common “surprise premiere” trope—poor Angie Tribeca tried the same thing at the same time, which went over like a lead balloon—and the prospect of the streaming service collecting data on our in-show decisions and “Bandersnatch” starts to seems like the start of an adventure in which none of us will have much choice. Congratulations? —Matt Brennan
5. “Striking Vipers” (Episode 5.01)
At the heart of “Striking Vipers” is a pair of relationships centered around Danny (Anthony Mackie), a disheartened father who perfectly captures the mounting ennui of a late-30s, physically diminished “cool Dad” grappling with the fact that his “best years” are undoubtedly behind him. Trying for a second baby while banished to the lameness of suburbia with loving wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and a young son, he radiates a tug-of-war between dissatisfaction and genuine appreciation for “comfortability.” That is, until the reemergence of college friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gives Danny a birthday gift of a next-gen virtual reality fighting game so the two can reconnect online-which plays out in unexpected ways.
“Striking Vipers” doesn’t necessarily weigh in on all of the fascinating questions it raises, and instead presents an incredibly dense set of rhetorical prompts for the audience to discuss from the safety of their own living rooms. One can only imagine that millions of couples will watch this plot and come to strikingly different conclusions, in terms of its ethics. But what ultimately stands out in “Striking Vipers” is the startlingly mature way it approaches each unorthodox relationship—including the ultimate fallout in its conclusion. Put simply, Black Mirror considers the various ways one might react to these developments within the context of your own life and your own relationships, and then it consciously chooses not to judge its characters. In doing so, it produces one of the most modern, 2019-appropriate takes on love, sex and fidelity that the TV medium has ever seen. —Jim Vorel
4. “Black Museum” (Episode 4.06)
A Black Mirror episode about Black Mirror, “Black Museum” includes artifacts from previous episodes in the season, including the Arkangel tablet from “Arkangel” and the lollipop from “USS Callister.” An anthology whose conclusion fulfills some of the audience’s most spiteful desires when it comes to the sometimes relentlessly cruel Black Mirror, the episode follows a woman (Letitia Wright, unassuming and sharp) as she listens (watches) to stories (episodes) from its proprietor (a devilish Charlie Brooker if ever there was one).
As the stories go on, they become darker and darker, with the torturous technological aspects becoming more and more sadistic, and though the clunky dialogue and redundant script can get in the way, the ideas are communicated so potently by director Colm McCarthy that I’ll never dissociate Black Mirror from the grim specter of a museum carny. —Jacob Oller
3. “Arkangel” (Episode 4.02)
Opening mid-childbirth, “Arkangel” is a Black Mirror episode all about motherhood. This particular mother (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) is no different from most. Protective, caring, human. Constructed in reaction shots and snippets of dialogue with her elderly father, DeWitt’s character is well-intentioned yet fallible—a dangerous combination in this tempting technological near-future crafted by writer Charlie Brooker. Then, director Jodie Foster (channeling her Tales from the Darkside experience) constructs some unforgettable images—ripe and warm, next to gory reminders of mortality—for us to observe while the parenting drama becomes something darker: After a minor scare, DeWitt’s character springs for a microchip tracking device that allows her to see through her child’s eyes and filter out undesirable sights and sounds. (Censorship, meet security. You two have never met in a debate before, right?) Short, sweet and seething with the backstabbed martyrdom of a scorned helicopter mom, “Arkangel” is the perfect sci-fi encapsulation of the “mama bear” trope. The line between protector and assailant has never felt so thin. —Jacob Oller
2. “The National Anthem” (Episode 1.01)
When news broke of British Prime Minister David Cameron having allegedly placed a “private body part” into the mouth of a pig as part of an initiation rite during his student years, Black Mirror fans the world over went crazy. Even Brooker took to Twitter, stating: “Shit. Turns out Black Mirror is a documentary series.” That’s because “The National Anthem,” released years before “Pig Gate,” confronts fictional Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) with a huge dilemma: Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped, and the ransom involves Callow having sexual intercourse with a pig, live, on national television. The whole world watches with a mixture of pity and disgust, but most of all with a perverted kind of voyeurism—ever so prescient of a political age that so often resembles “reality TV.” —Roxanne Sancto
1. “San Junipero” (Episode 3.04)
“San Junipero” may be the only Black Mirror episode that doesn’t set out to make you feel uncomfortable, or even foolish. Nor does it scare the living daylights out of you. Instead of focusing on a form of technological innovation—in this case, the ability for the human consciousness to live on in the sparklingly nostalgic town of San Junipero—it is, at heart, a love story, featuring Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), or at least their younger avatars. (In reality, the former is a paraplegic and the other terminally ill; the pair has not met outside San Junipero.) Their Saturday nights in San Junipero allow the women to escape their broken bodies and dreary days and move through this virtual beachside town in the 1980s with a genuine lust for life.
“San Junipero”, of course, goes beyond warm reminiscences, though this is very much a theme of the episode. And, perhaps surprisingly, it fits into Black Mirror’s usual knack for futuristic story-telling perfectly: Whereas the series’ interest is most often on the dangers our gadgets pose, “San Junipero” speaks of the positive possibilities of technology—which isn’t to say the world it depicts doesn’t come with its own set of perils. In this, it may also be the Black Mirror episode to strike the most delicate balance, underscoring its romantic notions without sacrificing its ambiguous end. —Roxanne Sancto