Art by Travis Wilker
I once had a professor who said “all great sci-fi is a response to the times in which they were created.” That can definitely apply to Netflix’s Black Mirror, think a more modern Twilight Zone-like show about our relationship with technology. Showrunner and genius Charlie Brooker finds a new way episode to episode to ask uncomfortable questions about where we are and where we’re headed, while never providing easy answers. I can’t binge watch Black Mirror because I need time between each episode to decompress and feel something resembling hope again. Often times I can’t even watch a single episode in one sitting because it stresses me out so much. The only show that wrecks me more on an episode to episode basis is The Leftovers. Watching this shows is almost an act of masochism, these episodes punish you at the same time as they edify you.
These episodes exist in a world that’s just dangerously a few steps away from our own. While the show is about the dark side of our relationship with technology, it’s never anti-technology. Black Mirror is never telling me to throw my phone in the ocean, it’s simply examining our worst tendencies with media and technology. That same professor I mentioned in the first paragraph also preached that “Whenever we amplify something, something else gets amputated.” That’s what Black Mirror is about, asking what gets amputated when we over-amplify our relationship to media and technology. The fact that it does so in such an emotionally devastating and fine-tuned way makes it so that I have to lock myself in a dark room for a certain amount of time after each episode to think about and recover from it. That’s what this is: the Black Mirror power rankings based on how long I have to lock myself in a dark room after watching it.
While David Slade’s direction is visceral and exciting, there’s an overall empty feeling to the episode he can’t overcome. It’s got an intriguing post-apocalyptic setting that Slade knows how to make engaging, but there is ultimately no context or emotional purpose for the action to solidify itself in. As an exercise in genre filmmaking, it’s got its moments, but as an episode of Black Mirror it’s a bit disappointing. I only locked myself in a dark room for 30 seconds to think about this episode.
Our need to censor the world for our young gone wrong. I locked myself in a dark room for only 2 minutes to think about this episode.
17. The National Anthem
The Prime Minister fucks a pig. But really, it’s about how we instinctively want to see gratuitous and sensationalized things even if we shouldn’t. I locked myself in a dark room for 5 minutes to think about this episode.
16. Hated in the Nation
I’m terrified of bees, and nobody told me that this episode is filled with bees killing people. I almost didn’t make it. I locked myself in a dark room for 10 minutes after watching this.
15. The Entire History of You
Your memories will betray you. I locked myself in a room for 15 minutes after watching this episode.
Your memories will betray you part 2, as well as the memories of others. I locked myself in a dark room for 20 minutes after watching this.
13. USS Callister
In what seems like the most fun episode to make, a reaction rarely felt in watching this show, it also provides a damning study of toxic masculinity gone rampant. It takes place on a Star Trek-like spaceship called the USS Callister, where the captain – played by Jesse Plemons – is less Captain Kirk and more Idi Amin. Turns out he’s created clones of people who have spurned him at work in the real world, and made them slave-like caricatures while allowing them to retain self-awareness so they know their own suffering. I locked myself in a dark room for 30 minutes after watching this.
12. Black Museum
This episode adopts a similar storytelling method as White Christmas (we’ll be talking about that episode later) in that it packs three stories into the episode for the price of one! While I quite loved this episode, I can’t help but compare it to its predecessor White Christmas and criticize it for ending on a less devastating note. The most interesting aspect of this episode is that it contains references to most, if not all, other episodes of Black Mirror, setting up a connectivity and a universe that these all exist in. That’s exciting because it’s fun to think about all of these stories as existing in the same sort of space, but I also worry about it because one of the best things about this show is that the episodes don’t relate to each other. I don’t have to have prior knowledge to get into the episode, I can just jump right in. I locked myself in a dark room for 45 minutes after watching this.
11. Hang the DJ
A more palatable, tech-reliant version of The Lobster! I locked myself in a dark room for 1 hour to think about this episode.
10. White Bear
A young woman awakens in a world where she is hunted by maniacs while people just stand by recording it on their phones. The site of people following you around with their phones out recording you as you suffer is fucking terrifying to me. In this day and age we feel that nothing is really happening unless we’re documenting it, recording it. The more gratuitous, the more we want to record it. The twist is certainly trippy but undercuts some of the thematic presence of these people recording like dope fiends. I locked myself in a dark room for 3 hours to think about this episode.
This episode takes on VR gaming and in classic Black Mirror fashion, it takes it to the extremes under some slick direction from Dan Trachtenberg. This episode messed me up because I did VR gaming like one time and it totally fucked me up. I wasn’t even doing anything that extreme, I was just playing a game where you’re on top of a building and there’s a cake in front of you you’re trying to grab, but it really felt like I was on top of a building and might fall off and die all for this stupid cake so I’m never going near one of those VR headsets again. I locked myself in a dark room for 6 hours to think about this episode.
