clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Ranking of Every ‘Black Mirror’ Episode

Technology is scary as hell, but what’s even scarier are the people who may wield it

Netflix/Ringer illustration

On June 5, Black Mirror will return with three new episodes to remind us, yet again, that technology is just about the scariest thing on earth. But before we get to the manic, Alexa-like doll voiced by Miley Cyrus or the latest cellphone-induced tirade, let’s look back on Black Mirror’s first 20 episodes and decide how they stack up against one another.

20. “The Waldo Moment”

Season 2, Episode 3
The one with … the political cartoon bear

It’s tempting to give this episode retroactive points for its prescient warnings about entertainment and politics, and its initially mocking, disturbingly successful attempts to combine the two. But just because “The Waldo Moment” is right doesn’t mean it’s particularly artful. This is an outing that gives ammunition to the critics that accuse Black Mirror of one-note technophobia; it’s also a reminder of the early identity the show grew past as creator Charlie Brooker developed an interest in higher-concept, more experimental stuff. Still, without a more complicated protagonist to sympathize with, “The Waldo Moment” ends up about as ham-fisted as the malevolent dancing bear for which it’s named. If we wanted to feel bad about pop culture’s influence on our body politic, we’d turn on the news. —Alison Herman

19. “Men Against Fire”

Season 3, Episode 5
The one with … the military

“Men Against Fire” is one of the series’ prime examples of a compelling piece of potential technology being wasted by a flat narrative. In a dystopian future, soldiers are implanted with neural “Mass” technology, which processes their senses and provides them instant data through an augmented-reality interface. As we come to find out, the technology is largely built with the intention of galvanizing soldiers into killing their enemies and eliminating any possibility that they’ll empathize with their targets on the battlefield.

While the AR combat interface is a cool visual, reminiscent of shooter games like Halo or Call of Duty, and it’s an interesting idea that the military would create this technology, much of the discourse is familiar. The narrative inches along to a twist that the audience has likely already figured out. By maybe the 10th instance of a soldier mentioning how excited they are to kill the so-called “roaches,” it’s clear that there’s more to the supposed monsters than we are initially led to believe. And by the time our protagonist, Stripe, starts glitching out, it’s obvious that the soldiers are being brainwashed by their implants—while the rest of the episode’s hourlong run time is spent waiting for Stripe to realize it too. —Daniel Chin

18. “Fifteen Million Merits”

Season 1, Episode 2
The one with … the bikes and the reality show

Black Mirror is rarely subtle, so instead of imagining lower-class citizens cycling through an exploitative capitalist system, “Fifteen Million Merits” illustrates it quite literally. In one of the show’s most ambitious sci-fi pivots, we follow Bing (a pre–Get Out–fame Daniel Kaluuya), one of many citizens in a dystopian future pedaling stationary bikes—the new world’s power generators—while earning enough “merits” to try to escape that life via an America’s Got Talent–esque show. The episode is, even for Black Mirror standards, quite bleak, as citizens fully embrace their digital avatars and the world’s consumerist-driven bylaws. (In a terrifying sequence, Bing doesn’t have enough merits to skip ads, and instead of ignoring them, he’s forced to engage with them.) It’s like Club Penguin from hell.

“Fifteen Million Merits” is mostly remembered for Bing’s epic speech—which helped put Kaluuya on Jordan Peele’s radar—but it’s always worth revisiting as we continue to get sucked into our own digital lives, inundated by ads that always seem to know a little too much about our interests. —Miles Surrey

17. “Crocodile”

Season 4, Episode 3
The one with … the guinea pig

If it weren’t for its terrible ending, which involved infanticide and a guinea pig, there’s a decent chance that “Crocodile” wouldn’t have fallen so low in this ranking. The third episode of Season 4 focuses on a piece of technology called a “recaller,” a forensic tool that grants police and insurance companies the ability to access witnesses’ memories in order to solve crimes or verify claims. The premise of the technology and its potential impact on society is fascinating, as it essentially turns everyone into living CCTV cameras, but the episode fails to explore the effects it would have on surveillance and privacy in any meaningful way. The recaller is introduced when an insurance investigator is responding to a claim on an accident involving a man being hit by an autonomous pizza delivery van, and the investigation eventually leads to the discovery of a murder committed by a woman named Mia (Andrea Riseborough), who spirals into a killing spree as she tries to eliminate any potential witnesses that could trace back all her crimes.

