Fionn Whitehead
Photo: Stuart Hendry (Netflix)
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This is not going to be a clever review. Oh, I thought about it. Black Mirror’s newest entry “Bandersnatch” is a choose-your-own-adventure story about a young man’s efforts to finish a choose-your-own-adventure video game based on a choose-your-own-adventure cult novel. It’s designed for trickery, and, to Charlie Brooker’s credit, it doesn’t skimp. There are multiple endings, multiple paths, loads of meta-commentary, and choices ranging from the innocuous (which brand of cereal would you like to eat?) to the momentous (what would you like to do with your father’s corpse?). As such, it seemingly cries out for some extra tricky commentary—an invitation for me to indulge my creative side and go all out.

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But I’m not going to do that. There are plenty of reasons. As fun as it can be, I’m not sure showing off my cleverness (and I am quite clever, thank you) does anyone much good in this context, and besides, we’re right between Christmas and New Year’s. I’m technically on vacation and I already have far too much work to do to want to spend even more time putting together something that most people will skim in the five minutes and forget forever. Still, laziness and the understanding of the inherent disposability of my own work has never stopped me before. Why now?

It’s simple, really. As an experience, “Bandersnatch” is fairly entertaining—it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off, and I don’t think it will convince someone who doesn’t like Black Mirror that they’re wrong, but if you’re up for some paranoid dark humor and video game nods, you won’t be too disappointed. But as a story? There’s nothing really here. Oh, there’s plenty of lip service paid to free will; as a writer, Charlie Brooker works very hard to make sure you understand that yes, he is definitely in on the joke. (At one point leading into what is probably the episode’s funniest “ending,” the main character’s therapist says: “If this was entertainment, surely you’d make it more interesting.” Ha ha, we know we suck, etc.) Yet it doesn’t add up to anything beyond the show’s usual concerns.

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I’m hesitant to mention “San Junipero” yet again, but one of the big reasons that episode was so effective is that it was one of the rare times that Black Mirror rejected fatalism. Most of the time, the stories end more or less where you’d expect them to. People are in traps, the traps get worse, nastiness ensues, and then a final kick in the teeth before the end credits. The actual “story” of “Bandersnatch” is so simplistic as to border on self-parody. There’s a nervous, sweaty young man with mental problems who goes even crazier writing a game based on the work of a notoriously delusional (and murderous) author. Eventually he murders his father, maybe murders another game designer, and winds up in jail. Madness begets madness, and so on.

Well, all right, maybe it’s not quite that simple. The fact that the viewer is asked to shape the story as it goes along means there are multiple endings, and multiple paths—it’s possible to have a relatively “happy” ending, if you’re willing to duck out early (just have Stefan, the protagonist, make the saner choice when it’s available and he’ll probably make it out ok). Stefan is aware on some level that he’s being controlled, and while this is a tacky way to express mental illness, it’s no more offensive than, say, the elaborately staged hallucinations of A Beautiful Mind. Stefan’s awareness also offers one of the episode’s few true surprises, allowing you to involve yourself in the plot with impressive directness; if you ever wanted to hear actors saying the word “Netflix” over and over, this should be a treat.

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Still, that brings up another problem with trying to judge this as a story. Which ending actually counts? Do any of them? I went through several, and believe I got nearly all of them, from the disappointingly anti-climactic to the thoroughly bloody. I had fun doing this, and I appreciated how smartly the episode teaches you how to watch it. The first choice you get that has any serious consequences is deciding whether or not to have Stefan accept the job offer from a video company. Given everything leading up to this moment, you’re likely to pick “yes.” (I did.) If you do, the company’s hotshot programmer tells you that you made the wrong choice, and you get an abrupt conclusion where the game Stefan is obsessed with making ends up a failure due to the restrictions of management. Then you’re thrown back to a quick recap of the beginning before getting a chance to make the other choice.

It’s a neat way to let the viewer know that there will be consequences for your decisions; that the “right” choice isn’t necessarily going to work out the way you want it to; and that if you do make a choice you regret, you’ll be able to redo fairly easily. (The only time this wasn’t the case was when I mis-dialed a phone number late in the episode, but looking online, the deviations that created were slight.) As a game, it’s simple but novel enough given the context, and it works hard to avoid wasting your time. If you end up redoing scenarios (and you almost certainly will, unless you’re so bored with the process you give up at the first chance you get), there are often references to the repetitive nature of what’s going on. During a trippy drug scene, Colin (the aforementioned hotshot programmer) talks about parallel universes and time tracks and how everything happens at once. Which makes the “choices” arguably diegetic, which is pretty cool.

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Once the novelty wears off, though, the emptiness is hard to ignore. There’s an ending that feels like the canonical ending, with Stefan releasing a successful version of his game but getting arrested for murder; the game getting pulped; and Colin’s daughter making an updated version of it for Netflix in the present day. There’s that funny ending I mentioned above, where the camera pulls back to reveal a film set. And there’s an ending where Stefan changes his past and dies in the present, which is as close as you get to “happy” without taking one of the sane choices earlier on.

You could argue that the audience participation angle works to implicate the viewer in some of Stefan’s nastier decisions, but to what end? There’s no real statement being made here, and no meaningful narrative to impart. “Bandersnatch” would not exist without its gimmick, and your enjoyment of it is largely dependent on how well that gimmick works for you. For me, I’d have to say it worked okay. Brooker manages to walk the fine line between giving us enough choice to make those choices meaningful, but also restricting our options enough that the whole doesn’t entirely collapse in on itself. That there’s a clear story at all is impressive; to wish that story would’ve been worth the time it takes to unpack is probably too much to ask.

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Stray observations

  • There are flashes of playfulness throughout; I think my favorite is Stefan’s reaction when you tell him to chop up his dad’s body.
  • I appreciated the nod to the Hobbit text adventure game. I had that as a kid, although I never got very far in it.
  • So why does the dad keep locking the study door? I’m assuming Stefan’s vision of a locked safe full of files on his upbringing was an illusion; is he still hiding the rabbit after all these years?
  • Something is wrong with me: as soon as I saw Stefan’s copy of Bandersnatch, I wished it was real and that I could read it.
  • The nod to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik is also nice, although an unfortunate reminder of a writer who could really mess with your head.
  • Dad’s murder is pretty damn gruesome.
  • How long did you watch? What ending did you go out on? 

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