Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror could easily veer into something anti-human, vapid, and depressing. After all, it is a show about how technology warps and changes humanity. But under the show’s misanthropic and technophobic surface, there is a glint of compassion for our foibles and mistakes. This hint of sympathy keeps Black Mirror from going off the rails and keeps viewers on the edge of our seats.
Each Black Mirror episode uses its futuristic setting to depict a familiar problem of contemporary society, even without the superior technology accessible to its characters. The incredibly diverse episodes make it hard to “rank” the show. So, we’re doing something a little different here.
Find out which episode is the best at creating the world it lives in, which episode is the happiest (or at least, the least depressing), which episode will cause the most questions, and more. Then, try out whichever speaks the most to you—you may find a new obsession, just in time for the fourth season's premiere.
"The National Anthem"
Let’s get it out of the way: Yes, this is the one where the Prime Minister has sex with a pig. But that’s not what makes this episode the most groundbreaking. Black Mirror arrived with a bang in its very first episode, making it clear that the show would be like nothing we’d seen before.
Best World Building
"Fifteen Million Merits"
"Fifteen Million Merits" drops us into a truly dystopian future. Most of the world’s population is stuck in an underground society, where they must earn merits by using exercise bikes. If you run out of merits or become obese, you are forced to become a cleaner, with no chance of escape, or one of many humiliated on reality game shows for the entertainment of the cyclers. When Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), he quickly starts crushing on her and convinces her to take his merits to audition for “Hot Shot”, an American Idol-style competition that allows winners to leave the underworld system.
Closest to Home
"The Entire History of You"
The power of "The Entire History of You" lies in the fact that this story could happen, today, without the technology powering the episode. Although the “grains” embedded in people’s brains make it easier to pick apart a relationship completely, it has always been possible. Liam’s obsessive and destructive replays of everything in his life, from interviews to first meetings, makes it all too easy for his life to completely fall apart.
"Be Right Back"
"Be Right Back" stars Hayley Atwell as Martha, a newly bereaved widow. Her husband, Ash, dies in a car accident shortly before Martha discovers that she is pregnant. When Martha begins using a service that replicates Ash for her, things get even grimmer. One of the strongest episodes of Black Mirror, "Be Right Back" refuses to make any of the easy choices. Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson carry the episode’s emotional weight brilliantly.
In a show centered about the horrors that people are capable of, with or without the aid of technology, you'd think it would be hard to call one episode the most shocking. "White Bear" makes it easy. Victoria (Lenora Circhlow) wakes up in a house she doesn’t recognize, surrounded by relics of a life she doesn’t remember. Nearly everyone else in the world has been affected by a diabolic broadcast, either turning them into sadistic monsters or social media obsessed voyeurs. Keep watching through the credits of this episode—the twists and turns don’t stop until the screen goes black.
"The Waldo Moment"
Frequently (and fairly) regarded as one of the lesser episodes of Black Mirror, “The Waldo Moment” has lately gained more attention for being surprisingly on-the-nose about the 2016 U.S. election. “The Waldo Moment” features a comedian running for office who gains a huge amount of support for “telling it like it is,” with or without ideas to make changes to the way things are.
Jon Hamm stars in this 74-minute Christmas special featuring three interlocked stories. Matt (Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) have been trapped in a remote home of some kind in the midst of a tundra for five years. Matt tries to start a conversation with Joe and ends up telling him about his previous life, his hobbies, and his job. Each story locks together, revealing shocking truths about Matt, Joe, and the world they live in.
"Nosedive" could have easily become too cliché, too pat to be effective. The idea of people rating others is not a stretch, and watching someone fall from their perch in society is a hallmark of high school teen dramas. But thanks to incredible set and costume design, Joe Wright’s adept directing, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s increasingly unhinged performance as her character's rating plummets, the world feels tangible and compelling.
This episode of Black Mirror comes the closest to capturing how we use the internet today, and how it can bring us down. Sure, the real hook of "Playtest" is about AR and video games, but the heart of the episode is how we use telecommunication to connect with some people and push others away. Extra internet points for the twist of this episode eerily mirroring Mallory Ortberg’s facetiously proposed Black Mirror episode, “what if phones, but too much”.
"Shut Up and Dance"
"Shut Up and Dance" is notable for being the least willing to answer questions about its meaning. Teen Kenny is blackmailed into robbing a bank by hackers who have recorded him masturbating, with the help of another man, Hector, who has been cheating on his wife with sex workers. The last ten minutes of this episode will shock you—and leave you with many questions to ponder.
In many ways, "San Junipero" is a foil to season two’s "Be Right Back". Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) is visiting San Junipero when she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a flirtatious and lively party girl. From the beginning, this episode of Black Mirror is different—it’s set in 1987, for one thing. The sweet romance between Yorkie and Kelly, complicated by their pasts and the technology that has put them in San Junipero, will move any viewer.
"Men Against Fire"
"Men Against Fire" is best to watch toward the end of your Black Mirror run. Not just because it is one of the final episodes, but because it contains the most references to other episodes. It’s never quite clear if all Black Mirror episodes take place in different time periods in the same world, but at least some of them are definitely taking place in the same universe. Watch carefully during "Men Against Fire", and you’ll catch references to “Fifteen Million Merits”, “White Christmas”, and “The Entire History of You”.
"Hated in the Nation"
Another strong contender for “most internet,” “Hated in the Nation” follows a pair of detectives attempting to discover how and why people are being killed after they are publicly shamed on Twitter. Inspired by Scandi-crime noir, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and Twitter outrage in general, this episode will keep you guessing through all 90 minutes.
Still need more? Check out the teaser trailer for season 4, dropping sometime this fall.
Promotional still from "Black Mirror" via Netflix