A new year means a whole lot to think about, particularly in a world as messed up as ours. But before 2018 kicks off, Charlie Brooker is bringing us six new Black Mirror episodes, his bleak, wise, and relentless Netflix series that imagines several different worlds where technology warps our humanity.
Season four premieres on Netflix on Dec. 29, but before it does, we’ve decided to take a closer look at some of the show’s best episodes. For a show as twisted and ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s only natural that some episodes stand out above others, and the following are eight that highlight the show at its best. While they’re all different and often hard to place next to one another, Black Mirror is the most moving when its gloominess doesn’t overshadow its humanity. Hopelessness is the prominent tone of the show, but these episodes still strive to understand human behavior. They make the show more than just a cold, cutting monster. Here are our picks for the best episodes out yet.
8. White Bear
Season 2, Episode 2
There’s a final twist in “White Bear” and for that alone the episode deserves to make this list. It’s savvy storytelling, even though as a whole product it feels almost too cruel. Although cruelty is interesting and provocative, Black Mirror works best when it does more than make pawns out of human beings to see how they’d react in alternate, twisted worlds. In “White Bear” a woman wakes up disoriented, without any sense of who or where she is. She soon discovers that everyone around her is controlled by some sort of satellite and that she’s being hunted down by masked killers. As she begins to piece things together we begin to learn that “White Bear” is more than just a stranger Hunger Games. It’s a piece of theater, a creative take on law and order that creator Charlie Brooker is certainly proud of putting together.
Without spoiling, which is difficult to do when considering Black Mirror, the episode proposes a twisted take on justice. This woman, for whatever reason, is being punished, but the episode—like all of Black Mirror—is more fascinated with its punishers, with what we as people are capable of given a little imagination and a lot of nastiness.
Season 3, Episode 1
“Nosedive” is your biggest fear realized, a world where likeability is currency. We meet Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young woman fully immersed in a system of rankings. The higher your ranking the more you’re able to do in the world. Lacie, who has a 4.2 ranking, wants to get up to a 4.5 to get a discount on a beautiful apartment. This requires her having a carefully curated social media presence, monitoring her actions so that she comes off as friendly (but never too friendly), and subscribing to a way of life where appearance is more significant than real character.
She’s in over her head, and “Nosedive”—directed by Joe Wright—sees Lacie start to flail. Despite her best efforts, her obsession with her rating ultimately leads to her undoing. It starts to drop and drop, and soon she is banished from the society and world in which she so desperately wants to be a part of. Although entertaining, relatable, and frustrating, “Nosedive” is perhaps also a little too on the nose, never really going quite deep enough in the way it articulates the pitfalls of social media and the pressure of engagement. Even so, it’s still mostly a biting satire, a reminder that Lacie’s obsessions with how she’s perceived online is never too different from our own.
6. San Junipero
Season 3, Episode 4
“San Junipero” was lauded, and perhaps singled out, for breaking character. Brooker and co decided to give fans of Black Mirror something entirely unexpected: an ending that doesn’t make you want to curl up in a ball and never leave your bed. Well, it still does that, but perhaps in a more ambiguous way.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davies lead the episode, a smart, contained love story about two women who meet at a dance club in the 1980s. It’s an unusual move for Black Mirror, to take us back in time, but we see soon learn that the beach town of San Junipero is actually simulated reality, a plane created for the deceased. Once you die you can choose to upload your consciousness onto a server and spend eternity in this realm. That, or you can die the old-fashioned way. This becomes a source of both joy and tension for Kelly and Yorkie, whose romance blossoms in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s. When the real Yorkie dies she decides to live in San Junipero forever, but Kelly—who had a husband and daughter—isn’t so sure. “San Junipero” isn’t so much about the mysteries of death, where we go or what happens to us when we let out our last breath, but it is about how we choose to live given the opportunity to live forever. In this light, the episode is uplifting, a welcome break from a series that often feels excessively nihilistic. But—and there’s always a but with Black Mirror—can we trust the world Kelly and Yorkie create for themselves? Can we truly escape death without any consequences? Is San Junipero anything more than a delusion? They’re heavy questions that the episode doesn’t quite care about answering. But they linger. They muddy things a bit.
5. The Entire History of You
Season 1, Episode 3
On a very surface level we know Black Mirror is concerned with the role technology will play in our near future, but at its best the show delves into the consequences of humans trying to cheat humanity. In “The Entire History of You” we are introduced to a technology that immediately feels sinister. In this world people are able to record and share their memories. If this sounds nice, for even a second, it’s not. It enables us to scrutinize everything, and in the episode we narrow in on the end of a marriage between Liam, a young lawyer, and his wife Ffion.
Liam catches Ffion flirting with a man from her past and quickly goes mad. He demands to see her memories, but “The Entire History of You” doesn’t just chronicle his paranoia and what that does to their relationship. That would be easy, and the fact that this Black Mirror episode explains that Liam’s paranoia just happens to be justified, makes things more complicated. This isn’t just about a jealous man imploding, but about our insane craving to know everything about ourselves, the people around us, and our world. It’s unnatural, to be so open, Black Mirror seems to believe here, and maybe some secrets, some memories, are meant to stay sacred. Sure, it protects the liars, but the alternative is living in a world where you can’t trust anyone, including yourself, because you have easy access to everything—your joy and your pain. How can you live with that following you around?
