Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
U.S.S. Callister, White Christmas, San Junipero, Be Right Back, Fifteen Million Merits

Black Mirror, from worst to best

U.S.S. Callister, White Christmas, San Junipero, Be Right Back, Fifteen Million Merits
Photo: Netflix, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Anthologies are, by nature, a mixed bag. It’s part of their draw: We crack open a collection of short fiction never knowing what to expect from one story to the next; classic television series like Playhouse 90, Hallmark Hall Of Fame, and The Twilight Zone kept viewers on their toes with a fresh production every week. And while the likes of American Horror Story and True Detective redefined the format (and how frequently it turns over a new leaf) for the 2010s, episodic anthologies have made a major comeback in the past decade, thanks to a show that owes much to the Rod Serling school: Black Mirror.

Premiering in the United Kingdom in 2011, Charlie Brooker’s science fiction series found an international audience willing to interrogate its relationship to and dependence upon technology once the Black Mirror came to one of those habit-forming technologies: Netflix, which became the series’ primary home in 2016. The often challenging, occasionally confrontational series has garnered accolades and acclaim, but it’s still an anthology—its quality varies as widely as its subject matter. Black Mirror can be a foreboding realm of social-media horrors, rogue A.I., and at least one clumsy political allegory starring a cartoon bear, so allow The A.V. Club to guide you through its peaks and valleys, its choose-your-own-adventure experiments and standard-issue shockers, its satirical “Nosedive”s and unforgiving “Crocodile”s.

23. “Shut Up And Dance” (season three, episode three)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Laurie Sparham (Netflix)

Sometimes a twist can enshrine an episode in the anthology-television hall of fame; other times, it completely undermines everything that comes before it. “Shut Up And Dance” gets two shots at that target: One that hits, and one that goes way wide of the mark. A more overcast take on the type of smartphone-truth-or-dare featured in the YA novel Nerve (and its eventual film adaptation, which debuted a few months prior to season three), the episode approaches greatness when it’s a breakneck technothriller, boosted by lead performances from baby-faced The End Of The Fucking World star Alex Lawther and Game Of Thrones scoundrel Jerome Flynn. The escalation is nausea-inducing, playing on IRL and online vulnerabilities right up to the point where all viewer sympathies are thrown into question. But you’re still in the air when “Shut Up And Dance” pulls the second rug out from under your feet, and beneath it Black Mirror as its worst self: No moral center, just doling out punishment for the lulz. [Erik Adams]

22. “Crocodile” (season four, episode three)

Black Mirror goes Nordic noir in the show’s most plainly miserable hour, where the natural majesty of Iceland is also a suitably harsh complement to a story about a woman willing to go to brutal lengths to keep her privacy private. The number of skeletons in Mia’s (Andrea Riseborough) closet only increases as “Crocodile” progresses—and unfortunately, she’s a witness to a seemingly innocuous accident in a world where police and insurance investigators alike can pluck a recollection right out of her head. (You think she thought twice about that glass house?) Like a platter of fermented shark and black pudding, it’s a combination of stomach-turning Icelandic and British specialties that dares you to try it, and doesn’t call for seconds. [Erik Adams]

21. Smithereens” (season five, episode two)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Netflix

What could be the tensest hour of Black Mirror’s fifth season gets sabotaged by slack pacing and a reveal that verges on PSA. Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty, but, more recently and relevantly, Fleabag’s “Hot Priest”), helps prop the episode up with his portrayal of an aggrieved ride-share driver who kidnaps an employee of a social-media colossus, becoming a minor viral sensation in the process. “Smithereens” eschews “The National Anthem”’s online voyeurs to form a tight (albeit transatlantic) circle around its hostage negotiations, and a few shots of Scott going off the rails in intense close-up very nearly sell the claustrophobia. But there’s too much thumb-twiddling about granting his request to speak to Smithereen founder Billy Bauer (Topher Grace, doing the smarmy twerp thing that’s served him well post-Spider-Man 3), and the intimacy of the storytelling fails to yield anything more impactful than a straight-faced variation on one of the most stinging and oft-cited Black Mirror critiques. The Ryuichi Sakamoto score is aces, though. [Erik Adams]

