Monday, August 17, 2020

Emily's Non-Definitive Ranking of Black Mirror

A couple of years ago, I went through the full (then) 5 season run of Black Mirror, mixing the order up as randomly as I could save for the then-finale, Black Museum. I roughly drafted this preference order a few months back, always intending to post it and move on.

Instead, I kept forgetting it was in my email box.

Now that the world has gotten even WEIRDER, it seems like the perfect time to revisit Charlie Brooker's universe. First, I give you my list, ranking the episodes below from my least to most favorite based on a one-time watch sometime in 2018. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to slowly revisit the series to see how everything lands with time and distance.

In the meantime, let's start at the bottom and move on. Mild spoilers might follow:

23. Shut Up & Dance
Easily the most mean-spirited in the current Black Mirror canon, this episode follows a frazzled teenager trying to appease mysterious hacking blackmailers by completing odd tasks with the help of fellow blackmailee, Jerome Flynn (or Bronn, if you're Westerosi). Maybe I'd like it more if I didn't think two film versions of 13 Sins did it better. Or maybe I'd like it better if I enjoyed pure misery with no redeeming value or catharsis.

22. The Waldo Moment
Sometimes timing is everything. Airing a full three years before a certain horrendous cartoon character launched the ugliest political campaign in modern times but watched by me two full ones later, The Waldo Moment doesn't seem to have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Politicians lie and don't really care about the people they serve, yet the very concept of democracy might just be the key to...holding civilization together? I don't know, an animated foul-mouthed bear makes crass, usually not very funny jokes, things get out of hand, and the world becomes a dystopia. Or something. Pre or post-Trump, The Waldo Moment just doesn't click.

21. Black Museum
More entertaining for its easter eggs than story, Black Museum presents three downbeat mini-stories about the dangers of technology. It's another downer, redeemed by the cute nods to other episodes and Black Panther's Letitia Wright's  presence. That aside, Monkey doesn't love this one.

20. Bandersnatch
What's the value of a great idea, and how much does it count when the execution is so boring? I spent about 90 minutes choosing my own adventure in the ambitious Bandersnatch, an interactive experience that lets you direct the main character's actions. Fine in theory, but aside from Will Poulter's supporting role as a charismatic game developer, the action is simply dull. Maybe it will play differently when I, you know, play differently, but at first run, it left me wanting more.

19. Hated In the Nation
One of the things I love about Black Mirror is knowing that I'm going to get a complete story in a 45 to 90 minute block of time. Why then would the show use its longest episode to tell a story without an ending? Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay (best known as Game of Thrones' Arya-hating Waif) make a great detective pair, and the idea of exploring the stakes in anonymous internet hatred of real people is certainly fitting for the Black Mirror treatment, but the feature length runtime makes no sense, especially when you walk away on a frustrating cliffhanger.

18. Smithereens
"Don't check Facebook while driving" is a message better conveyed by an episode much higher on my list, so I just don't have too much to say about the most recent (and final?) season's tale. It's well acted and sad, but ultimately, unremarkable.

17. Arkangel
I imagine Arkangel plays very differently to an audience of parents than, say, me. I'm the last person to judge a person's style in raising a child, making the moral issues at play fall somewhat flat. Rosemarie DeWitt is great and it's always pleasant to have Jodie Foster in the director's chair. And hey, there is plenty of area to explore within the freedom we give or deny youth in an age of increasingly aggressive technology. It's not a bad hour, just not anything I need to revisit.

16. Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too
AKA the Hannah Montanan one, Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too is one of the show's lighter offerings, playing with a lightly fictionalized Miley Cyrus's childhood stardom. It's a clever concept and nice to see Cyrus go meta with some restraint, but the episode itself is weirdly paced, never knowing which of its characters to focus on. In a sea of misery, it stands out for ultimately being so chipper, but in terms of quality television, it's more cute than good.

15. Striking Vipers
There are some interesting ideas at play in Striking Vipers, my best ranked episode of the maybe past-its-prime most recent season. What starts as a video game come to life turns into a much, well, sweeter exploration of attraction between two heterosexual cisgender black American men who find themselves unable to resist one another when playing completely different beings in an advanced video game. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anthony Mackie give incredibly nuanced performances as men questioning their sexuality. It's just that, well, by 2019, an annual open relationship cheat day doesn't seem nearly as daring as the episode thinks. It dances with something innovative, but pulls back too soon.

14. Playtest
I humbly beseech someone in a position of power to boil this episode down to a 2-minute educational video that gets shown before very theatrical film release in order to warn audiences about the dangers of cell phone use. That heavyhanded request aside, Playtest is a fun twist on the haunted house trope by way of video game revolutions. Wyatt Russell makes a likable protagonist, thus making his tragic fate that much sadder.

13. 15 Million Merits

Ambitious in its world-building (especially considering this is only the show's second episode), 15 Million Merits gives us a bleak future, one where American Idol (or more appropriately, The X-Factor) becomes one's only means of social climbing of an exercise bike. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is incredibly magnetic as the cynical proletarian who finds and loses a small chance at happiness, though the rather hopeless nature of the story keeps it from feeling truly satisfying.

