black mirror be right back

4. Be Right Back (Season 2)

The best genre fiction uses outlandish concepts to comment on ideas and feelings that are all too real and all too familiar. “Be Right Back” is a deeply unsettling blend of horror and science fiction, but it’s also a portrait of grief that cuts hard and deep, exploring how losing a loved one is a messy ordeal that creates incurable wounds and how memories can linger and fester in those wounds. Hayley Atwell is devastating as a young widow whose husband dies in a car accident. Domhnall Gleeson is chilling as the artificial intelligence version of her late husband that is created by scanning all of his social media interactions to approximate his personality. Her work is raw and fearless – his work is so close to human but just off enough to inspire the proper level of discomfort.

“Be Right Back” is a fable about letting go, about how the healing process can only be complete when you have moved on. But its great power is that genre twist, which takes those painful memories of the people you love and makes them literal. Even after you’ve moved on, even after you’ve made the decision to take the next step forward, those you’ve lost will never leave you. They’ll always be in the attic.

black mirror white bear

3. White Bear (Season 2)

For its first 30 minutes, “White Bear” is the worst episode of Black Mirror. It’s indefensible, even. A show that has explored the horrors of technology in ways that were smart and clever and funny has seemingly decided to make a lousy horror movie, one part 28 Days Later and one part Stephen King’s Cell, with only a thin and obvious layer of social commentary lazily draped over the whole thing. And then, somehow, “White Bear” becomes one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, taking its final 15 minutes to re-contextualize everything you’ve just seen and make you feel like a doofus for ever doubting the show in the first place. Because “White Bear” isn’t a grim and gross tale of post-apocalyptic horror – it’s a scathing condemnation of punishment as entertainment, a blistering attack on how we make a game out of suffering and take pleasure in the pain of others (even when we think they deserve it). Modern media has allowed real-life crimes can evolve into thinly-veiled reality shows, an excuse for the viewer at home to follow along and play detective, so the episode’s suggestion that we would happily participate in ongoing capital punishment after the fact is as chilling as anything I’ve ever seen. Justice must be served. But do try to enjoy yourselves.

Because “White Bear” isn’t a grim and gross tale of post-apocalyptic horror – it’s a scathing condemnation of punishment as entertainment, a blistering attack on how we make a game out of suffering and take pleasure in the pain of others (even when we think they deserve it). Modern media has allowed real-life crimes can evolve into thinly-veiled reality shows, an excuse for the viewer at home to follow along and play detective, so the episode’s suggestion that we would happily participate in ongoing capital punishment after the fact is as chilling as anything I’ve ever seen. Justice must be served. But do try to enjoy yourselves.

black mirror white christmas

2. White Christmas (Season 2)

Black Mirror‘s Christmas special features one of the single most upsetting concepts ever introduced in the realm of fictional entertainment: the “Cookie.” This device, a tiny little egg that operates your smart home and ensures that everything about your living experience is to your liking, houses something indescribably awful. The reason it can run your house so well, the reason it can cater to your every whim before you even know what you want, is that it’s operated by an artificial intelligence that was cloned from your own mind. As far as the Cookie is concerned, it is you. It has your memories, your tastes, and knows exactly how you like your home. And it is a slave, psychologically tortured and broken by a specialist who removes the AI’s will to resist with time manipulation. It is the duty of this copy of your consciousness, this little you, to serve you the rest of its life, to watch from a tiny prison as the other you, that you that it truly thinks it is, live your life. I have nightmares about the Cookie.

Of course, the Cookie is only one element of “White Christmas,” an all-time great 90-minute episode that may be the finest feel-bad experience in television history. The episode begins with a vague mystery (who are these two men played by Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall and where are they living?) and spirals out from there, slowly introducing new horrors and that interlock to form a tapestry of sci-fi misery that has to be endured to be believed. It would be all too much if it wasn’t also so darkly funny, so morbidly fascinating, and so recognizably human.

black mirror san junipero

1. San Junipero (Season 3)

I still haven’t decided if the final scene of “San Junipero” is the most cynical thing Black Mirror has ever done or if it’s one the most romantic and beautiful moments in all of science fiction. That it can be read either way is a testament to how good this show can be and how, when it’s at its best, it refuses to cast judgment on technology, using tech as a lens for us to examine humanity from a unique angle. Right now, I’m choosing to believe that the ending of “San Junipero” is presented honestly and that is a rare example of the show deciding to reward its characters rather than punish them.

But the episode is far more than its memorable ending, which also manages to forever redefine how we’ll listen to a certain ’80s pop song. It is a remarkable love story between two women (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis in remarkable performances), told in a way that only Black Mirror could accomplish. It is a parade of smart and wicked ideas, all of which exist to enhance the two leads and offer new avenues from which we can understand them better. It has the kind of wry commentary you’d expect from this show (“nostalgia therapy” for people is ridiculously on point for a generation that is obsessed with Stranger Things), but it pulls back on the cruelty and amps up the understanding, the romance, the empathy, and the humanity. If there’s anything wrong with “San Junipero,” it’s that it’s not indicative of what Black Mirror is as a whole. It would be unfair to make it someone’s first episode because it would give them the wrong impression.

And yet, it is the show’s finest hour and proof that the series is more than misery and darkness. We all got addicted to this show in the first place because it’s so very good at being miserable. That it can also be joyous is evidence that the show is growing into something greater. “San Junipero” feels like a promise – Black Mirror will never stop surprising us.

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