Charlie Brooker’s great Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone for the social media generation. It presents all of these terrifying and slightly skewed versions of the world in the form of an anthology, but the thing is, it’s not that far off the reality. The same could be said of Rod Serling’s trailblazing, groundbreaking, freaky deaky opus, but whereas his reflected a society of paranoia that came from the Cold War and McCarthyism and the Space Race and the Kennedy assassination, Black Mirror reflects a society of paranoia that comes from hackers and technology that is advancing behind humankind and the NSA’s spies and Edward Snowden and Islamic State terrorism and social media and cyberbullying and trolls. The title Black Mirror actually comes from the way that Brooker views a smartphone screen or a laptop screen or an iPad screen. It’s a dark and scary reflection of ourselves. The way we present ourselves on social media is not the way we want to present ourselves in real life. Virtual realities and Instagram and Netflix and television are all ways of escaping our reality. These are all themes that Black Mirror covers and more, and it’s alarming and horrifying and most of the episodes are an ominous wake-up call. But that’s what makes it so great! So, here are all 19 episodes of Black Mirror, ranked from worst to best.
19. The Waldo Moment
It’s difficult picking the weakest episode of Black Mirror, since they are all, to some extent, quite masterful. But this story of a cartoon character running for political office – interesting, though it may be – is arguably the worst episode. The gimmick behind the premise is fun, and the idea that the little people don’t trust self-serving politicians rings true, but it’s not anywhere near as deep or thoughtful or provocative or alarming or frightening as Black Mirror’s best. Creator Charlie Brooker agrees that “The Waldo Moment” is not the best one. He admitted it was “one episode that I didn’t really nail, didn’t get the stakes right.” However, three years after its original airing, commentators on the 2016 Presidential election noted comparisons between Waldo and Donald Trump. Brooker himself said in 2016, “If you look at [‘The Waldo Moment’] now, it’s really quite terrifying. It’s more prescient than I realized. He’s an anti-politics candidate who’s raucous and defensive, and that’s all he is, and he offers nothing. He insults everyone and they lap it up because they’re so sick of the status quo. And then you look at Trump…”
18. Fifteen Million Merits
Meh. You go on an exercise bike and earn merits to spend on online gaming, all the while a girl is trying to get on a singing competition show, and that all ties together. “Fifteen Million Merits” presents an interesting view of dystopia and a society consumed by technology, but it is easily one of the weakest episodes of the show. Visually, it’s fantastic, and the fictional talent show Hot Shot is a scathing satire of the likes of The X Factor, but it just doesn’t have that oomph that later episodes of the show had. You have to give it the benefit of the doubt, as it was just the second episode and Charlie Brooker was still figuring out this sprawling format he’d invented, but it is somewhat of a disappointment.
This was almost a perfect episode of Black Mirror. It has a terrific premise with grounding in real life fears: a company named Arkangel offers parents an implant into their child’s mind that will block any sensitive imagery, muffle any yelling or swearing or scary sounds, and stream a video feed of everything she sees. It’s the ultimate question of parenting: how much should you shield your kids from? In this case, she shields her daughter from everything and it totally messes her up. She gets into underage sex and drugs, and her mom is watching the whole time. But there’s no big twist at the end, and the scene where the daughter beats the crap out of her mom is a step too far – that would never happen. The situation was dramatic enough, it wasn’t needed. “Arkangel” gets bonus cred for being the first episode of the show to be directed by a woman, Jodie Foster, and also for looping back around to the beginning at the end. It is good, but compared to the rest of Black Mirror, it’s one of the weakest.
16. Men Against Fire
This is one of the darkest and most twisted episodes of Black Mirror, and it’s also one of the most powerful and effective. It’s classic Black Mirror – a cautionary tale about war and the indoctrination of the military by the government and the dangers of being too lax with technology. It’s a dark, terrifying, chilling sci-fi tale with a socio-political message and a twist ending, which makes it prime Black Mirror material. The idea of the “roaches” being people who the government have brainwashed the soldiers to see as people is a powerful touch – this is just what the Nazis did with the Jews. Plus, the way that Stripe nonchalantly agrees to the implant without reading the contract is exactly like what we all do with Apple’s terms and conditions agreements. It’s a fantastic episode that, in the words of the critics, “forces you to think about the philosophical consequences of high-tech warfare,” but unfortunately, it’s too heavy-handed and dragged-out to rank among the best.