12. Crocodile
How far would you go to protect the life you've created? That's the central question in Crocodile, one of Black Mirror's bleaker entries helmed by, not surprisingly, The Road's John Hillcoat. The episode is cruel and bleak, with its protagonist such a chilly presence that it's hard to know where we're supposed to fall. Still, the satisfying O'Henry-esque ending, eerie Icelandic setting, and inclusion of a side plot involving an elementary school production of Bugsy Malone keep it weirdly watchable.

11. White Christmas
I'm dreaming of Jon Hamm playing a smarmy jerk, which, let's face it, is a thing of true beauty. Telling three stories, White Christmas has some cruelty up its sleeve, producing some pretty mixed results. A dating coach-gone-wrong is fairly predictable, but Oona Chaplin Alexa-ing herself has some interestingly dark undertones. The final story, following Rafe Spall's misguided attempts to take care of his mother-less daughter, is as dark as Black Mirror gets. Merry Christmas!

10. Men Against Fire
This one seems to land low on most ranking lists, but to my mind, it's the closest the show comes to being the perfect modern example of The Twilight Zone. Sure, it's a little heavy-handed and maybe obvious in its message about war and how the government uses and discards its young soldiers, but couldn't you just smell the secondhand smoke of Rod Serling's cigarette slightly off camera?

9. The National Anthem
As the series premiere, The National Anthem is fascinating for how it opens the door to the Black Mirror Universe. Perhaps the most modest of all episodes in terms of its technology propositions, this episode plays more like dark humored satire than science fiction, and not in a bad way. The Prime Minister has a choice to make, one that may save a princess's life while damning his pride, his humanity, and in an even more fascinating way, his country's moral center. Perhaps it's smart to have aired The National Anthem so early, since later Black Mirror audiences might have been unsatisfied by the lack of a kooky techno twist. There's something even more disturbing about how it grinds its theme down. Yes, the nature of a society that can all watch their government official have sex with a pig at the same time is born of the Black Mirror world, but without the frills so common in later seasons, it's able to stand out even more.

8. Metalhead
There's no real deep meaning or statement to be found in Black Mirror's shortest episode. It's a cat and mouse hunt in a bleak future where the cat is a solar powered robot dog loaded with bullets and the mouse is one of the few human scavengers left in the world. Directed by the underrated David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, and the only passable Twilight film) Metalhead doesn't have any grand statements to make about the horrors of mankind or what it creates. All of that may have been explored in prologues. But here, it's just a chase, and a thrilling one at that.

7. Nosedive
Yes, social media has changed the way we live, and yes, Nosedive takes that to extremes in a somewhat predictable way. But what keeps this high concept episode so high on my list is less about its premise and more about its content. Bryce Dallas Howard is sheer perfection as that woman we all have in our lives who tries just a tad too hard, who you never really know because she's too busy perfecting a look to show you the person underneath. Joe Wright has long been one of my favorite modern directors, and the pastel hues and nightmare smartphone effects show the potential of a standalone high budget show with no real restrictions like Black Mirror can do.

6. San Junipero
One of the most beloved episodes (and winner of its very own Emmy), San Junipero is from that minority batch of uplifting stories...that might also be much darker depending on how far you want to dig. So let's stay on the surface to enjoy the sweet romance between two very different women in a retro computer-programmed pop culture afterlife. Like Be Right Back, San Junipero understands that love can't be manufactured, but it also surmises that cheating the system to find happiness might not be such a bad thing after all.

5. Hang the DJ
One of Black Mirror's lighter entries, Hang the DJ calls to mind the wonderfully underrated film tiMER, which also explored what romance might look like if dictated by technological algorithms. Like tiMER, it works not just because of its concept, but because it uses it to tell the story of two likable people with great chemistry. There are plenty of times when Black Mirror makes the future look terrible (and in doing so, the modern world as well), but every now and then, it stops to tell a charming love story well-earned in its triumph.

4. White Bear
I love The Purge series. I love Michael Smiley. I love a horrifying future where anarchy reigns and no one is safe. Hence, how could I not love White Bear? Yes, it's as mean in spirit as Shut Up and Dance, but where that episode leaves its audience feeling like crap with no real opportunities for reflection, White Bear gives us a thrilling horror movie and ends on a note that asks serious questions about society's thirst for punishing criminals. More importantly, it's a thrill of a watch.

3. The Entire History of You
Imagine never being able to just let something go, and you'll have a pretty good idea of just how horrific The Entire History of You truly is. Some time in the future, typical Black Mirror-esque technology allows people to record every moment of their lives in order to replay when they choose. Reliving warm memories or pulling up your best sex to improve your current experience seem like pleasant tools, but when this also means you can reevaluate every single interaction you've had on a personal or professional context, you can see the dangerous path the episode goes down. While we're (hopefully) not due for this kind of technological upgrade anytime soon, The Entire History of You remains powerful because like the best science fiction, it uses a high concept to explore specific tics of modern humanity.