20. “Hated In The Nation” (season three, episode six)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Laurie Sparham (Netflix)

If ever there was a candidate for a Black Mirror spin-off… it would be “USS Callister.” But there could be a decent future-crime procedural based on this episode, in which Kelly Macdonald and Fay Marsay don some cool jackets to investigate a string of murders corresponding to a sinister hashtag. As a standalone, however, “Hated In The Nation” is overly long and extremely silly, making a murderous mob out of social-media drones who are more effectively skewered in the show’s very first episode. It’s a sturdy little mystery, but not enough to justify its feature-length runtime. [Erik Adams]

19. “The Waldo Moment” (season two, episode three)

Political propaganda in the digital age is one of Black Mirror’s most common touchstones, but the issue doesn’t get the subtlest of workouts in “The Waldo Problem,” the season-two finale. There’s nothing in the premise that doesn’t feel perfectly fitted to the show’s metier: Jamie, a wannabe comedian, has been reduced (in his eyes) to being the snide voice of a foulmouthed animated blue bear named Waldo, a creation that performs Ali G-style trick interviews eviscerating puffed-up British politicians. But soon the obnoxious creation enters an upcoming local election, and Waldo’s popularity explodes when one of Jamie’s rants about the hollow nature of career politicians goes viral. Slowly losing control of the situation, Jamie eventually rebels and tries to smash the public face of his character. The episode ends with Jamie homeless, watching as Waldo becomes the new face of a repressive global authority. It’s not just the over-the-top ending that weakens the episode; even creator Charlie Brooker admitted it was a rushed execution for an intriguingly ambitious concept that needed more time in development. [Alex McLevy]

18. Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too” (season five, episode three)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Netflix

The world of “Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too” is one in which there are millions of Miley Cyruses and Charlie Brooker is the writer of an unofficial Hannah Montana sequel—so, dystopian business as usual. The season-five finale represents the biggest departure from the series’ tone and palette, but it’s a wide swing that fails to connect. Instead of the incisive, candy-colored experiment of “Nosedive,” what we have here is essentially a Disney Channel Original Movie, in which two polar-opposite sisters (Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport as the Rachel and Jack of the title) find their way back to each other after being isolated by their mother’s death. There are way more swear words once Ashley Too (Cyrus), the A.I. doll whose design looks like a really high-end oil diffuser, is untethered, but the overall feel is the same. The performances are fine, but can’t save this cornball mess that gets further and further away from its ostensible themes of grief and the manipulation of even the highest-paid artists with each ride in a rat-shaped van. Apparently, the darkest timeline is one in which Brooker borrows from Dumb And Dumber. [Danette Chavez]

17. “Black Museum” (season four, episode six)

Despite the “Black Mirror within Black Mirror” premise—three cautionary tales about the perils of technology are told in its hour-plus runtime—“Black Museum” never digs as deep as a regular episode of the show. The morals to these vignettes are presented as plainly as the items in the eponymous institution, which is run by smarmy curator Rolo Haynes (The Night Manager’s Douglas Hodge). And if Rolo is supposed to be a stand-in for Charlie Brooker, he’s even less generous in his assessment of humanity, practically reveling in the misfortunes that befall the subjects of his stories. The final mini-installment briefly touches on the innate cruelty of punitive justice, but that almost happens by accident. Black Panther’s Letitia Wright commits to the role of a Black Museum customer, gradually revealing a steely resolve that’s in direct contrast to the slimy Rolo’s utter lack of morality, earning an Emmy nomination along the way. When Wright’s character gives in to impulses like Rolo’s, though, the messaging is further muddied. [Danette Chavez]

16. “Men Against Fire” (season three, episode five)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Laurie Sparham (Netflix)

