Posted on Friday, October 28th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Like everyone else with a Netflix account, I’ve spent the past week making my way through season three of Black Mirror, savoring creator Charlie Brooker‘s latest batch of science fiction, horror, satire, and social commentary like a fine, evil, thoughtful wine. There is nothing else on television (or on streaming services) quite like this show, which proves that we’re all gluttons for punishment – realizing that humanity is probably doomed and that our addition to technology will be our undoing has never been this addictive.
And since is the internet, I must now do as internet-dwellers do. I must rank all 13 episodes of Black Mirror from worst to best. It should go without saying that MAJOR SPOILERS follow from here on out.
13. Shut Up and Dance (Season 3)
It’s not that “Shut Up and Dance” is a bad hour of entertainment – it’s that it’s a half-measure approach to a concept we’ve seen done a dozen times before and frequently executed with more menace and wit. If the script had taken things to an extreme, if the trials the lead characters are forced to endure got as intense and unsettling as those seen in other “mysterious texts/voices force people to participate in a series of escalating trials” thrillers, it could have overcome its lack of originality. Because as it stands now, it’s an average thriller at best that never offers anything beyond its familiar surface. Despite strong leading performances from Alex Lawther and Jerome Flynn, “Shut Up and Dance” is the only episode of Black Mirror that leaves you with nothing to think about and nothing to dwell upon. There is nothing said here that isn’t already explored with more originality and cleverness in “White Bear” and “Hated in the Nation.”
12. Men Against Fire (Season 3)
Black Mirror has been frequently compared to The Twilight Zone, which is accurate enough. Both are anthology shows that utilize science fiction, horror, satire, and even elements of fantasy to explore our own modern world. Both are generally very good at embedding messages and themes within their storytelling. And sometimes, both wear their heart on their sleeves in such an obvious manner that characters literally pause to explain what you should be thinking and how you should be feeling.
“Men Against Fire” is easier to appreciate than it is to actually like, mainly because it has so much on its mind and wants to tackle subjects that need to be tackled. The programming of soldiers. The dehumanization of enemy combatants. How entire cultures quietly condone genocide, as long as it’s not happening to them. At its best, “Men Against Fire” is a thoughtful and intense commentary on everything from drone warfare to post-traumatic stress disorder. At its worst, it’s (the admittedly compelling) Michael Kelly sitting in an interrogation room and explaining to (the absolutely terrific) Malachi Kirby everything the audience needs to know. It’s a classic case of a story telling rather than showing, a sin for an episode that all about how we choose to see the world.
11. The Waldo Moment (Season 2)
In the television history books, “The Waldo Moment” will go down as the television episode that foresaw the American presidential election of 2016, the hour of science fiction satire that envisioned a political race where good taste was thrown out the window, where the phrase “media circus” started to feel a little too literal, with a political campaign with a literal cartoon character at the center of it all. In retrospect, the episode has only grown in power because its horrifying core idea has stopped feeling quite as outlandish. Observed in a bubble, it’s a fine episode that checks all of the proper Black Mirror boxes: it’s funny and sad and cynical and uses near-future science fiction to explore how humanity is more than willing to vote against its own self-interest if there’s a laugh to be had.
10. The National Anthem (Season 1)
The first episode of Black Mirror stands apart from almost every other episode of the series, taking place in the here and now with nary a single science fiction element to be seen. But like the rest of the show, “The National Anthem” is all about how we’ve let technology dominate our lives and how we are simultaneously at its mercy and completely addicted to it. The sick joke at the heart of this story, where England’s Prime Minister is manipulated into a horrific sex act on live TV as part of a twisted social media plot, would have felt like pure science fiction a decade ago. Now, it feels all too real. It could happen tomorrow, if the right elements aligned. And if this, the first shot across the bow from a show with both eyes on the near future, feels so unsettlingly plausible, what does that mean for the rest of the series? If you believe Black Mirror takes place in a shared world and that each episode occurs at a different point on the same timeline, “The National Anthem” is the insane event that made everything else possible. It’s a warning.