I’m hardly infatuated with this series, and as with any anthology, it misses as often as it hits. But that also means Charlie Booker’s witch’s brew of dyspeptic stomach-acid churn and quasi-futuristic chic does hit. More than once or twice, it even marshals something truly bracing, beyond the mere satirical sucker-punches most of its kindred television brethren manage. It’s uncanny glass-eye vision of society rapidly running out of sand in the hour glass often feels so pretentious and conceited as to be glimpsed through a monocle. But the episodes that do hit definitely nail the view-askew camera-obscura pleasures of classic Rod Serling, updated with the fangs of 21st century cynicism. Let us have a look-see.
13. The Waldo Moment
Profoundly condescending and stunningly arbitrary, this Seth McFarlane-level exercise in pandering to the masses while also mocking them is politically illegible and the lynchpin for anyone who (rightfully) bemoans Black Mirror for treating sledgehammer obviousness like a goldmine rather than the plague. This episode traffics in faux-outrage about political nonchalance but remains part of the very ironic corporate system it bemoans. Pure intellectual counterfeit money.
12. Men Against Fire
The worst episode of the third season wears a different tone than “The Waldo Moment” but has the same cross to bear and is similarly crucified by its own metaphoric responsibilities. Imprisoned in stereotypes, this is the episode for first year film students who need to be rescued from their post-modernism and think that Starship Troopers is some sort of misapprehended masterpiece (it is solid though, unlike this episode). Feels like it was written by a topographical map of a liberal arts college theater building. Little more than an arena for the creators to pat themselves on the back.
11. Shut Up and Dance
Mostly timid by-the-numbers thriller climbs over the low wall of the previous two episodes (in this list) by virtue of being mostly content as a nightly procession of genre thrills rather than a turgid ice wall of expository political gobbledygook. More a blur than actually bad, it revisits well-trodden (well-trampled) territory and pitifully tries to legitimize itself with a whimper of a final twist and meaningless miserabilism. Adequate for what it is though.
10. Fifteen Million Merits
The show at its most “conceptual”, and for me, also its most dubious. The show is aiming for Serling-style commentary, which is fine, but it needs to tame its holier-than-thou know-it-all impulses and widescreen, boldface, self-consciously meaningful demeanor if it even wants to evoke Serling’s haunted, bittersweet, intimate pleas for social togetherness. Effectively plastic cinematography sells a vision of the future as a candy-coated byproduct of corporate incisions, but even then, this episode is mostly leftovers of better social critiques.
Now that we’re moving out of the nosebleeds, I can be less curmudgeonly than the show is itself. This Joe Wright-directed, Bryce Dallas Howard-starring introductory salvo for Netflix’s prestige variant of the show is sculpted from the same clay as many of the season one and two episodes, although its barbed screenplay feels most smitten with the Christmas special (more on that later). Obviously meant to serve as a gateway drug to the future of the show, the screenplay is still leaden and obvious (although there are some winning moments, like a whimsical/melancholy interlude with a social outsider of a truck driver getting by just fine). But Wright’s pastel-and-arsenic style – while no less obvious than the screenplay – at least feels like a psychosomatic externalization of the perverted domesticity the show often aspires toward. It’s obvious formalism, but at least it’s formalism.
8. Hated in the Nation
Operatic and baroque, this is Black Mirror with mainstream cyber-procedural airs, and it certainly bests most of its competitors at their own game. The Hitchcockian references (beyond the birds-and-the-bees comparison) don’t transcend homage, but they’re savvy enough. Solid stuff, but the albatross around the neck is the length. At 90 minutes, this is where the show dabbles in the wheel-spinning narrative over-complication that knocks almost every modern prestige show to its knees. (See Stranger Things which is a sharp little 90 minute B-picture in a 7 hour package, achieving nothing more than its inspirations did in less than one-fourth of the length. If the lean and mean likes of John Carpenter’s early ’80s films were all bone and sinew, Stranger Things is loaded with caloric fat. And don’t you dare compare it to Twin Peaks.). Anyway, rant aside, a potential riot of an episode curdles into a lethargic swamp as it slumps toward a conclusion that overstays its welcome. And it isn’t “slow for mood” either; the actual filmmaking doesn’t endorse a mood of liquid sorrow, nor do the shots creep with suspicion into the next one. This isn’t filling out space for atmospherics. This is just wasting time.
Now we’re talking. A simple episode, and thus a good one. A gnarley little slice of modern VR horror, no more and no less, but nice and ornery, constantly bucking when many of the other episodes rope themselves to a crawl with their thematizing. Basically a haunted house story, the Black Mirror social consciousness hangs around like a phantom limb, but it’s hardly overbearing here once the show pares itself down to a bite-sized slice of visual anthrax that feels blessedly uncomplicated. While this episode browses through its ideas rather than fully expressing them, considering Black Mirror’s perennial predilection for sledgehammer satire, less in this case is more. This cold splash of an episode is nice and unsettled, relying on the suggestion of violence and distant rumours of scandal and nastiness. An epileptic fright.
