Rarely has another sci-fi anthology TV series been able to hold a candle to the thought-provoking power and imagination of Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone like Black Mirror, which often feels wrong to categorize as sci-fi. The Netflix exclusive, originally created for UK television in 2011 by Charlie Brooker, offers a deeply unsettling reflection of human nature’s clash with technological progress set in a plausible future that seems not too far away, yet way too close for comfort.
After five seasons, a Christmas special, and an interactive movie called Bandersnatch under its belt, the series has become one of the most popular Netflix TV shows (and thank God, because it just could save our lives). With a different story to tell in each of its 23 episodes so far, everyone has a favorite. The following is a list of our personal favorite Black Mirror episodes, ranked by how ambitious, insightful, and even rarely uplifting they prove to be, starting with a few honorable mentions.
SPOILERS ahead for each Black Mirror episode.
Black Mirror: "Striking Vipers" (Season 5, Episode 1)
Starring Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as straight gamer buddies in a virtual reality affair as male and female avatars, “Striking Vipers” confronts ideas on gender and sexual fluidity in a story about role-playing thrills, mid-life crises, and relationship compromises, but also empathy and examining your own hypocrisy which Black Mirror tends to do well. The two comic book movie stars boldly took on these roles, considering the fan feedback they probably knew they'd get (that polar bear joke alone will probably haunt Abdul-Mateen II forever), but Nicole Beharie steals the whole thing as Mackie’s strong-willed, but open-minded wife.
Black Mirror: “Metalhead” (Season 4, Episode 5)
You may come to Black Mirror for nuanced social commentary, but should not be discouraged from sticking around for more straightforward genre fare, such as this intense post-apocalyptic chase thriller. However, I genuinely believe “Metalhead” is one of Season 4’s more unfairly overlooked entries as I was dazzled by its unique grayscale aesthetic, moved by themes of preserving humanity amid global chaos, and terrified by its villainous “dogs,” which bear a startling resemblance to a robot being developed in real life.
Black Mirror: "Hang The DJ" (Season 4, Episode 4)
Unlike many Black Mirror episodes, “Hang the DJ” ends happily, but begins by skillfully dropping us into an unfamiliar world that forces us figure to out the rules as we go, partly mimicking Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank’s (Joe Cole) experience navigating the mysterious dating “System.” The ending really sells it, uncovering the big picture of the world we’ve been following while revealing a beautiful love story.
Black Mirror: "Men Against Fire" (Season 3, Episode 5)
We literally see much of "Men Against Fire" through the eyes of "Stripe" Koinange (Malachi Kirby), a solider implanted with a device he believes helps track down mutants called “roaches,” until an interference with the tech reveals he has been brainwashed into hunting people just like him. Themes of xenophobia and the pressures of conforming to hate make this one of the most powerful episodes of Black Mirror’s already strong Season 3.
Black Mirror: "Hated In The Nation" (Season 3, Episode 6)
One of Black Mirror’s longest episodes “Hated in the Nation” (which plays out like a police procedural mixed with The X-Files with a modern twist on The Birds) is about as timely as it gets for our petition-mad nation. Like many of the series’ best, this whodunnit sees people held accountable for their behavior, while also adding a bright-eyed, angry mob of social media warriors to its list of villains. I'm kind of shocked this exact thing hasn't happened on Twitter in real life.
10. Black Mirror: “Crocodile” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Season 4 notably has its fair share of crowd pleasers. “Crocodile” (from John HIllcoat, Australian director of Lawless and The Road) is most definitely not one of them. In fact, I distinctly remember how the episode left me distraught, disillusioned, and desperate to take a pause from my Black Mirror binge, but earned my utmost respect in the process.
In a role retroactively preceding her futuristic assassin character in Possessor, Andrea Riseborough is a tour de force as Mia, a successful businesswoman with a family who goes to devastating means to preserve her reputation and secrete her guilt when sins of the past catch up with her. Complicating things is an insurance agent (Kiran Sonia Sawar) investigating a traffic accident Mia happened to witness, leaving her no choice but to participate in a thought examination procedure that only adds length to her bloody trail. Admirers of Black Mirror’s shockingly dark perspective on human nature may find “Crocodile” satisfyingly bold, if they can withstand the trauma.
9. Black Mirror: “Playtest” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Trauma is also a major theme in the second episode of the fan-favorite third season, helmed by 10 Cloverfied Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and led by Wyatt Russell, whose father, Kurt, knows a few things about horror movies. That is essentially what “Playtest,” about a cash-strapped American tourist getting more than he bargained as a VR game guinea pig, aims to be. Yet, in typical Black Mirror fashion, in succeeds in being more.
The bulk of the episode is set in the creepiest Victorian manor you could ever imagine, where Russell’s character encounters virtual reality obstacles so realistic and increasingly familiar that he loses grip on what is virtual and what is reality. The concept is plausible on its own, but the indelibly frightening images make it an even scarier experience. However, at its strongest, “Playtest” is an investing cautionary tale warning how quickly even the most needed escape can grow into something dangerously inescapable.
8. Black Mirror: “Fifteen Million Merits” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Years before playing a prisoner to racial discrimination in Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya played a prisoner to media-influenced standards of image, talent, and social status. Either scenario sounds awfully similar to real life and the Black Mirror Season 1 classic “Fifteen Million Merits” is brimming with ideas that are all too realistic, but presented in strikingly inventive, allegorical means.
Like other average citizens in his strange society, Kaluuya’s “Bing” spends each day riding an exercise bike, playing video games, and consuming mindless entertainment to earn enough credits to appear on an America’s Got Talent-esque show that he really has no interest in, unlike the beautiful aspiring singer Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). When Bing helps her get a spot on the talent show, it backfires, inspiring a plan to rebel against this oppressive system. The outcome is far from the happy ending one would hope for, but in a haunting twist, it appears to be a success by the societal norms of, not only his world, but ours, too.
7. Black Mirror: “Black Museum” (Season 4, Episode 6)
There is actually a fun callback to “Fifteen Million Merits” in the sixth episode of Season 4, which essentially pays homage to the entire series up to that point. In fact, director Colm McCarthy’s “Black Museum” feels like it could have been a fitting end to Black Mirror, but not just for its well-balanced incorporation of previously explored themes and concepts. The expected technophobic appeal of those elements’ technophobic appeal is brilliantly subverted into something unexpectedly cathartic.
Future Black Panther star Letitia Wright plays a young woman making a stop at the titular tourist destination run by a former medical equipment salesman (Douglas Hodge), who entertains her with the bizarre, sometimes funny, and ever tragic stories behind three of his most fascinating artifacts. This feature-length installment gives you three episodes in one, each more compellingly clever and provocatively grim than the last. Yet, it is the inspiring conclusion of “Black Museum’s” wraparound narrative that truly makes it a Black Mirror classic deserving of repeat viewings.
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 that "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 have 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 these 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.