“Men Against Fire” is a provocative English-class assignment with the Cliffs Notes jarringly inserted into the body of the text. The episode itself concerns an unnatural implant with adverse side effects: The MASS, biotech that enhances the readiness and efficacy of the supersoldiers tracking and killing mutants (derisively referred to as “roaches”) in a bombed-out post-war wasteland. If the seemingly corporate branding on the soldiers’ uniforms wasn’t the first sign that something’s amiss, then it would be the way the MASS transforms Stripe’s (Malachi Kirby) field of vision into a head-up display straight out of a first-person shooter. Director Jakob Verbruggen gets at the dehumanizing effects of war through that video game POV and a desaturated color palette, a grasp on the material that’s loosened by the aggressive underlining done in Stripe’s conversations with military therapist Arquette (Michael Kelly). [Erik Adams]

15. “Striking Vipers” (season five, episode one)

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror, from worst to best
Photo: Netflix

Somewhere between the happy ending of “San Junipero” and the downbeat ending of, well, almost every other episode of Black Mirror lies “Striking Vipers,” an episode that finds a subtle (if subdued) compromise between adults for its ending—less exciting, maybe, but more honest. Looking sensitively at a new kind of romance only made possible by technological advances, it follows old friends Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as they try a new virtual reality fighting game, one in which the hits deliver the sensation of actual pain—and find themselves instead acting out an unexpected sexual relationship. Never played for cheap laughs, the pair’s surprising reactions are treated with the gravity such a messy situation would actually generate. It may not make for the most kinetically tense installment, but the show deserves credit for tackling a new conundrum of sex and marriage with a kick of near-future tech. [Alex McLevy]

14. “Arkangel” (season four, episode two)

“Arkangel” is far from a failure—it’s actually a solid entry in the series’ ongoing exploration of how technology can enable as much (sometimes more) harm as good. The episode benefits from Jodie Foster’s intimate direction and Rosemarie DeWitt’s nuanced portrayal of a mother who’d do anything to keep her daughter safe; early on, the two women establish a sense of paranoia commingled with intense maternal love. All the usual dystopian elements are present and accounted for, including the controversial eponymous technology, which allows Marie (DeWitt) to essentially watch her daughter Sara’s (played at age 15 by Brenna Harding) every move. Once “Arkangel’s” course is set, though, it almost tracks too well; we can see the conclusion, if not the extent of its brutality, coming from a mile away. The real disappointment comes not from a predictable ending, but from Charlie Brooker’s inability to find anything new to say before his latest techno parable wraps. [Danette Chavez]

13. “Bandersnatch” (2018 special)

The attention-getting nature of “Bandersnatch” made Black Mirror a watercooler topic like never before: A choose-your-own-adventure narrative of forking turns, about an isolated young man trying to get his computer game off the ground back during the salad days of floppy disk-based entertainment, it generated fascinating conversations about the nature of televised storytelling and the unusual interactive hook of its structure. (Unusual for TV, anyway; it’s been a longtime mainstay of games.) But while the meta premise, solid performances, and thematically rich elements of the episode help to keep things interesting (it doesn’t hurt to have genre maestro David Slade directing all those interlocking sequences, either), the emotional disconnect generated by the very format is a built-in weakness that “Bandersnatch” can never quite overcome. Much as those who downloaded the Steven Soderbergh-orchestrated puzzle-narrative app Mosaic discovered, the overwhelming majority of audience members aren’t going to be able to assemble all those parts in as satisfying a way as the master director can for HBO. In a lot of ways, the gimmick is the point, here; it makes for a fun experiment, but like any choose-your-own-adventure book, there’s not much impetus to revisit once you’ve flipped through all the options. [Alex McLevy]

12. “Playtest” (season three, episode two)