There are some interesting moments when the investigator is piecing together all the various accounts of the pizza van accident, but again, the ending is really just the worst. I mean, she kills a baby! What the hell?! And after several scenes explaining the complexities and limitations of the recaller technology due to human subjectivity, it’s a cheap and absurd conclusion to suggest the foil to Mia’s killing spree is ultimately a guinea pig. Somehow, one of the more disturbing elements of the episode remains the fact that an autonomous pizza delivery van is apparently being developed by Pizza Hut in real life. —Chin

16. “Nosedive”

Season 3, Episode 1
The one with … the social ranking system

To be fair to “Nosedive,” this episode is built with some positives. Unlike most of the genre, the setting of “Nosedive” is brightly lit and full of color—the episode’s form matching its function. Bryce Dallas Howard is game for any and all shenanigans her character pursues. And, as written by sitcom veterans Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, it features its fair share of laugh lines. But “Nosedive” also straddles an uncomfortable messaging position in the Black Mirror oeuvre. It simultaneously depicts one of the more over-the-top fictionalized worlds of any episode, while also offering one of the more facile morals. The show is at its best when exploring the underconsidered ramifications of technological advancements, but we’re already aware of the dangers of social media and “like” culture, so “Nosedive” feels less novel and somewhat tired from the beginning. This was a “what if phones, but too much?!” episode—plus, Community already did more in 21 minutes than this episode did in over an hour. —Zach Kram

15. “Black Museum”

Season 4, Episode 6
The one with … the connected vignettes

An anthology episode that veers between humor and horror, “Black Museum” is an oddball in Black Mirror lore. After her car breaks down in the desert, Letitia Wright wanders into a Ripley’s Believe It or Not–esque tourist trap filled with some of the sinister pieces of tech from previous episodes, like the child-monitoring tablet from “Arkangel.” The museum’s creepy curator proceeds to tell her a series of horror stories about the different exhibits, including a neurological helmet that allows the user to feel (and weirdly get off on) other people’s pain, a stuffed monkey that is now the cage for a comatose woman’s consciousness, and a holographic execution chamber that allows customers to murder a prisoner with the flip of a switch. Given their short length, none of the stories can effectively build the compounding dread that elevates great Black Mirror episodes. And while the final twist is a good one—Wright reveals that the prisoner is her father, and traps the curator in his own devious machine—it doesn’t land as well as it could because the characters have so little time to develop a relationship. This is still an entertaining romp, but not one that will keep you up at night. —Victor Luckerson

14. “Bandersnatch”

Special Episode (2018)
The one with … the interactive features

Like its audience, Black Mirror may be horrified by technology, but it’s also fascinated by it. Naturally, then, it can’t resist the allure of a stunt as ambitious as a choose-your-own-adventure episode, thanks to the logistical capabilities afforded by Netflix. (That a technoskeptic show like Black Mirror exists due to a partnership with a massive corporation worthy of skepticism is a conversation for another day.) Like all big swings, “Bandersnatch” has its perks and drawbacks; the constant selections immerse us, and implicate us, in an ’80s game developer slowly losing his mind, but the multiple options also detract from the overall narrative. Overthinking “Bandersnatch” quickly starts to sap the charm of playing it. Better to just say “Fuck it,” break the fourth wall, and have your avatar discover he’s on a streaming show in the future. —Herman

13. “Shut Up and Dance”

Season 3, Episode 3
The one with … the mysterious scavenger hunt

How far would you go to stop the leak of a potentially ruinous secret? That’s the anxiety-inducing question at the heart of “Shut Up and Dance,” in which a seemingly innocent teenager named Kenny is pushed to desperate measures after his webcam is hijacked during a fap session. (Always put tape over your laptop camera, people!) Kenny is soon bombarded with texts from his anonymous tormentors, who threaten to release the video if he doesn’t execute a series of increasingly dangerous missions. The face of Alex Lawther, the brilliant actor who plays Kenny, becomes an unforgettable canvas of panicked angst as his sick scavenger hunt descends into bank robbery and, eventually, murder.