2. USS Callister

Yes, it's probably the best known, most award-winning slice of Black Mirror, and it's for good reason. Jesse Plemons (not Matt Damon, as I'll one day understand) is greasily fantastic as a lonely, bitter programming genius who creates his own little world where he can be king (or rather, Captain). Its Star Trek homages are fabulous and fun, but in the age of Gamer Gate, its insecure, embittered, and cruel sad white boy antagonist is truly a monster. Unlike Jill in marketing, who just plays one in his code.

1. Be Right Back
First of all, Haley Atwell is an international treasure and Agent Carter should have run for 12 seasons.

In other news, Season 3's Be Right Back is the best made, most effective, and most moving episode of Black Mirror to date. It's a small, incredibly focused story that explores the very nature of what it means to be in love. Even the best relationship is fraught with conflict, sometimes in the littlest of ways. Those imperfections are often what make them great.

When Atwell's husband dies suddenly in a phone-induced car wreck, she has a hard time letting go...especially when the slightly ahead of us Black Mirror universe gives her a very simple, albeit expensive way to make sure she doesn't have to. For a price, you can speak to your dead lover, his internet presence being assembled and programmed based on his previous social media activity. For a few dollars more, he'll call you, and for a good chunk of your future daughter's college tuition, you can have your very own life-size, anatomically correct (though possibly mole-less) recreation. Anyone who has lost a loved one would see the incredible lure of such a possibility, but Be Right Back shows, without having to say it in such specific terms, that the very nature of humanity is tied to something that can't be programmed. It's deeply moving, and Atwell is crushingly effective.

Peggy Carter for life.


  1. It's always shocking to me how wildly different everyone's Black Mirror list looks. I think you and I share three top 10 choices (USS Callister, Nosedive, and San Junipero, the latter being my #1) but some of the others are polar opposites -- fascinating. But yeah, the first three seasons are some of my fave tv of all time. I totally agree with your take on Bandersnatch (btw, calling one episode a season? Innovative and interesting, but...naaahhh), it was a neat idea but it seems like they rushed it because it had so many shortcomings, mostly in the lack of true choices. I think the fifth season just sucked overall, I even prefer some of the weaker Black Mirror-ish shows like Electric Dreams over that BM season.

    I'm glad you posted this though, I think BM is certainly worth of this kind of consideration.

    1. Thanks! For me, this is definitely a "personal enjoyment" ranking over "quality" ranking. I know White Rabbit isn't GREAT, but I'd watch it ten times more than Shut Up and Dance!

      I'm curious to see how the most recent season will play on rewatch. I've thought about Striking Vipers a lot since I watched it, and it actually already inched its way up the list from when I originally drafted it. Maybe I"ll say the same about the rest of that season!

      And UGH Bandersnatch. After the Kimmy Schmidth interractive special, I'm even angrier at it.

  2. That would be my ranking:

    1. San Junipero
    This one moved me to tears and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s just so damn beautiful. It also introduced me to Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is a great actress and one of the prettiest people I have ever seen. I can even forgive her for The Cloverfield Paradox.
    2. Be Right Back
    Hayley Atwell, ´nuff said
    3. The Entire History of You
    Beautiful, haunting, frightening
    4. Hang the DJ
    Cute main couple, positive ending, funny
    5. Nosedive
    Bryce Dallas Howard rocks it.
    6. Arkangel
    Don’t know why everyone is so negative about this one. I’m no parent either but it really moved me.
    7. Shut Up & Dance
    That twist really got me.
    8. White Christmas
    Some dark stuff here.
    9. Crocodile
    Great female leads.
    10. Hated In the Nation
    A bit long but I didn’t mind the open ending. Great leads, too.
    11. Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too
    Miley Cyrus can act, who knew? Also, that song got stuck in my head for days.
    12. USS Callister
    Great cast but in the end it didn’t do much for me.
    13. Striking Vipers
    Way too long but kinda touching. Wasn’t a big fan of the ending though. Great cast.
    14. 15 Million Merits
    Interesting worldbuilding but kinda lost me along the way.
    15. The National Anthem
    Didn’t do much for me.
    16. White Bear
    Nice twist and not much else.
    17. Men Against Fire
    Saw another film with the exact same twist a couple days before. Not this episode’s fault but it also doesn’t have much else to offer. Also: inexcusable waste of Sarah Snook
    18. Smithereens
    Way too long, way too little to say
    19. Black Museum
    What you said
    20. Metalhead
    Looks slick, is short and…well, that’s it
    21. Playtest
    Super annoying lead (bad actor too) and weak plot. One good jump-scare though.
    22. The Waldo Moment
    What you said

    No rating:
    My TV isn’t able to play this

    (sorry for the super long message)

    1. Thanks for sharing! I love seeing other lists! Interesting that we're SUPER close on our tops, then mostly completely different on the rest! Total trade on Shut Up & Dance and White Bear!