The best Black Mirror episodes of all time to watch before season six
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After a four-year wait, Black Mirror is finally returning for a sixth season later this month, with an epic cast including the likes of Aaron Paul, Anjana Vasan, Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek Pinault.
This time round, we've got five new episodes of the dark sci-fi anthology series - created by writer and satirist Charlie Brooker - to delve into:
1) Joan is Awful
2) Loch Henry
3) Beyond the Sea
4) Mazey Day
5) Demon 79
But how will they hold up against the classics? We've looked back at seasons past to go through our favourite episodes of all time, from a Star Trek parody with killer twist to a particularly dark Christmas special...
The Entire History of You (season 1, episode 3)
Before Netflix started chucking oodles of money at Black Mirror, this Channel 4-era season one episode tells a grounded story with big ideas. Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) are a well-to-do couple in a world where people record their every waking moment on tiny hard drives implanted behind their ears - a kind of nightmarish, non-stop BeReal. When Liam suspects Ffion has been unfaithful, he has thousands of hours of footage to scroll through to confirm his worst fears.
Succession creator Jesse Armstrong’s script explores the horrifying implications of a future where we’re incapable of forgetting. Why take anyone at their word if video evidence can be summoned at the click of a button? Think of all the ways you could torture yourself if you could obsessively replay good times with an ex, a mortifying work one-to-one. Black Mirror would get darker still - think ‘White Christmas’, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ - but this, to me, is its most upsetting episode.
USS Callister (season 4, episode 1)
Black Mirror is well known as being a bleak reflection of modern life, but in many ways ‘USS Callister’ bucks that trend. For a start, it actually has a message of hope at the end, when the villain actually gets what is coming to him and the protagonists escape. What’s more, there are moments of genuine comedy amidst the stylised Star Trek parody.
Featuring star turns from Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, and Michaela Coel, ‘USS Callister’ has an important message about misogyny and power dynamics, but delivers it using intelligent storytelling and subtlety rather than cramming it down the audience’s throats.
Visually, it’s great to look at, with a wide world created within ‘Captain’ Robert Daly’s private video game build contrasting with the comparatively claustrophobic ‘real’ world. It’s rightly regarded as one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, and was rewarded with four Primetime Emmy Awards, winning the Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special categories, as well as technical prizes for sound and picture editing.
Ultimately, it’s a triumph for good over tyranny, featuring – as all great Black Mirror episodes do – a killer twist and a razor sharp wit.
San Junipero (season 3, episode 4)
When it comes to Black Mirror - like most people, I imagine - I tend to swing towards the darker episodes. If it makes me squirm, we’re onto a winner. So I was beyond surprised to find that a love story would end up being my firm favourite from the series, but that’s exactly what happened.
’San Junipero’ follows Yorkie and Kelly who meet in the simulated town and begin to fall for one another. It’s a story of second chances, but it was the pacing, acting and visuals that was really beautiful, not to mention that incredible 80s soundtrack and refreshing LGBTQ+ representation.
Of course, we all know that at the core of Black Mirror is how technology could eventually become our demise, but what really hooked me in with this slice of Brooker’s catalogue is each time we peel back more of the inner workings of ‘San Junipero’, we also learn more about the characters themselves and their personal stories all culminating up to that fantastic ending and absolute class use of music (if you know, you know). Heaven Is A Place On Earth… Blessing or curse? Who knows. But ‘San Junipero’ is probably the closest to a happy ending Brooker will allow, and I certainly liked the taste.
White Christmas (Christmas special, 2014)
Choosing a favourite episode of Black Mirror is no easy task - but the one that just pips it for me is the show’s only ever Christmas special - ‘White Christmas’. For those who haven't seen it, I'll avoid any major spoilers, but just know that it features all your basic, festive themes including artificial intelligence, murder, cyberstalking - oh and there's also plenty of snow.
Released in 2014, ‘White Christmas’ centres on Matt (played by the excellent Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) - two blokes who have been living together in a remote cabin for years but as yet haven’t really got to know one another. As the two open up about what brought them to the cabin a quintessential Black Mirror episode unfolds - exploring the dark side of our ever-growing reliance on tech with plenty of surprises along the way.
There’s a gasp-inducing twist towards the end of the episode that completely changes Joe’s life - setting off a chain of events that lead to him being inside the cabin. And as we hurtle towards the episode’s grim conclusion, it’s finally revealed why the men are at the cabin and why they can’t seem to leave.
‘White Christmas’ is certainly not your usual warm and fuzzy Christmas special, it’s a lot better than that.
Hang the DJ (season 4, episode 4)
Dating apps have now been around long enough for us to know that they can be both a blessing and a curse – on the one hand harnessing the modern powers of technology so that we can find people we may not have otherwise met, while on the other, a cursed symbol of our detached relationship with the world.