“Shut Up and Dance” is one of the more chilling Black Mirror episodes because there is nothing futuristic or fantastical about it; it’s a premise involving surveillance, malware, hackers, and compromised privacy that could happen today, or even five years ago. By the time Radiohead’s “Exit Music” hits at the episode’s close (and the troll faces are unleashed), you, like Kenny, are emotionally spent. And then, the shocking twist and the realization that Kenny is not a sympathetic victim—which leads to another complicated question: Do the ends justify the means when hackers attack a bad person? —Donnie Kwak

12. “Hated in the Nation”

Season 3, Episode 6
The one with … the killer bees

Essentially a feature film unto itself, “Hated in the Nation” is about Gamergate, the surveillance state, cancel culture, AI, and half a dozen other things that make modern life rubbish. Of course, you can watch Black Mirror as visual essays on The Way We Live Now or How We Will Live If We’re Not Careful, but they’re just as fun as genre exercises—“San Junipero” as an ’80s-kissed romance; “Metalhead” as dystopian horror. “Hated” is essentially Prime Suspect with Kelly Macdonald in the Helen Mirren role, and that part absolutely cranks. Her DCI Karin Parke is adrift in her life when she connects a series of gruesome, high-profile murders to an online hashtag and some very angry bees. Black Mirror has always been able to tell its stories economically, but “Hated” showed that Brooker had more than enough ideas to fill up a feature-length runtime. —Chris Ryan

11. “Arkangel”

Season 4, Episode 2
The one with … the overprotective mother

“Arkangel” envisions a world in which helicopter parents have access to the ultimate tool to monitor their precious babies: a device that records everything their children sees as it’s happening. Think about all your worst mistakes, deepest regrets, and most private moments throughout your life … and then imagine that your parents were there looking over your shoulder, observing it all. That’s essentially what’s at stake in the Jodie Foster–directed episode from Season 4 when an overprotective single mother plants a tracking device in her daughter’s head after nearly losing her at a playground. The Arkangel technology allows her to filter what her daughter can see and hear, records what she’s seeing in real time, and indicates her exact location at all times.

While the episode delivers some haunting moments that depict just how invasive this technology would be, the plotting often falls short in what’s a largely predictable narrative. Against the odds, Sara becomes a pretty normal teenager despite growing up as a “chip-head,” and we witness her experience typical coming-of-age stuff, like experimenting with drugs and having sex for the first time (all of which her mom watches along with us). The ending is a bit too literal in the way the technology and the mother’s parenting style comes back to haunt her, but some of the most unnerving Black Mirror episodes are ones like “Arkangel,” revolving around technology that’s right around the corner. —Chin

10. “White Bear”

Season 2, Episode 2
The one where … someone is hunted by strangers

It’s impossible to discuss “White Bear” without bringing up the Big Twist (spoilers ahead!), as one woman’s day from hell—which she’s subjected to every day anew after her memory is wiped clean—is unveiled as a unique form of punishment for a heinous crime. Like any good twist, repeat viewings make the conclusion feel inevitable, but no less compelling.

The “protagonist isn’t actually the hero” and “mysterious amnesia” devices aren’t new, but what makes “White Bear” so visceral is what it reveals about the characters who willingly engage in sadistic torture generously framed as government-mandated capital punishment. Being desensitized to objective amoral behavior is a quintessentially digital phenomenon—and the punishment-crazed citizens of “White Bear” are eerily analogous to various perpetrators of online harassment. Just another thing to ponder before you send out that tweet. —Surrey

9. “Playtest”

Season 3, Episode 2
The one with … the horror video game

Like any successful Black Mirror episode, “Playtest” is ostensibly about the perils of advancing technology, but is actually a treatise on humanity. In this case, the Wyatt Russell–led hour of twist-tastic horror purports to serve as commentary on the creep of video game culture—the dangers of augmented reality replacing our own. Really, it’s a haunting portrait of how people are ruled by fear and the desire for control. Russell’s Cooper is an American traveling through Europe after his father’s death from Alzheimer’s, looking to live life in order to get a reprieve from it. He meets a girl. He runs out of cash. He ignores his mom’s phone calls so that he can ignore his own grief. When the need for more coin leads him to the Oddjobs app and a testing gig at a sequestered gaming company, he’s thrust into a personalized hellscape created by the tech permeating his brain and projecting his dread. What’s scarier, after all, than what’s already in our heads?