6. White Bear
Final moments aside, “White Bear” is Black Mirror at its most rawhide, the charred acme of its ever-kindling fire of social discontent all the more effective because it aims for the gut rather than the head. Convulsive energy spreads like poison. It’s one note bent to oblivion and nothing more, but boy do they pulverize it. Until the questionable final few minutes, this one is all piston thermodynamics, a mixture of skin-crawling and body-trampling as the characters seem to circle around death. Busy grinding on the street rather than losing itself in the mire of ideology, this episode is out for blood, .one of the few where the pressurized mischief of the show overflows into out-and-out horror.
5. White Christmas
A collection of spicy, feisty mini-stories curtails the long-winded tendencies of the show, as each tale sidewinds into the next like a series of episode-like objects that approximate a circus of amusements rather than funeral procession (unlike some of the worst episodes). The tone is more willy-nilly than many episodes but still backed by an alluring morbidity that crackles with lightning when it needs to. The pacing turns the concept into a playhouse or a madhouse more than a moratorium for society; every time one well goes dry, the episode slips into another story without any of the show’s usual righteous indignation to trip it up or stall it with oration dragging on past its sell-by date. The characters feel damn near greasy here. Last year, everyone was all into A Very Murray Christmas, which had its moments (involving Chris Rock and George Clooney specifically), but this is the real deal feel-bad holiday time treat.
4. San Junipero
Some might say an aberration on the good name of the show, but “San Junipero”, if contextualized properly, may for good measure be the crown jewel of cynicism in the show’s canon, all the more scathing for how well it maintains its poker face throughout. Even at face value though, there’s something radically incisive and disreputable about how full-throatedly this episode clings to its melodrama, never resorting to the grungy mire of irony in an age where you can’t escape it. Rather than dulling the sharp corners of the show, the melodrama defies the urge to rationalize and reason your way out of this humanistic paper bag with whatever morbidity or self-policing negativity you can muster. Perversely and paradoxically, the defiant, outward emotional beauty of this episode, its willingness to break out the tissues, defeats capitalist-inflected bylaws that dictate to hide your emotional self. It feels like some kind of Satanic summoning of true effervescence in the world of Black Mirror. Pop delirium.
3. The National Anthem
This it the Black Mirror episode for some people, since it was the first. Perhaps because the show hadn’t yet proven itself, The National Anthem is also the most humble and the least over-baked, with a simple near-real-time political crisis imbroglio that feels like a perverse acid-bathed oil-slick take on Aaron Sorkin’s usual shtick. There’s a surfeit of talking, but little speechifying, and the episode lets the sea-sick churn of the lurching imagery speak for its own damn self. The wide shots of a near empty London exterior (with everyone packed in like sardines to watch the Prime Minister copulate with a pig) feel like barbed-wire tumbleweeds carried by the wind into your gut.
2. Be Right Back
An outcast in a show that favors the high concept rather than low-to-the-ground intimacy, this is a consummate myth-parable with a tender, wounded heart, a prescription to cure you of the overrated deluge of Prestige TV narrative histrionics found in Game of Thrones and the like. Rather than slashing holes in your flesh left and right, this weary episode wears its own scars, exhibiting the kind of loneliness that truly twists the knife. Unlike many other episodes of the show, it also hoses down its rampant nihilism with a ruminative air, a sense of near-silent reflection, a willingness to use the breathing room of television to introduce negative space and emphasize a style of absence rather than jam-pack the frame with events and twee, neutered references to modern life in slightly future-warped drag.
1. The Entire History of You
To my mind, when the show sticks to its principles, it feels like just another socially conscious lamb for the slaughter. I’m all for polemical radicalism (Snowpiercer, for example, is killer pop-Marxism with its pedal to the medal and its mind on its molotov-cocktail throwing arm). But Black Mirror just buries itself alive whenever its ideas are at the forefront. However, in this episode, chilly black-hearted feel, an aura of spectral gloom, and a blitzkrieg of social glares that puncture the screen all bring the story to life while many other episodes remain entombed in their museum-like stiltedness and focus on thesis above all. More oblique than polemical, this is the epitome of what the show can achieve when it treats its concept not as an excuse to feel good about its own importance but as an opportunity to send its tendrils outward and explore characters, human relationships, and the pulse of society. One of the few episodes that does not rely on one monolithic tone, “The Entire History of You” collapses categories between humanistic reverie and the magnetic pull of curdled cynicism. It intimates moments and explores the nooks and crannies of experience rather than weighing down on you with crushing, force-fed allegory. Haunting the space between existential angst and soured self-revelation and then submerging that concoction in a swamp of paranoia, this one wins almost just by showing up.