In 2017 – some five years after the likes of Tinder and Hinge first hit phones – we saw Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) use a fictional dating service called Coach, which matches people for fixed periods of time, in ‘Hang the DJ’. They immediately hit it off, but are only paired for 12 hours. After countless failed matches with other people, Frank and Amy remain drawn to one another, and eventually attempt to cheat the system. However, as with all things Black Mirror, that proves to be easier said than done...
As with many other episodes, we witness the dual benefits and downsides of technology on our relationships, showing us how our relentless push to make life easier often ends up backfiring.
White Bear (season 2, episode 2)
'White Bear' is often overlooked, as the episode aired early on in the second season - long before Black Mirror moved to Netflix. However, the 42-minute episode is definitely worth a watch.
Set in the near future, viewers are introduced to Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) – a young woman with no memory of her life before. As the episode unfolds, viewers see the amnesiac surrounded by people mindlessly filming her with their mobile phones who refuse to help her. At the same time, sadistic killers nicknamed ‘hunters’ roam the area with each one wearing the same red jumpsuit and black balaclava with a strange white logo.
Desperate to escape her pursuers, the woman joins forces with Jem (Tuppence Middleton). She explains that most people are under the influence of a mind control signal, which comes from the ‘white bear’ transmitter. In order to free those affected and save themselves, they must destroy the device. This being Black Mirror though, things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.
Without giving the twist away, it is a gut-punch as the killers - or should that be killer - is finally brought to justice. Commenting on our obsession with true crime and reality TV, the episode is deeply unsettling. Maybe don’t watch it before you start the next series of Love Island.
Nosedive (season 3, episode 1)
Kicking off the third season of Black Mirror with a bang, ‘Nosedive’ stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie - an incredibly insecure and slightly neurotic office worker living in a status-obsessed world. Lacie lives in a society in which every single thing, from job promotions all the way through to physical safety, are determined by an online rating - one of which is decided upon by anyone you meet or who sees your social media profiles. Effectively, randoms give you a score out of five stars and an algorithm averages it out and that is your social currency for life. Sound familiar at all?
Well, while Nosedive may not have an eerie plot twist at the end like ‘Shut Up and Dance’ or take influence from contentious political scandals like ‘The National Anthem’, what it does do is poignantly remind us that social media has well and truly invaded our lives.
It’s also particularly chilling since the episode incorporates technology that is already somewhat available - think Uber, Airbnb and even Instagram - and forces audiences to really open their eyes as to how dangerous and unreal it can be.
And the best bit? The cathartic irony at the end of the episode that shows how Lacie is only truly finally free from the algorithm when she is kept locked up in a cell - pointing to social media being the real prison in this dystopian world.
Bandersnatch (feature film, 2018)
The format for ‘Bandersnatch’ took Black Mirror into the realms of more experimental TV. Rather than a simple narrative that you can passively watch, your choices become a part of the story, shaping how events unfold and leading you down different paths.
In story terms, ‘Bandersnatch’ departs a little from the near-future sci-fi that became the signature for Black Mirror. Instead we go back to 1984 - when else? - and follow a young video game programmer Stefan. Tangerine Dream provide a synth soundtrack that crescendos alongside Stefan’s increasing paranoia as he questions everything around him including his work, family, and even time and reality itself.
The episode is a brilliant example of how format and storytelling can be used to complement each other. The story wouldn’t work as well if it had been just a regular film. Likewise, the ‘choice’ formula could easily become gimmicky without the meaty plot to back it up.
Nonetheless, ‘Bandersnatch’ manages to create an immersive, thrilling, and at times even philosophical experience. The creeping paranoia and the vague sense that Stefan somehow remembers old choices lend it a deliciously dark atmosphere full of half-remembered faces and lost possibilities. Dread builds as it becomes more and more difficult to discern just how much freedom you have. In the end, choice is an illusion, and the only way out of the maze is to accept the limitations of our own control. Either that or kill your dad.
Shut Up and Dance (season 3, episode 3)
'Shut Up and Dance' well and truly stands as one of Black Mirror’s most memorable - and arguably harrowing - episodes, with it delving into the true horrors inflicted by online hackers.
Co-written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and William Bridges, it follows a nail-biting 24 hours in the life of withdrawn teenager Kenny, played by Alex Lawther. Kenny is horrified when hackers film him masturbating through the webcam on his laptop and threaten him with a series of text messages to do exactly as they say, or else they’ll leak the intimate footage to everyone he knows.
Of course, Kenny is distraught - but the truth behind his desperation and anguish over the thought of the footage being released to his nearest and dearest will soon become painfully apparent. As the nervous teenager follows the anonymous hackers’ instructions, meeting others who are also being blackmailed along the way, he finds himself in stomach-churning situations such as having to rob a bank and ‘fight to the death’ with yet another victim of the hackers.
Shut Up and Dance outlines perfectly not only the powers of online hackers and the destruction they can cause to people’s lives, but also the dangers of living double lives and how nothing can ever be truly safe online.