Eight years ago, the small but faithful fanbase of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror would probably laugh at the idea that the dark technological series would ever become event television. But in 2019, what started as a three-episode BBC show now boasts 18 episodes, a Christmas special, an interactive movie, and live events across Europe.
Season five is coming early next month to Netflix. If you’re a die-hard fan who’s gone from “The National Anthem” to “Bandersnatch,” you’ve got the hardest job of all: being patient. But for fans who are new to the series, time is of the essence. You could absolutely marathon the entire run, thanks to the very British shortness of its seasons, but that might not be feasible for everyone.
Fortunately, Black Mirror isn’t linear; the anthology series has a shared universe and makes references to its own episodes regularly, but you can enjoy each story as a stand-alone too. Wandering into Brooker’s dark techno-future without a little forewarning can be daunting, though. So whether you’re new to the series or just want to revisit a few high points before the season five premiere, I’ve picked five stories to get you in the mood for the next installment.
More Like This:
- How Cowboy Bebop Played With the Western Genre
- Russian Doll, Majora’s Mask, and the Endless Horror of the Time Loop
- New Anime For People Who Don’t Watch Anime (Yet)
Fifteen Million Merits
The middle story of Black Mirror’s first season was actually the first episode ever written, despite being preceded by the slightly more here-and-now story “The National Anthem.” It’s our first big plunge into just how wild the series is willing to go when it comes to both speculative technology and metaphors for our current world.
The population of “Fifteen Million Merits” lives in a closed-off, screen-covered society where they must ride stationary bikes to power their surroundings. Bike riding, social games, and interacting with entertainment earn them a digital currency called “merits,” which they then live on. Protagonist Bing (Daniel Kaluuya, whose performance in this episode led to his star-making role in Get Out) has inherited 15 million of the big M’s from his recently deceased brother. After hearing fellow biker Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey) sing, he decides to buy her a ticket for an X Factor type show that will earn her freedom. The ticket costs a cool 15 million… and her crack at fame doesn’t go as expected.
The episode takes equal jabs at our highly-wired society and the belief that our “big break” will save us from our mundane workaday world. You’ll also see similarities to 1984 and Brooker’s own Screenwipe series. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Rupert Everett.
You know a series is dark when it takes five years to deliver its first happy ending.
“San Junipero” was a major nostalgia bomb, set largely in the colorful nightlife of the 1980s. Party girl Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Touch) kicks off a romance with shy girl Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire), but there’s a lot standing in the way of their relationship. For one thing, Yorkie is engaged, though that doesn’t seem to stop her flirting with other people at the local bar.
So, two questions. One, what else could possibly be standing between them? Two, where’s the technology? This is Black Mirror, after all. The answers to both of these questions are one and the same, and come later in the episode. It’s a slow burn with a lot of unexpected themes, chief among them being what we think happens to us when we die… and just how much stock we put in our belief (or disbelief) in life after death.
“San Junipero” walked away with a slew of recognitions, including two Primetime Emmy Awards and a Hugo nomination. Besides being a treat visually, it’s an interesting departure for the show. For a series that spends a lot of time showing us the darker roads we tend to go down, it’s nice to see an occasional brighter path.
This one’s especially for you, Fanbyte readers.
Before becoming a TV writer, Charlie Brooker was a video game journalist. He hasn’t left the field entirely, either: he still weighs in on new titles on occasion, created the documentary How Videogames Changed the World, and notably slapped down news presenter Jon Snow (his real name) for claiming women don’t play video games. So it’s unsurprising that we’d eventually get an entire episode dedicated to the medium.
The resulting episode, “Playtest,” is a giant love letter to creators like Hideo Kojima and series like Resident Evil. Hockey player turned actor Wyatt Russell stars as Cooper Redfield, a globe-trotting thrillseeker who signs up to be a playtester for a new title from a legendary game designer. The tech, an implant that scans the user’s brain to create personalized AR experiences, gets put through its paces as Cooper stays the night in a country home. But things start getting realer by the minute, and before long he can’t tell what’s a game and what’s a genuine threat to his life.
“Playtest” is packed full of Easter eggs for gamers. Game designer Shou Saito is basically just Kojima without his glasses, for one thing. For another, Brooker went all-out to make fictional video game company SaitoGemu seem legit, including contacting gaming magazine EDGE to make custom covers for the episode. Listen closely toward the end, and you’ll hear a very deliberate Bioshock reference, too.
One of the most compelling episodes of Black Mirror’s pre-Netflix run, “White Bear” is a bait-and-switch for the ages that becomes more relevant with every passing year.
Being Human star Lenora Crichlow plays an amnesiac who wakes up in a world of what appear to be literal cell phone zombies. According to some helpful fellow survivors, the behavior is the result of a strange symbol that popped up on televisions and mobile devices. Our amnesiac protagonist joins up with her new associates to travel to “White Bear,” the station from which the signal is being transmitted, and destroy it.
What they discover when they get there, though, turns the entire story on its head — and constitutes Black Mirror’s first twist ending, according to Brooker. The ending is too intense and too affecting to give away in full, but look for themes on vigilante “eye for an eye” justice. (This same theme would be handled once again, albeit in a more on the nose way, in Season 3’s “Hated in the Nation.”)
The White Bear symbol resurfaces in “Bandersnatch,” again marking a road to the harsh truth of the protagonist’s confusing existence… just in a very different way.
The last traditional episode of Black Mirror so far (with the interactive “Bandersnatch” following), “Black Museum” is what we in the industry call A Lot. It’s a lot of story, a lot of lesson, and a lot of emotion.
The anthology-within-an-anthology stars Letitia Wright (Shuri of Black Panther) as Nish, a young woman visiting a strange venue called the Black Museum. The roadside attraction is full of technological artifacts and traces of the mayhem they caused — including a few choice props from other Black Mirror episodes. Curator Rolo (Douglas Hodge, slated to play Alfred in the upcoming Joker film) walks Nish through stories of the various items on display, all leading to the tragic, uncomfortable star exhibit.
The first of the episode’s three stories, “Pain Addict,” is notably adapted from a concept by magician and BS-spotter Penn Jillette. His story, about a surgeon who develops a fetish for pain after using an apparatus that lets him feel what his patients are feeling, was passed on by Hollywood and publishers as too dark… but Charlie Brooker apparently loved it.
The episode’s three stories link up to create a narrative about freedom, personhood, and the state of the legal system. It’s one of the show’s most difficult watches, but ultimately brings together a lot of threads regarding Black Mirror’s stance on humanity and justice.
Right now, we can only guess at what season five holds. It looks like we’ve got Miley Cyrus as a cross between Alexa and Sharon Apple, Sherlock’s Andrew Scott having a most impressive breakdown, Nicole Beharie of Sleepy Hollow as a jilted wife, and look-ins from Avengers cast members Anthony Mackie and Pom Klementieff. This season is packing tons of story into three episodes, and the trailer gives only vagues teases of what to expect.
All will be revealed when Black Mirror season five hits Netflix on June 5.