As we approach the launch of the fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, I thought I’d take a moment and give the definitive way to consume the series before diving into the latest season. Black Mirror is without a doubt one of the greatest shows on television right now and arguably one of the greatest of all time.
For those that don’t know what Black Mirror is, the best way to describe it comes from the series creator himself: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
The show explores what it is like when we depend on technology and how in some ways it is helping, but more often than not how it is destroying humanity. It does this through many different types of technological advances that we have had in the last couple of decades – social media, video games, easy access to vices on the internet such as pornography, and some potential new technologies that haven’t quite been discovered yet, but that we seem to be heading toward.
There are 13 total episodes between the first three seasons, with another six on the way in season four, which launches Friday, December 29. Below is the way I would approach watching them. There is no particular order you need to follow, since the show is an anthology with each episode being it’s own story. Once again, Brooker explains it best: “Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, and even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now; and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
The show has also aired in two different locations. The first two seasons (and a Christmas special which is basically considered part of the second season) aired on British TV on Channel 4. The show was picked up by Netflix and season’s 3 and 4 have been Netflix originals.
With all that said, here is how you need to watch it:
1. Nosedive (Episode 3.1)
In a society where one’s social rating with others vastly influences their lives, a woman tries to improve her own rating to afford an ideal apartment by giving an appealing speech at her best friend’s wedding.
Nosedive is the first episode of the Netflix version of the show. The reason I recommend Nosedive first is because it’s one of the lighter episodes of the series, while still offering up a disturbing look at how technology could affect our lives. It’s not the best episode, although it is up there, however it is a great introduction into the series.
The episode features Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Lacie, a woman who is obsessed with maintaining a high rating of herself in a world which measures your worth based on your star rating out of five. It chronicles her mission to try and get up to a 4.5, which is considered to be “high class”. The episode shows what it would be like if your standing on social media (or think if your Uber rating was more like a Yelp rating on your life) and how a lavish lifestyle is unlocked if you are well liked – you get to live in fancier homes, you drive cooler cars, you get better jobs – and how your life goes down hill if your rating gets too low.
It’s an outstanding look at how we view social media and how social media could potentially turn us all into monsters in the future. If you’ve seen The Social Network, it essentially takes what Mark Zuckerberg tried to do with Fashmash, but turned it into real life instead of just rating girls on how hot they were.
Nosedive isn’t really violent, so if you don’t like blood and want a lighter start to the series, then this is the perfect episode to start on.
2. Be Right Back (Episode 2.1)
When her boyfriend Ash dies in a traffic accident, and she finds out she is pregnant with his child, Martha latches onto a technology that simulates Ash’s personality from his social media profile. An important message about the difficulty in the replication of life must be learned by Martha.
While this isn’t my personal favorite episode, many do proclaim this to be the best episode of the show. The episode follows Martha, who is played by Hayley Atwell (Captain America), as she mourns the death of her husband Ash, played by Domnhall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars). The episode does a great job of showing how someone deals with grief, especially a young widow who loses her husband way too soon.
Of course, there has to be a technological aspect of this, which is brought to life as Martha is given the opportunity to reconnect with her dead husband through the wonders of technology. It’s a great “what if” scenario of what it would be like if we could talk to our dead relatives, and how would we feel if artificial intelligence replaced those that we love. If you’ve seen the movie Artificial Intelligence, this explores many of the same themes that did.
Once again, it isn’t violent at all, and this is one of the quieter episodes in the series. I think this is a great second episode to watch.
3. The Entire History of You (Episode 1.3)
A couple runs into marital troubles when the husband suspects his wife of cheating on him, proven out through the ubiquitous use of “grains” implants that record everything a person sees and hears and replayed via “re-do”s.
This is not one of the better episodes in my opinion, however, I do think it raises some good questions. I believe this is one you need to watch early as well. The first two episodes were a little lighter, despite the fact that they end up getting deeper at the end.
This is a great episode to watch early because it is prime Black Mirror, as in the real problem isn’t with the technology used in the show, but with the relationships between the people in the episode and how technology then affects them.
The episode stars Toby Kebbell (Warcraft) as Liam, a young lawyer who is convinced that a work meeting went poorly and can replay the moment back in his mind using a chip that is ingrained in his head. The episode then shows how people across the board are always replaying memories in their head and looking too hard into them, which then drives them into madness. We already share so much of our lives on the internet, that the idea of people in the future recording and sharing moments like this isn’t too much of a stretch.
This is not that violent, although there are a couple of fights and a moment near the end with some blood.
