'Black Mirror': A ranking of the first 7 episodes of Netflix's dystopian series
Black Mirror dropped its third season on Netflix Friday, with six new episodes to add to the existing seven. If historical precedent holds, opinions will vary on those new installments — because there is little that TV fans are more passionate about than what the best episode of Black Mirror is.
To celebrate the return of the dystopian series, we've ranked the original seven episodes from worst to first. It's a highly subjective list — eight readers could all disagree, and they'd disagree in completely different ways. Black Mirror invites that divisiveness, and makes it all the more fun to argue about.
7. "The Waldo Moment"
What it is: The worst episode of Black Mirror. Besides that, the story (such as it is) follows Jamie, a man who voices a cartoon bear. The bear, Waldo, winds up running for mayor — and does surprisingly well. The pressure and his disdain for politics quickly drive Jamie mad. Interestingly, while the A.V. Club noted at the time of the episode's release that Waldo's 15 minutes of infamy went on unbelievably long, the plot mirrors Donald Trump's ascendancy in a few ways.
What works: Well, it's an episode of Black Mirror, which means it's at least decent.
What doesn't: "Decent" is the best that can be said for "The Waldo Moment." More than any other episode, "The Waldo Moment" feels contrived. Creator Charlie Brooker's disdain for humanity comes through most clearly here, as Waldo's campaign is built on the idiocy of people. Jamie is also an unsympathetic protagonist whose distaste for politics grows into hatred after one of his political opponents doesn't call him back after sleeping with him.
6. "15 Million Merits"
What it is: Bing and Abi live in a dystopian society where citizens spend their day cycling to generate power for their compound. Time on the exercise bikes earns them credits ("merits," in this episode's parlance), and merits can be spent on different bits of entertainment. Bing has a ton of merits, and uses them to help the wannabe singer Abi get on an American Idol-esque show. Unfortunately, she's drugged and convinced to appear on a porn channel instead. This infuriates Bing, who tries to break the system — but winds up becoming a part of it instead, with his own TV show.
What works: This is probably the most high-concept episode of Black Mirror, and the world is well-cultivated. Bing and Abi make for compelling protagonists, and the story arc does have some smart things to say about the ways in which people with convictions can so easily give up on them in the face of personal opportunities.
What doesn't: Brooker despises American Idol-type shows (most specifically The X Factor, which Simon Cowell started in the United Kingdom after leaving Idol), and it shows in this episode. He makes the judges of the singing program cartoonish, and the alternative option when Abi fails to impress as a singer — pornography — is the kind of jarring juxtaposition Brooker falls back on too often. If Brooker and co-writer Kanak Huq's script didn't drip with disdain for reality television, "15 Million Merits" would be a better episode.
5. "White Christmas"
What it is: Unlike the other episodes, "White Christmas," the show's holiday special, featured three shorter stories (starring Mad Men's Jon Hamm) that slowly prove to be interconnected. Black Mirror then reveals that the true story was happening outside the framework of the episode all along. (Since this episode came out more recently than the others, we'll avoid too much spoiler-y description.)
What works: It's a complicated episode, with a wild payoff. It's exciting to see Black Mirror play with form like this. Hamm is an excellent addition to the Black Mirror universe. The overall effect of the episode is strong, even if logically, the story isn't the most sensical.
What doesn't: We sort of gave this away, but the episode is a logical mess. The stories don't come together smoothly, and once the initial impact of the connection wears off, the narrative doesn't hold up. One could argue that Black Mirror episodes don't have to be sensical, but the best — including the number-one episode on this list — pair impact with a tight script.
4. "Be Right Back"
What it is: Martha's partner Ash dies in an accident, and she's lost without him. She's pregnant with his child and misses him deeply. Her friend signs her up for a service that will clone Ash — both in physical appearance and in personality. The clone is nice for a time, but Martha quickly finds it to be an imperfect replacement for Ash. She tries to get rid of it, but it's no use; she's stuck with the clone forever.
What works: Most of it! Honestly, every episode from here on up is A-level television — "Be Right Back" is just more like an A-. Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson are terriffic as Martha and Ash. Gleeson, in particular, sharply distinguishes the "real" Ash from the clone in precise, detailed ways. The story is sad, but it's an earned sadness. "Be Right Back" feels much less angry than the rest of Black Mirror.
What doesn't: That sadness has the consequence of "Be Right Back" being incredibly hard to watch. That's not necessarily a negative; TV isn't meant to always be blandly entertaining, after all. But it does mean that you're not likely to want to return to Martha and Ash's world after visiting it once.
