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There's more than one way to watch Netflix's Black Mirror. Just ask "Bandersnatch." My picks for the best episodes of the 23 so far will almost certainly not match yours, but when I say "best," I am also trying to differentiate somewhat from "favorites." While I can see, say, "Be Right Back" being a favorite episode, I think Black Mirror is strongest when creator/writer Charlie Brooker takes risks with more ambitious, insightful, multi-layered, and often unsettling stories. Here are my choices for the best Black Mirror episodes as of 2019, including one title from the otherwise lackluster Season 5, which just premiered on June 5.
SPOILERS ahead for each Black Mirror episode.
10. Black Mirror: "Striking Vipers" (Season 5, Episode 1)
I've seen a lot of tittering out there on Twitter about this one, reducing it to gay gamer jokes. I can't decide if they're missing the point or if half the point was exposing that kind of reaction. It's fine when two guys try to kill each other in this virtual reality, knowing they can feel every kick and punch, but it makes people uncomfortable if those same two straight hyper-masculine gamer buddies have fake sex in the same virtual reality -- even when the sex is between male and female avatars? I love that "Striking Vipers" takes two superhero movie actors in Anthony Mackie (Marvel's Avengers) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (DC's Aquaman) and uses them to confront ideas on gender, sexuality, and fluidity.
"Striking Vipers" is a story about the thrill of role-playing, the need for a mid-life escape, and finding compromise in relationships. But it's also a story about empathy and examining your own biases or hypocritical behavior. That's something Black Mirror tends to do well. It was pretty brave of the two comic book movie stars to take on these roles, considering the fan feedback they probably knew they'd get (that polar bear joke alone will haunt Yahya Abdul-Mateen II forever). Still, Nicole Beharie steals the whole thing as Danny's strong-willed, but ultimately open-minded wife.
9. Black Mirror: "Hang The DJ" (Season 4, Episode 4)
I debated putting "Bandersnatch" here, but as much as I appreciate "Bandersnatch's" ambition as an interactive event, the story and overall experience were disappointing. "Hang the DJ" almost feels like a cheat, because it's so uplifting. Unlike many Black Mirror episodes, it has a purely happy ending. But this episode skillfully uses the Black Mirror approach of dropping us into an unfamiliar world and making us figure out the rules as we go. In that way, we partly mimic the experiences of Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) as they navigate a mysterious dating "System" that finds them their perfect match.
The ending really sells "Hang the DJ," revealing the big picture of the world we've been following while revealing a beautiful love story. Comparisons to "San Junipero" are fair on some level, although this story is more simple and straightforward. It's one of the more mainstream-accessible episodes of Black Mirror, perhaps just behind "Nosedive" on that front.
8. Black Mirror: "Men Against Fire" (Season 3, Episode 5)
There were six episodes in Black Mirror's strong Season 3, the most to that point, and "Men Against Fire" kind of got lost in the focus on "Nosedive," "San Junipero," and the gut-punch twist of "Shut Up and Dance." But as much as I love the blackmail episodes like "Shut Up and Dance" and "The National Anthem," I really appreciate the ones that use technology to share a deeper message. In "Men Against Fire," we see through the eyes of "Stripe" Koinange (Malachi Kirby), not knowing he has been given a MASS implant to change what he sees. At first, we see Stripe shooting down "roaches," which look like crazed vampire monsters. But when a "roach" interferes with his implant, we -- and he -- see that they are just people like him. We get the same lessons on empathy alongside Stripe.
This episode delves deep into the dangers of conformity and indoctrination -- demonizing The Other in a way that has obvious parallels to the Nazis and the Jews, but can more broadly apply to any group your side dislikes. "Men Against Fire" also wisely shows how much easier life is when you just take that blue pill and go with the crowd around you. In the same way, we see how awful life can be when you dare to stand up to your friends as well as your enemies, if you can even tell the difference. Living in ignorance and delusion has its privileges, as we see here and also in one of the best episodes of the series later down in this list.
7. Black Mirror: "Hated In The Nation" (Season 3, Episode 6)
Another great thing about Black Mirror is how it covers so many genres. "Hated in the Nation" is the longest episode of the series so far, and it plays out like a police procedural mixed with an X-Files episode crossed with a bee version of The Birds. You could even consider the ending like a Bourne movie. The storytelling is pretty straightforward, for a Black Mirror episode, with a whodunnit plot tied to social media. This episode is about as timely as it gets for our petition-mad nation, and I'm kind of shocked this exact thing hasn't happened on Twitter in real life.
Like many of the best Black Mirror episodes, it holds people accountable for their behavior -- adding the bright-eyed angry mob of social media to the list of villains. Plus, it introduces the amazing tag team of Detective Chief Inspector Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and Trainee Detective Constable Blue Coulson (Faye Marsay), and I'd really love to see more of them.
6. Black Mirror: "Nosedive" (Season 3, Episode 1)
"Nosedive" shows that you don't need dramatic twists to have a great episode of Black Mirror. This one goes in the exact direction you'd expect it to, especially considering the title. I'd say this is the most mainstream accessible episode, with candy-colored visuals -- a stark contrast to most of Black Mirror -- and direct parallels to our modern society. Sure, some of the ideas have already been explored on other platforms and in episodes of shows like Community. 'We Are Slaves To Social Media' is not a ground-breaking concept. What makes "Nosedive" special is, in large part, the amazing Bryce Dallas Howard as desperate-to-please Lacie Pound. She's more of an anti-hero at the start, but each bad decision sends her -- and her score -- spiraling, upping the tension for viewers and pushing us to root for Lacie. But root for her to what? Get to the wedding and up her rating, or get free of this socioeconomic loop?