If you’ve made it this far, I think you are well in-tuned with what the series is about. Now let’s turn it up a notch. I’ll give you a choice between the next two – do you want to go more in the direction of how technology influences A) sex, reality shows and putting yourself on display or B) violence, horror, and making things a little too real in the future?
Make your choice, because both of these have to do somewhat with video games, but like a good choose your own adventure story – I’ll let you choose the route you want to go:
If you chose A:
4a. Fifteen Million Merits (Episode 1.2)
In a society where people earn their way exercising to generate power and receive merits as currency, a young man uses his inherited merits to help his girlfriend to audition on a reality talent contest.
This episode is probably my second favorite overall in the series. It is definitely one of those you don’t need to ask too many questions about, and just go with the story that you are presented.
The episode stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Bing, a guy who has inherited more than 15 million merits from his brother who has passed away. Bing spends most of his day pedaling a stationary bike to generate electricity and basically the more times to you pedal, the more merits you get. You then exchange those merits for food, lodging, the ability to play games and skip advertisements that are constantly being thrown at everyone.
If you gather enough merits, you can compete on an X-Factor style reality show. However, competing on the reality show isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This creates an unsettling world around body shaming, advertising, reality TV and more. It’s an outstanding episode.
There is no violence, but there is a decent amount of sex promoted throughout it.
If you chose B:
4b. Playtest (Episode 3.2)
A man, stranded in England after a banking error, offers to participate in a playtest of an augmented reality video game for funds.
Playtest is just a middle of the road episode for me, but it is a good horror episode with some decent humor in it as well. I know “horror” and “humor” seem to contradict each other, and the image above shows the main character playing with a virtual gopher, but just go with it.
The episode stars Wyatt Russell (who hasn’t done a ton of notable stuff, but is the son of Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn and interestingly enough played hockey at UAH) as Cooper, an American guy who is traveling the world and gets stuck in London with no money. He accepts a one-time job offer to beta test a game to make some money and of course, things go horribly wrong. It’s a little disturbing, and you have to follow it closely in order to try and figure out what is real and what is not.
There is a decent amount of violence as this is based around a horror video game. If you don’t like violence, then watch Fifteen Million Merits instead and just avoid this episode altogether.
Now that you’ve watched a few episodes, it’s time to turn things up and throw one of the better episodes at you, with one of the craziest twists you’ll ever see in all of entertainment.
5. Shut Up and Dance (Episode 3.3)
A young man is blackmailed by unseen hackers to follow a set of directives or else incriminating footage of him will be released to the world. As the story unfolds, he realizes that he is not the only one being affected by the hackers’ ill intentions.
This episode is a polarizing one as many people criticized the twist ending and a lot of people took issue with it. I won’t say what it is, but I’ll let you determine for yourself. Some people I talk to say this is the best episode of the series, but some didn’t like it. I think this is one that needs to be watched though, but only after you have committed to the series, which is why it is in this spot.
The episode stars Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) as Kenny, a teenager who is living just a normal, life with an average summer job as a busboy. However, after he is caught…doing something…in his room on his laptop camera, he is sent on a wild series of quests until he runs into Hector who is played by Jerome Flynn (Bronn from Game of Thrones) and then both of them go on a series of bizarre quests.
It gets a little violent at the end, but it’s not too bad.
You’ve now watched five solid episodes (or six if you just watched both of the video game themed ones), and you can really dive in to things however you want at this point. I will provide the order I would watch them in, but feel free to jump in at your own pace.
Also, what are you looking for in a show? Do you want it to be serious? Do you want it to be lighthearted? Do you want it to be shocking? Really, there is no set order you have to watch these episodes in, but here is how I would do it. I’ll skip to #7 since I’ve technically listed six already (watch the other episode for #4 if you haven’t already first).
7. White Bear (Episode 2.2)
A woman wakes up with amnesia and finds herself being hunted down amid numerous bystanders simply recording her actions on their mobile phones and refusing to help.
This one goes all in on the shock value, much like Shut Up and Dance. This is considered one of the better episodes of the series and has probably the second best twist of the whole series behind Shut Up and Dance. It’s a very disturbing episode that gets pretty rough. If you’ve enjoyed the little bit of shock value that the episodes above had and enjoyed everything so far, then get ready because White Bear turns it up to 11.
8. The Waldo Moment (Episode 2.3)
A comedian who uses technology to animate the cartoon bear Waldo in real-time to make fun of politicians becomes embroiled in an upcoming election.