15. The National Anthem
The first episode of any show is never going to be its best. With something like Black Mirror, which began as a pretty original and unique and experimental format, that is especially true. Frankly, it’s a wonder that “The National Anthem” turned out as well as it did. It could have easily been a resounding failure. But by holding up a (black) mirror to society and showing people what they really are and why they suck, this episode succeeds pretty well. A princess is kidnapped and in order to secure her release, the Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig on live television. The princess is released and her kidnapper kills himself before the PM is actually expected to do it, but because everyone was so busy following the news and watching the media frenzy and waiting for the PM to do it, nobody noticed and he had to go through with it. At the end of the day, no one really cared that a woman was being held hostage – they just wanted to see the Prime Minister screw a pig.
14. San Junipero
“San Junipero” is way, way too upbeat and happy to be a great Black Mirror episode, but it is great in many other ways. It has that signature mystery and intrigue for the first part and it tells a tragic and beautiful lesbian love story (one of the best ever told, one could say) and it doesn’t drip-feed you too much information about the plot, it just suggests it to you and lets you figure it out – so, all round, it is a terrific hour of television. But as a Black Mirror episode, it doesn’t have the cynical wit of Charlie Brooker’s best. It doesn’t have the chilling plot twists and the soul-crushing ending of a really great Black Mirror episode. Everyone ends up happy – it’s not right.
13. Black Museum
You shouldn’t watch “Black Museum” until you’ve seen all the rest, because this is the one that pulls it all together. The episode has a deliciously sick sense of humor as it tells three very dark stories to a traveler who stumbles across a strange roadside museum. This museum contains artifacts from grisly, unusual, macabre crimes, and guess what? They all happened in episodes of Black Mirror! This one is the most similar to “White Christmas,” but with an added meta-ness. It very almost starts to feel rambly until the ending pulls it all together with one of the greatest and most shocking twists in Black Mirror history. When the girl is revealed to be putting on her accent and she’s actually the death row inmate’s daughter and uses all the technologies from the stories in the episode to get her revenge on the proprietor of the museum, there’s a resounding jaw drop among the entire audience.
12. Be Right Back
The melancholy “Be Right Back” explores the theme of grief, as a woman loses her boyfriend and feels empty without him. This is all presented in a very raw, very real, very relatable way. And then everything turns all Black Mirror when the woman is offered an artificial intelligence that replicates her boyfriend’s personality using his Twitter posts, and for a while, everything’s great. It’s like he’s back with her and everything’s fine. But then things start to turn sour, since he’s not the same and he’s actually really creepy. TheWrap summed up the emotional power of this episode by calling it an “aching look at the qualities that make us us.” Another critic praised the episode for its effectiveness as both a romance story and a science fiction story, writing that it is “not only a great narrative and an affecting story, but a stunning, linear meditation on grief and love.”
11. Hang the DJ
Directed by the legendary Tim Van Patten of The Sopranos and The Wire, “Hang the DJ” is a miserable look at the world of modern dating. We use apps and technology and algorithms to determine how compatible we are with other people and we use that to control our romantic relationships with people. “Hang the DJ” takes that to its alarming conclusion as a bunch of people live in a society based purely around dating people until the expiry date of the relationship and then moving on to the next one. It’s about how, to truly fall in love and find “the one,” you have to rebel against these systems and algorithms – but in the episode, the system itself takes this into account. Overall, this is a sound love story with some creepy moments and an unnerving jab at romantic bureaucracy. It’s a romcom, Black Mirror-style, and that’s great.