After numerous false exits from the experiment that include encountering his own memory loss and his mother’s, we realize that he’s still in the lab, and that less than a second has passed. Cooper is killed when the phone he was supposed to turn off rings—his mother, trying, again, to reach him. But the game didn’t kill Cooper: The thing he was running from did. Technology can distract and enable us, but it can’t change who we are. And it can’t quiet one of life’s most nagging questions: Can we ever trust, or escape, the terror in our own hearts and minds? —Mallory Rubin

8. “The National Anthem”

Season 1, Episode 1
The one with … the pig sex

“PM gonna fuck a pig LOL.” This pithy prediction, delivered via YouTube comment, captures all the core tensions of “The National Anthem.” After the British royal Princess Susannah is kidnapped by an unknown ransomer, the only way to get her back is for Prime Minister Michael Callow to actually pork a pig on live television. Callow initially scoffs at the proposal, but the ransom video goes viral online, which goads staid news organizations into covering it as well, which turns the entire spectacle into a world-stopping event that attracts 1.3 billion eyeballs. After a few aborted attempts to get out of the scheme by sending a SWAT team to save the princess and hiring a porn star as a body double, Callow eventually does the deed (for an hour!). Viewers are shocked, disgusted, and amused, but not a single person looks away.

As the very first Black Mirror episode, “The National Anthem” stands out as feeling simultaneously the most absurd and the most grounded. A pig-fucking ultimatum sounds ridiculous, but the idea that a political leader would decide whether to fuck said pig not out of moral conviction to save a woman in danger, but because of polling data and angry tweets, definitely tracks. This episode informed the audience that Black Mirror would be cynical, grotesque, and more often than not, darkly humorous. Though it premiered in 2011, it epitomized a fact of digital life that would become obvious in the coming years: Twitter does, in fact, come for everybody. —Luckerson

7. “White Christmas”

Special episode (2014)
The one with … Jon Hamm

Merry Christmas from the folks at Black Mirror! Google Glass–esque devices can block the entirety of society from engaging with you; Jon Hamm is a sleazy tech salesman who creates personal assistants from a customer’s own consciousness, torturing them into submission; and Rafe Spall is complicit in the death of a child his ex-wife had after an affair with their mutual friend. “White Christmas” may well be the darkest Christmas special ever made, layering three tech-centric mini narratives together until the horrifying reality of the episode’s principal cabin in the middle of a snowstorm is finally revealed.

Beyond the postmodern tech that’s deployed, however, “White Christmas” is a terrific showcase for Hamm, who delivers his best non–Mad Men role of the 2010s—which makes it all the more frustrating that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. —Surrey

6. “Metalhead”

Season 4, Episode 5
The one with … postapocalyptic robot dogs

We’ve all seen enough viral videos of highly capable robots to wonder whether the end of civilization is nigh. “Metalhead” takes that thought a few steps further. Set against a black-and-white, semiapocalyptic landscape, the episode chronicles a robot’s agonizing hunt of a human who trespasses on its territory. The robot is chilling in its capabilities and perseverance, but most disturbing of all is its direct resemblance to an actual dog-shaped robot model made by the Massachusetts-based startup Boston Dynamics. Charlie Brooker delights in mimicking and exaggerating the real-life capabilities of these machines for the purposes of his dystopian narrative, going so far as to give the robot the ability to drive a van or wield a knife. The result is exactly the eerie sweet spot that the series strives for: a haunting man-versus-machine dynamic that’s realistic enough to keep you up at night. —Alyssa Bereznak

5. “USS Callister”

Season 4, Episode 1
The one that … looks most like Star Trek

The supersized Season 4 kickoff is an exercise in inversion, both an ode to the space opera that inspires its Trekian aesthetic and a warning about the horrors that await when people build digital doll houses for their worst impulses. What initially appears to be comedic sci-fi satire quickly reveals itself to also be a study in dominion, just as our initial empathy for Jesse Plemons’s outcast CTO Robert Daly warps into revulsion when we realize that he’s not walling off a playpen to find some sense of belonging, but to terrorize those he feels have wronged him. Daly steals DNA in order to create digital versions of his colleagues in the private mod of the game their company makes, a spaceship in which he’s not only captain, but king. He demands to be lauded and obeyed and kissed, abusing his subjects when they fall short of an expectation that exists only in his mind. These clones lack genitalia and the ability to end their simulated lives—lack, in other words, control over their circumstances—but they think and feel and carry the memories of their human spawns.