While this isn’t looked at as one of the better episodes in the series, it will be more lighthearted after you finish watching White Bear. If you ever saw Black Mirror mentioned throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign, this episode is why. It follows a voice actor who voices a cartoon bear who actually runs for public office, and does so the whole time while making fun of the politicians he competes against.
9. The National Anthem (Episode 1.1)
To return a kidnapped member of the British Royal Family, the Prime Minister is instructed to have intercourse with a pig on live television.
The original Black Mirror episode. This is a very polarizing episode, as I have seen people say to skip it, and others put it up as one of the better ones. It doesn’t exactly focus on evolving technology, but rather how we are all obsessed with sensationalism in entertainment. The plot is basically what it says above, it’s about the Prime Minister (played by Rory Kinnear) contemplating whether or not to go through with ransom demands that he have sex with a pig on live TV. It’s a disturbing episode, but one that you watch and think – I could see people actually behaving like this.
10. White Christmas (Episode 2.4)
At Christmas, in a remote cabin in a snowy area, two men discuss how they came to be stationed there, a point of discussion they never had in the prior five years.
This was released as a “Christmas special”, but on Netflix it is just considered the fourth episode of season two. It’s a 90-minute long episode and stars Jon Hamm as Matt and Rafe Spall as Joe, two guys who are stationed at a small, remote outpost out in the wilderness. The show is told in a series of three stories – one about Matt’s side job, one about Matt’s real job, and one about Joe’s life. You have to follow along for a while until you get to the big twist at the end, which like most episodes, is amazing. One note – this isn’t really a “Christmas” episode, so don’t think you can wait and watch it on Christmas with the family, unless you want the whole family to be depressed during the holidays.
11. Hated in the Nation (Episode 3.6)
A series of murders is tied to Autonomous Drone Insects, mechanical replacements for colony collapse disorder, and social media hashtags.
Once again, another 90 minute episode, and another great episode about how social media ruins people’s lives, and in this instance – kills people. This is the final episode of season three and a perfect ending to the season. It’s got a great twist ending, it’s got great acting – it’s basically a movie that could have been released in theaters. It’s a devastating look at social media and it’s got a good bit of violence in it (images of dead bodies and such). However, with it’s length and how deep of an episode it is, I think it’s good to save it.
It will also make you hate bees, if you don’t already.
12. Men Against Fire (Episode 3.5)
Soldiers attempt to kill off mutant “roaches” to protect the rest of society, aided by augmented reality implants.
This episode is typically looked at as one of the worst episodes, and it’s the only one I didn’t really care for. I think the theme of the episode and the ideas they were going for have merit to them, but it just wasn’t executed well. This is a very violent episode as it has to do with the military killing a bunch of “roaches” (basically undesirable mutants). It’s got a twist to it that you can kind of see coming more so than in other episodes. If you want to take in the whole collection of shows, then you need to watch this one, and it’s got it’s place in the whole series, but it’s probably at the bottom of my list in terms of ranking all 13 episodes from the first three seasons.
13. San Junipero (Episode 3.4)
In a virtual space, the outgoing Kelly becomes friends with the more reserved Yorkie, and helps her to come to accept her repressed sexuality.
This is by far the best episode in my opinion. It won two Primetime Emmy Awards and most people consider it one of the best. So why did I put it last? Because it’s one of the few episodes that leaves you feeling good about yourself. Black Mirror will leave you feeling depressed about life moving forward if you stop on the wrong episode. While this is easily the best episode to me, it is without a doubt the happiest episode. It proves that the series is about more than misery and darkness, plus it explores many themes that other episodes didn’t, while also having a twist of it’s own and staying well within the overall style of Black Mirror as a series.
San Junipero is the most acclaimed episode for a reason. If you want to skip some of the more violent and depressing episodes and go straight to this one, I wouldn’t blame you.
Now that you’ve read through the list, get ready for season four which comes out Friday, December 29. If you want to know my actual rankings of how I view ALL of the episodes 1-19:
1. San Junipero
2. USS Callister
3. Hang the DJ
4. Fifteen Million Merits
5. White Bear
6. Shut Up and Dance
7. Hated in the Nation
8. Black Museum
9. White Christmas
13. The National Anthem
14. Be Right Back
16. The Entire History of You
17. The Waldo Moment
19. Men Against Fire
Really the only one I would give a thumbs down to instead of a thumbs up is Men Against Fire, but it still raises some good issues.
Check out the trailer for Season 4 here:
My ranking of Season 4 episodes:
1. USS Callister
2. Hang the DJ
3. Black Museum