This season-three episode deals with some conceptually similar elements to “Bandersnatch,” the installment that follows it on this list. But what gives “Playtest” a slight edge is how the simple and effective nature of a good story, well told, lands with more impact than the other’s pick-a-choice experimentation. Easy-going world traveler Cooper (Wyatt Russell) signs up to test a top-secret new simulated-reality game in order to help raise cash to return home—and possibly deal with the emotional fallout of a death in the family. But his impulsive agreement to the woman he’s sleeping with—that he’ll take a photo of any advanced new tech he sees—turns out to be a serious mistake, as he’s shown into an empty mansion and proceeds to be terrorized by progressively more disturbing visions based on his own deepest fears. As with a lot of Black Mirror, there’s a fatalistic cruelty at work in the narrative (a lifetime of punishment for one foolhardy, tech-based error in judgment), but the resulting episode remains potent for two reasons. First, the long build-up that develops Cooper’s world and state of mind before we even set foot on the game company’s property; and second, the solidly spooky tension-raising of the haunted-house scenario, which becomes almost more chilling thanks to the repeated reminder that “nothing can hurt you”—that Cooper is, in a sense, doing this to himself. The multiple twist endings pile layer after layer onto a solid if unexceptional installment, but “Playtest” remains moving for its depiction of a good person undone by tragedy. [Alex McLevy]

11. “White Bear” (season two, episode two)

If nothing else, “White Bear” functions perfectly, for most of its fleet running time, as a jolt of pure, intense genre “entertainment”—which is, in fact, how the episode was originally conceived. A woman (Lenora Crichlow) wakes up in a strange house with no memory of who she is. Staggering into the daylight, she finds herself under constant surveillance by bystanders, silently filming her terrified plight with their smart phones and refusing to intervene, even when armed, masked mercenaries begin targeting her for sport. This paranoid dystopian nightmare comes on like 28 Minutes Later, a zombie movie for an age of passive, desensitized spectatorship. Then series creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote the screenplay, drops his big twist, and it’s a doozy: a kind of cruelly cyclical play on the classic “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” designed around a truly sour commentary on the way “justice” can become a justification for mass sadism. Like a lot of Black Mirror, “White Bear” is didactic, even heavy-handed, but there’s a pointed charge to the relationship between its form and content. It’s a thriller whose thrills implicate. [A.A. Dowd]

10. “The National Anthem”(season one, episode one)

Before Black Mirror began casting shadows of the things that may be, it reflected the way things are: The whole world peering in as crisis unfolds in the corridors of power, with a British prime minister (Rory Kinnear) and his administration racing to save an abducted royal (Lydia Wilson). All that, plus bestiality with strict technical parameters: The kidnapper will only spare Princess Susannah’s life if PM Michael Callow has sex with a pig, live on national television. It’s an absurd premise that “The National Anthem” treats with utter seriousness, borrowing 24’s ticking clock and The West Wing’s walk-and-talk for the scenes at 10 Downing Street, while a voyeuristic Greek chorus tracks the news on every available screen. Callow’s growl of frustration with the ransom video’s viral spread—“fucking internet”—sums up Black Mirror in two words; more sincerely, “The National Anthem” finds the series embodying Margaret Atwood’s “Science fiction is really about now” philosophy in its initial outing. Dystopia is already here, and it’s egging us on from a billion different avatars. [Erik Adams]

9. “Fifteen Million Merits” (season one, episode two)

This midseason entry reflects the potential—and horror—of Black Mirror’s dystopian vision in its first season even better than the series premiere. Instead of unnerving political satire, “Fifteen Million Merits” offers the first of dozens of disquieting futures, one in which the stream of content never ceases, but the programming options are just a handful of exploitative endeavors. Consumerism doesn’t just pervade the culture—it is the culture. Cycling workers like Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) and Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) are just one step above hamsters on a wheel, their agency limited to shopping for themselves and their online avatars (or “doppels”). The episode is rife with anti-capitalist commentary but far from didactic; writers Charlier Brooker and Konnie Huq complicate the class struggle with an old standby: the illusion of free will. [Danette Chavez]

8. “Metalhead” (season four, episode five)