Just as “San Junipero” compelled us to believe that our consciousness could live and breath and love, “USS Callister,” like “White Christmas,” forces us to consider the ethics of creation and control, and the nature of existence. When Daly brings new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) into the game, she encourages her fellow clones to rebel against their maker, trapping him in the abyss, undone by his own cruelty and lust for power. It’s fanfiction gone rotten, and a reminder that while we may all want to build our own Space Fleet, when people play god, they tend to become the devil. —Rubin

4. “Hang the DJ”

Season 4, Episode 4
The one with … the dating app

Strip away the social commentary on dating apps and the whole “simulation vs. reality” mindfuck, and “Hang the DJ” is essentially a moody, moving rom-com. As such, it can only be as good as the chemistry between and the likeability of its two leads—and Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are a couple that’s impossible not to root for. Per convention, Frank and Amy have a meet-cute—via a “system” that pairs people into romantic relationships with set expiration dates—followed by a mandated breakup, a reunion, then another mandated breakup, which leads to heartbreak and regret, and finally a clear obstacle for their love to overcome. It’s genuinely emotional stuff, so much so that when the couple’s final rebellion against the system reveals how everything we’ve just seen is only a simulation—one of 1,000, in fact—it hardly even matters. We just want Frank and Amy to be together, in real life or in an algorithm. —Kwak

3. “Be Right Back”

Season 2, Episode 1
The one with … the dead boyfriend clone

Arguably the most deeply moving episode of the entire series, “Be Right Back” serves as a kind of counterweight to the “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” optimism that would appear years later in the beloved “San Junipero” (both episodes were directed by frequent Black Mirror helmer Owen Harris). Hayley Atwell plays Martha, who loses her partner, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), early in the episode. She tries to manage her grief by using a service that re-creates loved ones out of internet ephemera—social media posts, blogs, photos. First, it’s chat, then it’s voice, then it’s something more.

Black Mirror often looks at the lengths we will go to fill some void within ourselves, and “Be Right Back” looks at the consequences of getting what we want. Sort of. Atwell gives a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance, portraying a character who is never quite at peace with the reanimated Ash, no matter how kind he appears to be. Heaven may be a place on earth, but she never really finds it. —Ryan

2. “The Entire History of You”

Season 1, Episode 3
The one with … the implanted memory device

The horror in “Entire History,” of course, comes at the end, with Liam’s realization about his wife’s affair and his child’s true parentage. But don’t discount the horror of the first half of the episode, when Liam replays—and replays, and replays, agonizingly—an awkward interaction with his bosses. The Grain device is not as prima facie sinister as other examples of futuristic Black Mirror technology, but it nonetheless provides a relatable cautionary tale because it focuses on the psychology surrounding the tech, rather than the tech itself. Even without the ability to rewatch every moment in high definition, people in our world ruminate. Was his laugh genuine or uncomfortable? Did she look at her phone because I’m boring? What do they know that I don’t?

Liam’s paranoia and discomfort throughout the episode are human impulses, just with an additional, tech-enabled layer to amplify their growth. Forget killer bees and bloodthirsty, gun-toting hounds—the scariest creatures in Black Mirror are man and his brain. —Kram

1. “San Junipero”

Season 3, Episode 4
The One With… the technological heaven

In a series that’s practically designed to make us fearful of the future, “San Junipero” is the rare optimistic entry. The episode follows the relationship of Kelly and Yorkie, two women who meet while exploring a nostalgia-rich virtual reality playground for the dead and terminally ill. While prancing around in bedazzled 1980s clothing, the two form a special connection. But their relationship grows more and more complicated as they inch closer toward death in the real world and struggle with the decision to “pass away” (die) or “pass over” and upload a replica of their consciousness into their fantasy world. Ultimately, their decision to try life a second time around together—as literal pieces of data in a server storage hall—offers a hopeful viewpoint on the applications of future technology. Nevermind that experts think the quest to replicate human consciousness is “doomed.” —Bereznak