3. "The National Anthem"
What it is: This is the most well-known episode of Black Mirror, largely because it turned out to be jaw-droppingly accurate. Prime Minister Callow learns of the kidnapping of a beloved young duchess at the start of the episode, as well as the condition for her release: He must have sex with a pig on national television. Callow and his team initially reject the idea, but after several plans to rescue the hostage fail, he goes through with it. The twist: It was all an experiment set up by an artist to make a point. He releases the duchess before Callow has sex with the pig, but the release goes unnoticed by the British people. They're too captivated by the prime minister's broadcast.
What works: Keep in mind that this was the very first episode of Black Mirror. As an introduction to the series, "The National Anthem" is basically perfect. It's set in present day, it sets up what should be an absurd situation, has the characters acknowledge how absurd it is — and then, slowly, accept the dark reality they face. It is immaculately paced, and doesn't need to rely on any kind of shock twist. Any viewer will know exactly where the episode is going right away, and that makes it impossible to avert your eyes.
What doesn't: Brooker really goes full Brooker on this one. The artist conducting the experiment might as well be Brooker himself; he even literally cites how the British people and government are overlooking important things because they're too busy "watching screens." If the artist's belief were challenged at all, that'd be a smart meditation on the ideas. But Brooker presents them as truth; after all, the duchess' early release got ignored. The artist was right. For critics of Black Mirror, "The National Anthem" is a pretty good example of the series' worst instincts.
2. "The Entire History of You"
What it is: What if you could access any memory of yours at any moment, playing it back as if it were a recording? That's what "The Entire History of You" proposes. People live with devices called "grains" embedded in their heads that record everything that happens to them. Liam all but tortures himself with his grain, constantly rethinking events and conversations, overthinking them to the max. But then, his scrutiny reveals that his wife Ffion has been having an affair — and that their daughter is not really his. After losing it all, Liam uses a razor to cut his grain out of himself.
What works: The central question of this episode is a fascinating one: What if all your overthinking could be supplemented with constantly recording video evidence? Would you find the answers? Or would you only find more reason to scrutinize the footage? Liam does the latter, and it's deeply horrifying to watch his simple habit — one many people deal with on a daily basis – completely destroy his life. This episode cares more about the humans involved than some episodes of Black Mirror do. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that it wasn't written by Brooker, instead penned by comedy writer Jesse Armstrong.
What doesn't: Though likability shouldn't be a pressing factor when considering a character, it is hard to empathize with Liam precisely because he is such an asshole. The episode cares about him, but that's not to say the viewer will. It make the key aspect of this episode — that the audience relate to what Liam is going through because of his habit of overthinking — harder to accomplish. The episode also treats Ffion pretty unfairly; she doesn't get a ton of characterization beyond "lying woman."
1. "White Bear"
(Editor's note: If you've never watched "White Bear," consider this your final spoiler warning. The episode does not work nearly as well if you know what happens — we encourage you to revisit this piece after watching.)
What it is: Victoria wakes up with no memory of who she is, how she got where she is, who the girl in the photograph near her bed is or why random people in the street are taking video of her with their phones. She can't get anyone to respond to her — and then, suddenly, she's under attack. She finds an ally in Jem, who tells her about a mysterious signal that appeared on TV one day, brainwashing the British people into becoming watchers. Those who escaped the signal have taken advantage, becoming violent hunters. To stop the madness, they must take out a signal transmitter (appropriately named "White Bear"). Victoria and Jem make it in, but are attacked by hunters before they can stop the signal. In fighting back, Victoria grabs a gun and shoots.
What it really is: And then confetti comes out of the gun. The walls around Victoria open up; Jem and the hunters take their bows as an audience applauds. Victoria is perplexed as she's locked into a chair, but then a man explains: Victoria is Victoria Skillane, a woman who, with her partner Iain, kidnapped, tortured and killed a six-year old girl — the same girl from the photograph near Victoria's bed. Iain did the torturing; Victoria recorded it all on her phone. Eventually, they were arrested; Victoria pled to the courts that Iain was influencing her. Her punishment: to be subjected to the same emotions her victim felt for the rest of her life. Every day, after a round of electroshock, Victoria wakes up with no memory, is hunted and recorded, and then must live it all over again.
What works: Holy hell, "White Bear" works. Unlike most Black Mirror episodes, "White Bear" is almost entirely dependent on the power of a twist — and it works. Brooker builds sympathy in the audience for Victoria, a woman trying to survive. Then he reveals her crimes, and suddenly, the audience is left in a moral dilemma. The initial shock is stunning enough; it's the meditation on Victoria's guilt and punishment that comes afterward that really makes "White Bear" the most fascinating, effective episode of Black Mirror.
What doesn't: There are quibbles to be made about what exactly Brooker was trying to say with this episode — it's not as clear a message as something like "The National Anthem" or "15 Million Merits." But that's OK; sometimes the message's clarity isn't the point. It's the effect, inarguable in its impact, that makes "White Bear" so powerful.