4. The National Anthem
Season 1, Episode 1
Is the first episode of Black Mirror perfect? Definitely not, but it did set the tone for the rest of the series in its commitment to throwing its subjects into absurd situations that are simultaneously amusing and tragic. “National Anthem” takes place in an England that could be in our world. A princess has been kidnapped and in order to ensure her safe return, the kidnapper demands that the prime minister have sex with a pig on live TV.
Black Mirror treats this seriously, and while we know it’s satirizing media sensationalism, it’s intelligence comes from the fact that as an audience we are also contributing to the power of a collective online group. There’s a world where the prime minister does have to have sex with a pig, but nobody watches. Everyone, respectfully, turns off their televisions. This isn’t what Black Mirror is interested in, however. If that were the case, the kidnapper, who is, naturally, revealed to be a performance artist, would demand something else from the government. “National Anthem” is a stage setter. It reveals that in some respects we are all complicit. None of this could happen if we weren’t all involved. This haunts the series, and the premiere episode is a bold way to introduce the motif.
3. Fifteen Million Merits
Season 1, Episode 2
“Fifteen Million Merits” is otherworldly, a full on science fiction episode that imagines what our reality would look like if something like The X-Factor ruled over us all. Like “San Junipero,” “Fifteen Million Merits” operates as a love story, but it takes place in this claustrophobic, box-like structure where people have to ride stationary bikes to make money to buy food and—as we come to understand is most valued in this society—entertainment. Everything in this dark space is a screen, and as a cautionary tale on more of capitalism, “Fifteen Million Merits” is as ambitious and effective as Black Mirror gets.
Bingham (played by Daniel Kaluuya in pre Get Out fame) falls in love with Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), which gives him a sense of purpose in their insular bubble. After hearing her singing, he encourages her to audition for Hot Shot, a competition series where winners are able to move up in the ranks in society and don’t have to ride those darned stationary bikes. He has inherited 15 million merits (the currency) from his deceased brother and offers it up to Abi so she can enter herself in the competition. Of course, things take a turn and “Fifteen Million Merits” exists to tell us that love can’t exist in this bubble. All that we can do, as individuals, is try and move up, contribute to the machine and not think about anybody but ourselves. The fact that the episode uses a reality show to emphasize this, creates an alternate universe we are held hostage by our entertainment, makes it one of Black Mirror’s riskier endeavors. But also worth it.
2. Be Right Back
Season 2, Episode 1
After a provocative first series, Black Mirror returned with a devastating series two premiere—without a doubt one of its best. “Be Right Back” has all of the makings of your typical Black Mirror episode: It’s bleak as hell and is curious and critical of the role technology plays in our world. What distinguishes “Be Right Back,” however, is the lack of relentless cynicism that often bogs down the show. “Be Right Back” is a thoughtful exploration of modern grief, but also how we immortalize our loved ones once they are dead, particularly when so many facets of their being continue to exist online.
When Ash dies, Martha—his partner—discovers that she can upload all of his social media accounts onto a database that essentially recreates a version of Ash, a fraction of the man she loved, to interact with. First they talk on the phone, then she purchases an avatar of sorts, where she can create a physical copy of Ash that she can speak to, be intimate with, and share with those around her. Naturally, she learns that it’s not the same, and in “Be Right Back” we see both the beauty of the future and its offerings, but also its limitations. Who we are online, what we leave behind, can be culled and bound together to make something that resembles our essence, but only our essence. It makes for an hour of TV that’s boldly human.
1. Hated In The Nation
Season 3, Episode 6
The greatest Black Mirror entry is the finale episode of series three, the longest episode of the entire show. It earns every minute of its runtime, however, and emphasizes just how spectacularly spooky Brooker’s universe can be. It wisely begins as a conventional crime drama, but by its end morphs into a eerie thriller about surveillance, human fallibility, and—in a way that feels more pointed and mature than ever before—our ability, as a collective, to betray each other and destroy ourselves.
A journalist is murdered after writing a controversial piece about a disabled woman. Prior to her death she received several threats online, and Black Mirror quickly shows how the internet is quick to take someone down. A hashtag, #DeathTo, starts to trend and this becomes the centerpiece to the episode. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated storyline, bees have grown extinct and a company has created these virtual bugs to pollinate. Everything begins to cohere when police detective Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and her partner Blue Coulson (Faye Marsay) learn that the bees have been hacked, programmed to murder anyone who receives the most #DeathTo hashtags in a day.
Someone is committed to this twisted idea of justice, where online outrage determines who lives and who dies, no matter the severity of the crime. None of this would happen, however, if the bees were more innocuous, if they were simply created to pollinate and were not used by the government to spy on its civilians. It may seem like a lot is going on here, and a lot is, but what’s so wonderful about “Hated in the Nation” is that it manages to tackle all of this so smoothly. It’s at once a scathing look at the power of popular opinion on the web, but also of our government's interference in our day to day lives. If we are being watched all the time, the episode argues, then it’s not crazy to think our input online carries more weight than we’d like to think. Here, a tweet is not just a tweet. It’s life or death for someone, including yourself.