Every episode of Black Mirror, ranked
Few shows summed up the global mood as well as Black Mirror in 2016 (that is the bleakest sentence I have ever written). And with season four coming up sometime next year, let’s talk about the greatest — and less great — episodes of the show.
From top to bottom, here’s all 13 episodes of Black Mirror, ranked:
13. Shut Up And Dance
The best thing about Black Mirror is that even when it has a “bad” episode, it’s still pretty good. This is… an exception. “Shut Up And Dance” is a mess from early on, failing to connect an intriguing (if not wildly inventive) concept to the show’s trademark moral conundrums. Jerome Flynn is excellent as always, but the plot bores and annoys in turn. The bank robbery scene makes almost no sense and the semi-climactic fight taking place off camera deprives the viewer of a true sense of how far the protagonist will go. The final revelation copies a technique that worked much better in “National Anthem” and lacks the gut punch it seems to intend. The overall lesson — don’t trust trolls? don’t view kiddy porn? — is murky at best and far less intense than other episodes.
There are some truly great scenes in this, but by the end it feels like it’s trying to do too much. Is this “Black Mirror does a horror movie”? Or “Black Mirror does Inception”? Or “Black Mirror does TRON”? All three? If this episode had chosen just one of the multiple endings it runs with, it could at least be tied with a bow. But the confusing end just gives the viewer whiplash, and obscures the more interesting elements that happened earlier.
11. The Waldo Moment
A foul-mouthed TV character running for office? When could that ever happen? “The Waldo Moment” certainly gained more relevance as this election cycle went on, but there’s not much more to it than the uncontroversial opinion that politicians are corrupt and bad. It is quite entertaining at times, particularly early on, but doesn’t make much of an effort to dive much deeper. The dystopian ending comes off as a bit of a stretch, which could have been aided by developing the TV producer’s character more. It’s not a bad episode, but it remains a bit of a lighter interlude between the show’s more crushing entries.
10. White Christmas
Yes, it’s Jon Hamm. Yes, it presses many of the buttons that so often work for Black Mirror. But “White Christmas” bothers me for a simple reason: this episode would have been much better had it been two episodes, one focused on each of the two men. The ideas in the men’s backstories are creative and disturbing, each one riveting and depressing in its own way. But bringing them together cheapened each one and it made it more difficult to fully dive into either one.
9. National Anthem
Black Mirror’s first episode certainly got things started with a bang (get it?). “National Anthem” is still probably the show’s most polarizing episode, and I don’t fault those who hated it. It was disgusting, and clearly — and intentionally — went too far. But at its core, it did what it set out to do. It brought the viewer along for the ride, made us empathize with the Prime Minister and ultimately understand his choices. It was pretty clear where it was going early on, and it’s hard to imagine a viewer who didn’t spend a solid thirty minutes thinking, “I would never… would I?” in the leadup to the climax (get it?). And while I’m thankful they made use of shadows and cut-aways in the fateful scene, my biggest quibble is that that particular scene dragged on too long; the shock value wore, but the disgust remained. The very final bit of dialogue in the episode is completely and totally desolating, and rewrites the rest of the episode as a much more tragic story.
8. White Bear
This may be Black Mirror’s most troubling episode (I said it “may be” don’t @ me), and this is the point in the list at which every episode is begins to be truly terrific. The twist in this episode is the most disturbing in the series for the way it implicates the viewer and introduces an all-too-possible element of reality to the plot. But what works best is the way “White Bear” starts off as an almost typical thriller and ends as a psychological and moral conundrum. Black Mirror’s ability to make you love then hate then empathize with a character is among its strongest attributes, and it’s on full display in this entry.
7. Men Against Fire
Black Mirror’s war episode strikes enough of the right notes to put it in elite company, even if it’s not perfect. The twist around the roaches is a bit predictable but powerful nonetheless, and the second twist around the protagonist’s complicity in his condition is even more impactful. What sets this episode apart is the horror associated with watching the violence against innocents unfold so brutally, where minutes before it had seemed so justified. Black Mirror tackles lots of big issues, but this is the only one that comes close to touching on war crimes and genocide — and it largely gets it right.
6. 15 Million Merits
There’s not much in the way of up-front explanation in this episode, which is for the best. Instead, the viewer is thrown into a troubling, but not altogether horrible world that slowly builds itself into a nightmare. The “love” story is a bit weak for most of the episode, but it vindicates itself in the form of a stunning musical performance, a rarity for the show and one of the best moments in any episode (it’s no wonder future episodes continue to reference it so frequently). The ending is, as we’ve come to expect, dark and bleak, yet oddly satisfying. The question of whether the two main characters see each other in whatever outside world exists in the episode lingers still.
5. Hated In The Nation
Technology, according to most episodes, can be bad. This entry takes it a few dozen steps further. What seems at first like an episode of NCIS (or maybe Rizzoli and Isles?) unfolds in ever-escalating fashion, with higher stakes than any other episode attempted to present. In leaning heavily on The Birds, this episode brings an element of suspense and terror to its discussion of who’s to blame when technology goes awry. Framing the episode within the context of a government inquiry (along with The Leftovers-esque protesters) is a nice touch that helps give the whole thing the sheen of plausibility. As mass catastrophes go, this one was both enjoyable and terrifying to watch. And remember kids, cyberbullying is very, very, very, very bad.
4. The Entire History of You
It’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, set in a terrifyingly familiar future. This episode is gripping and unsettling, and works in large part because it’s unpredictable without relying on a twist. I spent a large portion of the episode feeling certain that the man was losing his mind, only to realize how clearly he was seeing things. Some of Black Mirror’s finest work occurs when the technology is not inherently insidious, and “The Entire History of You” is a perfect example. The episode is not about the technology or the future, but the world in which the characters exist helps to advance their storyline and emotional development.
3. San Junipero
This is Black Mirror’s first — and so far, only — happy ending, and it works completely. Only a show as distressing as Black Mirror can deliver a heartwarming tale like a shocking twist. The buildup is a bit too long and the mystery around The Quagmire is a disappointment, but this episode is otherwise pretty much perfect. It touches on issues of love and sexuality in ways that other episodes don’t, and of course asks its viewers to ponder small issues like mortality, life and human existence. Oh, and it does it all in an 80’s-era dance club to boot. Outstanding, empathetic performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis put the final touches on one of the show’s greatest episodes.
2. Be Right Back
What if Westworld was a beautiful, sprawling, touching ode to love and humanity? That’s the central idea behind this episode (which predates Westworld). The ending is bittersweet and difficult to watch, but makes the episode all the more raw. The acting is unflappable, and both the dialogue and physical tics strike the right tone for how a real person might act in that situation. The subtleties of the episode are intense and excellent, from the visit from the sister’s visit to the awkwardly hilarious sex scene. It’s creepy and sad and loving and scary, everything a Black Mirror episode should be.
This was, accidentally, the first episode I ever saw, and it’s still the episode I come back to most often. The concept is not particularly high-brow, and on paper there are more devastating episodes in the anthology. But in execution, there has never been a better episode of Black Mirror. Bryce Dallas Howard is from another realm altogether in this episode, acting as if she knows her character more thoroughly than most of us know ourselves. The plot’s slow, maddening descent to its crescendo is startling not just for its plausibility but for the tenderness with which it treats the world it’s invented. Rashida Jones and Mike Schur’s creation is a fully-formed vision, with the interesting, believable characters that are a hallmark of great television. It’s Black Mirror at its best.