This episode is about an Instagram-esque app where people rate each other’s interactions out of five stars, and your social and economic status is determined by how high or low your average score is. This episode was the perfect one to kick off the third season, marking the transition for Black Mirror between its first two seasons, which was broadcast on British TV, and the third onwards, which were being released on Netflix. It’s a social satire, because it shows how vein we are and how our self-worth is determined by how many likes we get on social media, which also determines our social standing, and how society is moving toward being completely controlled by social media. The episode stars Bryce Dallas Howard, who gives a brilliant performance as a woman who is seething with anger and hiding deep frustrations under a happy and fake facade. Her performance was described by critics as “delightfully unhinged.” What’s great about the universe of this episode is that the writers don’t spell it out for you – it just presents the universe for you and you figure it out for yourself. All the best Black Mirror episodes do this.
9. The Entire History of You
The concept of all of your experiences getting recorded from your eyes to the point where you can just flick through your memories and watch them like a movie any time you want is a very interesting one – so interesting, in fact, that Robert Downey, Jr. has optioned it for a movie adaptation – and it’s explored in great detail throughout this episode. The story of “The Entire History of You” shows us how relationships would be affected by this memory video bank thing. A man obsesses over a memory of his partner laughing at another man’s joke, and it slowly degenerates further and further from there until he uncovers an affair and loses everything. One critic aptly described the episode as “a creepy, up-to-date parable that still tells a tale as old as time.”
8. Hated in the Nation
“Hated in the Nation,” the third season finale of Black Mirror, poses one very simple and universal question: does anyone ever deserve to die? It poses this question, and answers it, through the use of Twitter. Using the hashtag #DeathTo, the Twitterati unanimously decide that one person should die because of something they’ve done – published offensive things about a disabled activist, made a young kid feel bad, pretended to pee on a war memorial etc. Now, in the near future world of this episode, all the bees have died out and been replaced by pollinating robot bees. These two plot points converge, as one deranged hacker turns the bees against whoever Twitter decides should die. The person who has been mentioned the most times in #DeathTo tweets dies each day. But then it’s turned against them, and anyone who ever used the #DeathTo hashtag (all 300,000 of them) is killed by the cyber-bees. It’s dark stuff, and the episode may go on a little bit, but it touches on some very serious topics, like the Biblical teaching of “Let he without sin cast the first stone.” The sinners who cast stones get their comeuppance. Heavy, right? Bonus points for the unnerving soundtrack.
Some critics have guessed that the title of this episode refers to the idea of “crocodile tears,” since the character of Mia just seems to kill and kill and kill until she finally feels something. This story escalates so rapidly toward the end. It starts with two people, Rob and Mia, who accidentally run over a cyclist in the mountains. They throw his body in the ocean and forget about him. Years later, Rob wants to come clean, so Mia kills him and dissolves his body in acid at an industrial plant. All the while, an insurance agent with the same memory-reading technology as “The Entire History of You” episode is chasing down witnesses to a road incident that was happening outside the hotel window where Mia killed Rob. This is the most effective instance of Black Mirror dovetailing two plot strands, and it leads to Mia killing a woman, her husband, and her infant son. The ending is so perfect as it brings Mia down with some signature bitter Black Mirror irony as the baby was blind so it wouldn’t have any memories of the incident – but Chekhov’s guinea pig saw everything!
This episode was directed by the same guy as 10 Cloverfield Lane and it stars Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt). It’s really dark and scary. According to critics, it’s one of the most “genuinely terrifying” episodes of the show. Russell’s character goes to a video game company to pick up some extra cash and has some VR games tested on him. First, it’s a version of Whack-a-Mole. Then, he gets taken to the boss’ office for the next level, where it is determined that he can try a new game in a nearby mansion. He spends a night there where all of his worst fears come true, purely based on what they find in his head. Then he starts to lose his mind and eventually comes out of the game and goes home, only to find that he never actually came out of the first test and died 0.04 seconds in. It’s one of the biggest head-screws in Black Mirror history.
Even for Black Mirror, this is bleak. It’s quite possible there’s never been a bleaker view of a post-apocalyptic wasteland than in “Metalhead.” But it’s also so beautifully shot, with an increased frame rate for extra jitter and grit. And paired with that grainy, stunning black and white, it’s simultaneously a sumptuous watch and a difficult one. Essentially the premise is that robot dogs have taken over the world and some people have gone to get supplies from an abandoned warehouse, where they’re chased out by one of these things and then hunted, one by one. It’s a genuinely terrifying story with a very simple premise; the kind of thing Stephen King might write. A lot of criticism has been aimed at the robot’s jerky movements, with some calling them unrealistic, but that just makes them all the scarier. It’s an erratic killing machine that will stop at nothing. And all this death, all this killing, all this mayhem, it is revealed in the end that they were simply trying to get a teddy bear to give to a dying child. That’s all it was. That’s what they all died in such brutal fashion for. It’s so bleak and dark and heartbreaking, but it’s also a damn good episode of Black Mirror that’s like no other.