8. White Christmas
I talked about this episode a bit earlier and how it gives you three stories for the price of one, and the result here is just heartcrushing. Throughout each episode, it takes an intriguing idea to different results – what if you could block somebody out of your life the same way you block them on social media? When you block somebody in actuality, they just become a static fuzz outline of a person whose words sound like the adults from Charlie Brown. It’s terrifying and just wrecked me. I locked myself in a dark room for 24 hours after watching this episode.
7. Men Against Fire
One of my favorite things about this tense thriller of an episode is that it contains subtle yet potent references to the My Lai massacre, which makes sense when you consider that the episode in answering a dangerous question – how do you get your soldiers to kill civilians that you want dead? By giving them implants that secretly make those undesired civilians look like quasi-zombie creatures! I locked myself in a dark room for 4 days after watching this episode.
6. Be Right Back
This episode has perhaps my favorite dissection of our need to be on our phones/devices at all times. At the beginning, our young couple Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) and Martha (Hayley Atwell) have differing views on their devices. Ash is constantly on his to the point where Martha is always on him about putting it away. After Ash’s death, likely attributed to being on his device by driving, a shift occurs. As technology allows her to communicate with a simulation of Ash, she becomes more and more glued to her device. At one point she drops her phone and cracks the screen and almost has a panic attack as it’s disrupted her communication with Ash. The episode is both condemning her use of this technology while totally and sympathetically understanding why she uses it how she does. It’s a delicate balance not a lot of shows can walk, but this one does. I locked myself in a dark room for 2 weeks after watching this episode.
5. Shut Up and Dance
This episode is moderately average, and then at the end all of the sudden it’s one of the best episodes of the show with a twist that shakes you. It leaves you fighting back the urge to vomit, betraying your natural sense of sympathy towards the characters you follow when you watch a story. Who you thought the hero of this story and the villain of this story are upended. In one swift motion, it changes everything you thought you knew about what you were seeing, and it’s marvelous. I locked myself in a dark room and played Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” on repeat for 3 months after watching this episode.
The opening to Joe Wright’s brilliantly directed episode is beautifully striking. Bryce Dallas Howard’s character goes about her day in idyllic settings where everything is clean and bright. She rates every interaction she has as a 5, and others do the same back to her. Her life is picture perfect, or at least she does everything possible to present it that way. Over all of this plays Max Richter’s somber pianos, a dark contrast to the sunny disposition all these people have. We have entered a world where everyone is rated on social media by everything they do, and those with a higher score have better opportunities in society. Nosedive empathetically investigates why it is we want to present our best selves on social media, and why that matters so much. I locked myself in a dark room for 8 months to think about this episode.
3. The Waldo Moment
It starts out innocently enough, as so many episodes of Black Mirror do, with a guy voicing and controlling a cartoon character named Waldo that insults and makes fun of politicians in interviews. Think Triumph, the comic insult dog, taken to the nth degree. Eventually he runs for office as Waldo on the platform of trashtalking everyone and everything, and actually finds success as people are attracted to what may seem like brash honesty. This episode is was already haunting, but it’s especially prescient because of Trump, who ran a similar campaign based on trashtalking the other candidates mercilessly. By the end, Waldo is the face of the authoritarian state. We deserve a world run by corporate brands, or wait, are we already there? I locked myself in a dark room for 1 year to think about this episode.
2. 15 Million Merits
NOTHING GOOD LASTS AND CAPITALISM WILL FIND A WAY TO MONETIZE ALL MEANS OF RESISTANCE TO THEIR OWN BENEFIT. I locked myself in a dark room for 3 years to think about this episode.
1. San Junipero
“Ooh, baby do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on Earth”
I don’t know where to start with this outing, other than it’s one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen, up there in a top 5 with Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” and Nathan for You’s “Finding Frances” among others. It covers a vast amount of themes with heartbreaking warmth and empathy, like finding love in the last act of your life, choosing an afterlife you can control versus the uncertainty of simply dying, and in that afterlife living like you never could have during your actual life. Heaven is a place on Earth. Now whenever I hear Belinda Carlisle’s classic bopper “Heaven is a Place on Earth” I get misty-eyed. San Junipero is as tearjerking as they come, but it earns every tear that fought its way out of my eyes. By having something resembling a happy ending in a show filled with unhappy endings, it launches itself to the top of the rankings as it completely, irrevocably wrecked me. I have locked myself in a dark room with “Heaven is a Place on Earth” blasting on repeat and I don’t think I’ll ever be coming out.