Like "Men Against Fire," "Nosedive" shows how much easier life is when we conform to social expectations. In this case, it gets you better jobs and housing, a faster line at the airport, and the ability to rent a car, among other things. Is that really too different from our current knee-bends to "verified" blue checkmarks and Instagram "influencers"? Unlike "Men Against Fire," this episode has what I'd consider a more happy ending, with Lacie dropping her nervous fake laugh and spewing angry insults with abandon. She's free.
5. Black Mirror: "USS Callister" (Season 4, Episode 1)
If I had to pick a pure favorite episode of Black Mirror, it might be this one. I never want to exit this fucking game. It's no surprise "USS Callister" won four Emmy Awards, with Jesse Plemons giving perhaps his best performance to date as Captain Robert Daly. Cristin Milioti's Nanette Cole ends up the true hero of the episode, which includes a massive twist early in the story and then adds layer upon layer of horror. At first, Daly seems like the underdog hero, this nice guy who is bullied at work. But this not-so-nice guy strikes back against every slight, real or imagined, in ways that go beyond just "toxic masculinity" tropes to true sadistic cruelty.
Black Mirror expertly mixes genres here, from the obvious Star Trek sci-fi homage to straight-up horror at the torture Daly casually inflicts on his co-workers in simulated reality. There's a lot of depth to this story, but it's even more entertaining than thought-provoking. As much as I love it, I would argue there are a few episodes that strike a more emotional chord, or delve even deeper into the human psyche.
4. Black Mirror: "San Junipero" (Season 3, Episode 4)
"San Junipero" has been showered in praise, which can sometimes result in backlash. As a species, we crave balance, which can often lead to pushing down something that has been raised high. But this episode deserves all of its praise -- for the masterful storytelling, the visuals, the performances, and the shocking twist. Black Mirror once again drops us into a world we don't recognize and refuses to hold our hands or explain. We have to watch to piece together this world; we're first in the '80s, but then another week the same location is in the '00s. Where the heck are we?
The nostalgia-heavy "eras" are just backdrops for a touching love story that turns out to be between two dying women finding each other in a simulated reality. The backstories of Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are heartbreaking, and the ending is bittersweet in its beauty. Will Kelly choose to spend eternity in San Junipero with Yorkie or pass over to follow her late husband and daughter? This is a feel-good story about people dying and living forever in the '80s, which could easily sound like hell. Instead, Black Mirror makes heaven a place on Earth.
3. Black Mirror: "White Bear" (Season 2, Episode 2)
I don't know if any other Black Mirror episode has left me as riveted and sickened as "White Bear." This series is no stranger to disturbing content -- "Crocodile," "Black Museum," "Shut Up and Dance" -- but "White Bear" turns voyeurs and bystanders into the true villains. The smiles on their faces as they watch... I still get chills. "White Bear" was the first and still the best example of Black Mirror dropping viewers into a confusing situation, along with the protagonist, and forcing us to figure it out together. That immediately puts our sympathies with the woman played by Lenora Crichlow, later revealed to be named Victoria Skillane. We follow the unnamed woman as she runs for her life, racing to escape the masked strangers trying to kill her. All the while, eager bystanders follow with cameras to tape her every move.
It's sick. But Black Mirror expertly shifts sympathies back and forth, revealing Victoria to have been complicit in the torture and murder of a child, filming her boyfriend in the act. That's why this is happening to her. Vigilante justice? Black Mirror doesn't let it be that simple, revealing the reality show carnival atmosphere and bloodthirsty angry mob as the true villains. Families join in the fun of watching this woman be tortured for torturing others. The pack mentality of piling on -- and loving it -- has been explored a few times, but never better than in "White Bear."
2. Black Mirror: "The Entire History of You" (Season 1, Episode 3)
I doubt Black Mirror would've become the cultural phenomenon it is without "The Entire History Of You." The third episode of Season 1 came out in 2011 and really put this show on the map as a bold, brilliant, insightful Twilight Zone for the digital age. How many times have we all wished we could play something back, to relive a memory, re-examine a moment, or prove we were right about how something played out and score a point? Liam (Toby Kebbell) does all of that to disastrous effect in the world of "The Entire History Of You."
In this near-future, a "grain" can be implanted behind your ear to record everything you say and do. Neurotic Liam ends up playing back and analyzing everything -- big and small details from his job to his relationship with his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker). He can't move forward without playing something back. It ultimately leads him to lose everything he had in the present, leaving him longing for the past. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
1. Black Mirror: "White Christmas" (2014 Special)
This is the quintessential Black Mirror episode. "White Christmas" premiered in December 2014 as a special between Season 2 and Season 3. To me, it's the episode that most perfectly crystalizes what Charlie Brooker has been trying to say across the series. Like a snowglobe within a snowglobe, "White Christmas" tells multiple stories within the same episode, giving us our first look at some of the ideas that would later recur across the rest of Black Mirror.
For instance, we see the "cookie" digital clone, the blocking that mutes people from seeing or hearing each other, and the realization that we've been watching scenes play out in a simulated reality. We even get a rendition of the Black Mirror staple song "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)." This episode also drops us into an unfamiliar world we have to figure out piece by piece, and masterfully shifts our allegiances and sympathies all within the same scene. (Oona Chaplin plays both a villain and a victim within the same cloned character.)
There are twists on top of twists. Layers upon layers of meaning. There's enough meat on the story bones to chew over for decades. Every time I see "White Christmas," I take away something new. It was such an influence on Season 4's "Black Museum," I can't help but see that 2017 story as a complementary companion episode rather than its own separate entity.
The greatest thing about Black Mirror is how it encourages viewers to examine their own behavior and think more critically. So I'm certainly not expecting everyone to agree with my picks. What would you choose as the best episode of the series so far? Catch up on everything now by streaming the series on Netflix.