Unlike other episodes of Black Mirror, which tend to find strength in complexity and richness in ambiguity, the virtues of season four’s “Metalhead” are the exact opposite: raw, primal simplicity. Shot in black and white to add to the stark minimalism of the situation, the story follows a woman, Bella (Maxine Peake), as she attempts to escape a robotic dog hunting her down in a devastated setting. Bella’s friends are killed one by one as the implacable four-legged hunter pursues her through the countryside, and she must utilize every desperate trick she can conceive of to stay alive and one step ahead of the machine. Tense and nervy, it’s a blend of Terminator and The Most Dangerous Game as re-conceived for the era of anonymous drone strikes. Director David Slade ramps up the stress with each passing minute, with the focus squarely on pure survival; at 41 minutes long, it’s the shortest episode of Black Mirror, but the striking imagery and deathly simple narrative make it one of the most memorable. [Alex McLevy]

7. “White Christmas” (2014 Christmas special)

A holiday special unlike any other, “White Christmas” weaves Black Mirror’s heady themes into increasingly horrifying vignettes. Jon Hamm serves as the through-line for the special’s three distinct stories; as the episode unfolds, he goes from spectator to confidante to agent of the state. As his doomed roommate, Rafe Spall turns in a performance that’s at once empathetic and appalling. But as an informal look back at the series, “White Christmas” hinges on Hamm, who, for one of the series’ most thought-provoking episodes about cloning, dons all of the glamour of his Mad Men alter ego but virtually none of his flawed humanity. Years later, the twists still pack a punch, and “White Christmas” continues to be the Pandora’s Box of Black Mirror episodes, sparking new discussions about individuality, cruel and unusual punishment, and cyberstalking. [Danette Chavez]

6. “The Entire History Of You” (season one, episode three)

One of the most resonant Black Mirror episodes, “The Entire History Of You” is also one of the sparsest, with director Brian Welsh steadily closing in on the inner workings (and failings) of a marriage. Jesse Armstrong’s script doesn’t feature the same ad-saturated surveillance state as “Fifteen Million Merits,” but the narrow focus is just as stifling. The episode opens with a young lawyer, Liam (Toby Kebbell), under the microscope, but he quickly becomes the examiner thanks to the Grain, an implant that allows for instant replay (or “re-do”) of all the wearer’s actions. So we already have a sense of Liam’s obsessive nature—which, though it’s been enabled by tech advancements, has always existed—even before he spots his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) in what he views as a compromising position. Whittaker is particularly moving as a woman whose life is torn apart before someone else’s eyes—eyes that, in one of the episode’s most unnerving touches, take on a possessed look whenever the Grain is in use. Future installments would feature this monkey’s-paw construct with more widespread destruction, but it’s the fallout from Liam’s unrelenting quest to prove his suspicions right that has been branded in our brains. [Danette Chavez]

5. “Hang The DJ” (season four, episode four)

The novelty of a happy ending isn’t enough to make an exceptional episode of Black Mirror—if there’s to be a gratifying resolution, it still needs to fit in the world(s) Charlie Brooker has created. “Hang The DJ” ends on a positive note, which is more ellipsis than closed sentence. Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole are winning as the besotted Amy and Frank, respectively, whose love ultimately inspires them to break free of the matchmaking A.I. they refer to as “Coach.” The twist is shocking and heartening: The love story that’s unfolded is one of a 1,000 simulations that have tested the couple’s compatibility, and what they’ve been “fighting” for is actually the chance to get to know each other. Director Tim Van Patten, a veteran of such prestige dramas as The Sopranos and The Wire, gives Amy and Joe’s romantic insurrection all the weight and tension of a political revolt, while Brooker’s script manages to make the episode’s “to be continued” coda feel as satisfying as “San Junipero’s” happily-ever-after. That qualification keeps the story fresh and in line with the frequently hostile Black Mirror environments viewers willingly immerse themselves in season after season. [Danette Chavez]

4. “Nosedive” (season three, episode one)