4. White Christmas
When most TV shows do a Christmas special, it’s uplifting with a sweet and sentimental message. Not Black Mirror. This episode, aided by fantastic performances by Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, toys with themes of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and smart houses. The lead pair are stuck in what seems to be a snowbound outpost in the middle of nowhere and pass the time on Christmas by telling stories. Hamm shares a dark tale of being a secret sex offender and witnessing a cult-y, Manson-y murder and getting blocked (quite literally) by his wife. Spall shares his own story of being blocked by his pregnant girlfriend, which means he can’t see his own child, only to later discover – after his ex dies and the block dies with her – that the child is half-Asian, and therefore not his. After that, it escalates quickly. He murders her grandfather, leaves the girl there to die in the snow, and takes a vow of silence. It’s quite remarkable and powerful storytelling. And then we realize that this outpost is all a part of the augmented reality that Hamm was telling us about, and Spall is stuck there with the guilt while Hamm is merely there to get a confession out of him, which he does. It might be the best ending of any Black Mirror episode. Den of Geek called the ending, which sees Spall trapped with his guilty conscience in that arctic outpost for an eternity over the Christmas holiday, “a thrilling development that invites you to re-watch right from the beginning.”
3. Shut Up and Dance
What a dark twist! This episode was divisive among critics for its shaky and ambiguous moral stance. Is the hacker in the wrong for blackmailing a pedophile or are they in fact a vigilante doing the right thing and bringing retribution to bad people? However, on the whole, it is a thrilling and deep and thoughtful and provocative installment in the series. We begin by empathizing with this kid for having to jump through all these hoops for a manipulative hacker, but then we start to question why he’s so desperate for this video of him masturbating not to get out. And then it becomes pretty clear that he has more to hide than just masturbation – it’s the material he was masturbating to. It’s the ultimate justice at the end when, even after doing everything this hacker wanted him to do, the video is released and the kid is arrested anyway. What makes “Shut Up and Dance” so terrifying is that there’s no element of science fiction or speculative technologies – everything that happens in this episode could actually happen for real, today. It’s bleak, depressing, hopeless, cynical, sadistic – everything that makes Black Mirror what it is.
2. USS Callister
“USS Callister” succeeds on the striking character development of Robert Daly, played brilliantly by Jesse Plemons. We start off sympathizing with this guy, feeling sorry for him, since his key card doesn’t work and no one makes him a coffee and he has a smaller office than the CEO – little do we know that something sinister is lurking beneath the surface. And then the new girl, played by the mother from How I Met Your Mother, is nice to him and we see him steal her DNA in order to create a virtual clone of her. Suddenly Daly is like a sci-fi Harvey Weinstein who abuses his power over women to live out his fantasies. This was the first episode of Black Mirror to feature overt comedy and it works wonderfully. The production value and the set design and the plot points and the dialogue are all so Star Trek, and the episode gets bonus points for being a spot-on spoof as well as a deep study of a tech-savvy sociopath.
1. White Bear
This is, without a doubt, the greatest episode that Black Mirror has ever done. It has all the hallmarks: a social message, a moral quandary, a soul-crushing plot twist, all the off-key lines that hint at the twist without revealing it. Plus, the ending is more than just a shocking twist – it poses many questions. Is it right to punish people with the “an eye for an eye” rule? “White Bear” was praised by critics to be “an intense watch from start to finish.” Everyone at the end of the episode who is celebrating the retribution experienced by the convict at the center of this messed-up tourist attraction appears to be just as sadistic and sick-minded as she is. Are they really any better than her? Does she deserve this, day in, day out? So many questions are raised by this episode. There’s no doubt it’s the best episode.