Admittedly, I was slow to get on the Black Mirror bandwagon. After receiving recommendations from several students, I finally started binging the British show this past February. A long-time fan of anthology series, including The Twilight Zone and Hammer House of Horror, I now count myself among the legions that consider the Charlie Brooker creation binge-worthy. Its balance of dark humour, suspense, and socially-relevant stories focusing on dangers ranging from social media to surveillance make Black Mirror almost necessary viewing.
For this Chopping Block entry, I’ve taken on the challenging task of identifying and ranking the five best episodes. Like any list, there is obvious subjectivity and some popular episodes may not be listed below. I’ll come right out and say that I always leaned towards the more bleak Twilight Zone episodes. As a criminology professor, I also tend to show a preference for episodes that have a focus fitting that subject matter. Before we proceed with the list, I’ll come right and say I did not include fan-favourite San Junipero – it’s an amazing episode but I’m not very nostalgic for the 1980s and just have a personal preference for the darker episodes. Check out the top five episodes below.
This Series 2 episode is one of the Black Mirror stories that feels most like a spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone. Victoria wakes up with no memories and finds herself pursued by masked random strangers while bystanders only film her torment. The episode is brisk and tense with a fascinating mystery that demands your attention. Some viewers may find some fault with the final twist but it’s very much in keeping with its Twilight Zone roots. More importantly, the episode’s twist raises several interesting questions about vigilantism, media constructions of crime and justice, and public appetite for justice. The episode’s twist may reduce its watchability but the issues it raises beg for subsequent viewings.
The National Anthem
With its first episode, Black Mirror made a firm statement about the tone the anthology series would adopt. Thought-provoking, timely, disturbing, provocative – The National Anthem is all these things. In the episode, the British Prime Minister Michael Callow wakes up to learn that a loved member of the Royal family has been kidnapped and that he must have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television to secure her release. The episode’s premise is outlandish and yet somehow it never feels cheap or exploitative even when it sinks in that the story will indeed go where it promised. It’s a bleak commentary on our social media obsession with public humiliation.
The Entire History of You
Another episode from Series 1, The Entire History of You continues the anthology series’ ongoing fascination with the dangers of technology and its intersection with the worst of human nature. Set in a hypothetical future where people have technology implanted allowing them to record and re-watch every memory, Liam becomes increasingly obsessed by the belief his wife is having an affair. The best Black Mirror episodes about technology always seem remotely plausible, which is a large part of what makes them so unnerving. This episode’s ending is so reserved and quiet that it take a while for what happened to sink in; it’s one of the more depressing endings in Black Mirror.
With its first episode from Series 3, Black Mirror perfectly balances biting dark humour with insightful social commentary. Nosedive’s world where people ‘rate’ one another in their social interactions and overall rating impacts your socioeconomic seems funny and fairly outlandish – until you think about it. Like the best Black Mirror episodes, both the social commentary and depiction of technology seem eerily plausible; one feels like the episode’s events reflect a not too distant reality. Bryce Dallas Howard was well cast and, like the show’s content, balances an almost goofy humour with a thought-provoking arc.
Narrowing down and ranking episodes from a show as consistently good as Black Mirror was difficult. That being said, I had no problems picking my favourite episode from the anthology series. The series four opener, USS Callister, is a clear choice based on its ability to balance its humour with darker themes. Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights alum-Jesse Plemons plays a socially awkward, disgruntled game developer who uses the DNA of his colleagues to create and control copies in a virtual reality version of a Star Trek-inspired TV show. Almost an outright comedy for its first half, the episode becomes a darker story about male entitlement and rage that is particularly relevant today. Plemons continues to impress as an underrated actor with his subtley creepy performance. In contrast to most Black Mirror episodes, this one ends with a little glimmer of hope.