Written by Mike Schur and Rashida Jones, the satirical season-three opener was a pastel-coated departure from the rest of the series up to that point, yet the shift in aesthetic only managed to complement (maybe even enhance, in some respects) the foreboding nature of chasing social acceptance. In “Nosedive,” Bryce Dallas Howard’s Lacie exists in a world where the overall quality of life rests on actual social currency. Lacie’s determination to raise her rating informs each saccharine smile and lilting greeting, casting an uncomfortably inauthentic sheen over every interaction. An invitation to a fair-weather friend’s wedding leads to a series of truly unfortunate events that tank her score and ultimately lands her in jail, obliterating her chances at respectability. Though things may appear bleak, a rude diatribe with a fellow prisoner gifts Lacie her first taste of actual freedom. Devoid of serious darkness—both visually and contextually—“Nosedive” expanded Black Mirror’s brand of suspense while showing just how much sci-fi exists on a spectrum. [Shannon Miller]

3. “USS Callister” (season four, episode one)

Bad fans existed before Black Mirror, and they’ll continue to exist after the show is but a distant memory held onto by the exercise-bike drones sneering at Hot Shots contestants in their iPad prisons. But the show gave a satisfying noogie to every dweeb who’s ever stubbornly asserted ownership over a beloved pop-culture property and/or tried to bend it to their will in “USS Callister.” By day, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) is the meek brains behind pioneering virtual reality service Infinity; at night, he uses Infinity to act out power fantasies on the bridge of his favorite TV show, Space Fleet. Lording over digitized, cowed versions of Daly’s co-workers—played by top-flight ringers including Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Cole, and Billy Magnussen—Plemons adds to his growing catalog of creeps whose creepiness reveals itself in dribs and drabs, while also flexing an impressive William Shatner impression. But that’s all just the retro-cool packaging for a story about a creation revolting against its creator—“a bubble universe ruled by an asshole god” says Simpson, who should know about such things —one that pays homage to Star Trek’s visionary advances while also picking at the frayed threads of a Starfleet uniform. [Erik Adams]

2. “Be Right Back” (season two, episode one)

The original Black Mirror tearjerker stars Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson as Martha and Ash, a young couple with sparkling chemistry, even after death do them part. They’ve moved into Ash’s family home in the country, a place littered with personal history—though these days, most of his thoughts, experiences, and memories are registered on the web. Martha feels like she’s losing Ash to his devices—a fear Konnie Huq voiced frequently enough to husband Charlie Brooker that it led to their script for “Fifteen Million Merits”—but that addiction comes in handy when she actually loses him. His inability to log off provides the building blocks for a postmortem recreation of Ash, which guides Martha through her grief. Atwell requires no such support: She carries “Be Right Back” as the widow reconnecting with the ghost in the machine, the emotional range of her performance matched by achingly gorgeous pastoral photography and the poignant ping-pongs of Vince Pope’s instrumental score. It’s “The Monkey’s Paw” played for pathos rather than chills, only growing more effective as real-world processes of digital mourning grow weirder and thornier. [Erik Adams]

1. “San Junipero” (season three, episode four)

Black Mirror’s crowning achievement is often commended for its happy ending, a well-earned reunion in the ethernet for queer couple Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis). Charlie Brooker and Owen Harris craft an undeniably stirring final act for “San Junipero,” but this season-three episode is consummate excellence from the sharp premise to its stylish execution and superb lead performances. Mbatha-Raw and Davis are magnetic as two women who meet and play in a nightclub-filled virtual reality to escape their respective lives in the tangible world, the former finding real love for the first time in this deceptively boundless place, while the latter ends up taking her greatest leap of faith. Brooker takes advantage of his reputation for producing some of the bleakest moments in TV; he rolls out another seemingly innocuous tech marvel, then saturates the episode with color and joy, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine a depressing denouement that never comes (well, outside of the fact that our two leads cease to exist in the flesh). “San Junipero” makes everyone, including the audience, work for that gratifying conclusion. [Danette Chavez]