22 July 2022

Black Mirror

If you are squarely in the target audience for Black Mirror, you have already watched it. If you have not yet jumped in, I have a few resources here which may help decide whether it is right for you, including a skip guide if you want to just pick up a few of the best episdodes for your tastes.

The “black mirror” of the title references both the computer screen and, of course, the show’s intention to reflect back to us the way computers and related technologies affect our society today. Most episodes take the form of a sort of design-science-fiction: stories which explore the implications of imaginary technologies. The tone generally relies heavily on morbid humor and tragic ironic twists in the style of Richard Matheson. (Even if you do not recognize Matheson’s name you probably recognize the Matheson Twist from countless imitations and screen adaptations, including more than a dozen episodes of the original Twilight Zone series.)Black Mirror also invites comparison to The Twilight Zone in having an anthology format, each episode an independent story.

I recommend these episodes most highly, starting with an important word of advice:

  • S01E01 “The National Anthem” — One of the gutsiest satires ever put on film. But even if you plan to watch the whole series, do not watch this first episode first. If you take to the show, you can go back for this episode later. But the tone of it is so deadpan — and the moves it makes so mortifying — that it can easily throw one out of the show entirely.
  • S03E04 “San Junipero” — A break from the show’s usual tone, poignant and ultimately optimistic ... plus some of the best evocation of clothing from the 1980s ever put on film. I recommend it as your One Episode if you feel sure you will not care for the show in general. And pick it up as a parting dessert if you find yourself losing interest.
  • S03E01 “Nosedive” — Both one of the best meditations on the show’s themes and one of its best-executed stories. The ending is cathartic. If you only watch one episode to get what the show is about, I recommend this one or ...
  • S01E02 “Fifteen Million Merits” — My favorite episode. It squeezes in half a dozen turns where it becomes about something different, and intelligently satirizes several particular things plus a big thing which is hard to name.
  • S04E01 “USS Callister” — Famous for its witty evocation of Star Trek, though one should expect the middle part of the story to go seriously dark places.
  • S04E05 “Metalhead” — Though it has a topical theme, this episode is an almost pure, lean action thriller rather than a satire with something to say.
  • S02E03 “The Waldo Moment” — A political satire which felt a bit too broad and fantastical when it was released in 2013 ... and now feels frighteningly prescient.
  • S05E02 “Smithereens” — A complex satire which covers a lot of ground. I think it falls a little short of its thematic ambitions, but still impressive because it aims high.
  • S04E04 “Hang the DJ” — Though not as strong as “San Junipero”, it also has a twist more like more sentimental O. Henry than cutting Richard Matheson.

Content warnings

Black Mirror presents the tricky bind that many episodes have cause for content warnings ... which constitute significan spoilers. If you have trauma triggers, ask someone who has seen the show about whether yours mean you should skip an episode; if you lack such a friend, I invite you to drop me a line.

I do have a quick word about two key episodes:

  • S04E06 “Black Museum” delivers its own mini-anthology of stories. Despite my strong stomach, the segment about the doctor squicked me right out. Know that it will Go There hard.
  • S03E02 “Playtest” is a straight-up monster horror story. It delivers effective shocks but disappointingly hollow storytelling, not just in having nothing to say but also in the execution of its horror conceit. Teenage Me probably would have dug it, but adult me thinks even folks who take to the show might want to give it a pass.

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