Power Ranking Literally Anything: Black Mirror Episodes
It’s the holidays, which means you need something to watch so you don’t have to actually talk to your family.
You’ve had two months to finish this newest season of Black Mirror and two years to finish the original seven episodes and I purposely waited to write this so that you would have had ample time to finish all episodes. Ahead lies many spoilers. If you dragged your feet on Black Mirror turn back now but if you, like me, devoured this new season in a few days as you should have, than you should continue reading. Below is the not-so-definitive, entirely subjective, carefully curated power rankings of all 13 current Black Mirror episodes. I am a filthy anglophile, almost to a fault; if I could afford to move myself, my mom, and all three of my friends to Ipswich, I already would have. Of all the superior exports from the UK, Black Mirror has always been one of my favorites—so in my opinion even the worst Black Mirror episode is an excellent episode of television. I’m going to try my best to be critical of these episodes where I think they deserve it, but the simple truth is that Charlie Brooker is certainly better at making television than me, and you could argue better than anyone else. The episodes that do have their faults have minimal ones at best.
13. The Waldo Moment
“The Waldo Moment” is most likely at the bottom of everyone’s rankings. Tonally it’s kind of a mess throughout, and never really felt like a Black Mirror episode. The love story is just kind of shoehorned in to no real benefit to the episode. But the real reason “The Waldo Moment” is at the bottom of this list is because it’s not fun anymore. Even given the typical bleak view of humanity and its future that Charlie Brooker often offers us, “The Waldo Moment” is particularly depressing. For pretty obvious reasons, I don’t really want to write more about this episode.
“Nosedive” is the first episode of the third series of Black Mirror. While it would be a stretch to say “Nosedive” left me worried about the coming quality of the newest season when I first watched it, I was concerned. It seemed that after such a long hiatus and with Brooker asked to produce twice as many episodes in half the time it had originally taken him that Black Mirror was destined to be good not great. The ending of “Nosedive” was so out of character for the show, it was striking. It is the only episode of Black Mirror that is not entirely written by Brooker and it shows. And not just in the last scene when Lacie is in prison, but in the final monologue at the wedding as well. The slow decline into madness because of an obsession fueled by technology is one of Black Mirror’s better themes. I think the biggest problem with “Nosedive” is simply that that theme has simply been done better in “Black Mirror.” It certainly doesn’t help the episode’s cause that its cast is pretty lackluster: even Alice Eve, who I think is more talented than some of her filmography would suggest, is completely wasted on this episode. The concept of “Nosedive” is one of the better ones in Black Mirror because it hits so close to home. Those of you who use twitter, Instagram, facebook, snapchat, fucking etc. know how addicting the instant gratification can be for putting forward a better version of your life. Entire professions have been spawned around getting the most clicks and followers and likes and other currencies of meaningless approval. But this exact concept has been executed better in the Community episode “App Development and Condiments.”
11. 15 Million Merits
“15 Million Merits” has always been the poster boy episode of Black Mirror. In fact, I would bet a lot of people would list it as their favorite episode, including me. But I came out of the first season thinking that “15 Million Merits” was the most forgettable of the three episodes. Once again, Brooker delivers a compelling concept for this episode, a commentary on our obsession with celebrity and reality TV. The story of Bing and Abi’s brief and destructive romance is beautifully and elegantly executed in the initial minutes of the episode. The world building of “15 Million Merits” is its strongest suit. The cold and comical world is brilliantly capable of making the viewer laugh and horrified at the same things. Bing’s experience with porn ads during the first and second acts of the episode is the best example. The ads seem ridiculous and an exaggeration of our predilection for depravity when Bing can skip them without a second thought. It’s only becomes clear later in the episode how insidious and disturbing they really are. Daniel Kaluuya gives an amazing performance throughout the entire series as Bing, who is one of my favorite characters. It is the rest of the characters that fall short, especially Abi who is entirely forgettable. The ending is prototypical of Black Mirror: completely devastating to the audience and coming from a complete lack of faith in humanity. Bing being easily bought off is why”15 Million Merits” is one of Black Mirror’s premier episodes.
10. Shut Up and Dance
“Shut Up and Dance” is the first episode on this list that falls inBlack Mirror’s visceral episodes. Black Mirror tends to have two speeds, bleak and harrowing or a high-speed game of Russian roulette. “Shut Up and Dance” is definitely the latter. Kenny is probably the only Black Mirror protagonist who is entirely sympathetic (excluding of course the characters of “San Junipero,” which stands out from other episodes in almost every way). The ending is what makes the episode. Without the devestation or the mystery of the reveal at the end, “Shut Up and Dance” would likely fall even lower on this list. The white-knuckle pace of the episode doesn’t have the same payoff as some of the others in this category. This is in part because it is such a similar episode to “White Bear” but also because Alex Lawther, who plays Kenny, just doesn’t have the charisma to carry the audience through such a fucking trying episode. Much is asked of Jerome Flynn in this episode, who is playing neither crowd favorite Bronn from Game of Thrones nor the utterly confounding Bennet Drake on Ripper Street and definitely doesn’t offer any levity to this episode. Kenny and Hector make it through this nightmare seemingly unscathed when they get one final instruction, to send Kenny into the forest with their bag of money. And then there’s the ending. Obviously, the debate—one with no correct answer—is whether or not Kenny was looking at child porn or just your regular perfectly innocent filth like the rest of us. The arguments for and against are equally compelling, and the ending is devastating and affecting either way, just in different ways. I believe that this is an episode like “Men Against Fire” or “The National Anthem” where bad things happen to generally good people. There is of course just as many episodes where bad people are being punished to an excessive amount. I don’t think it changes the quality of the episode one way or the other whichever you believe to be the case besides the fact that if Kenny is looking at child pornography the episode has almost identical narrative beats to “White Bear,” which I don’t have a problem with but I can see why people would be disappointed by that.
9. The National Anthem
Up until this season this was the episode I always told people to start with if they were trying to get in to Black Mirror. The fact that Brooker knew to make it episode 101 speaks to how well he understands this show. “The National Anthem” is not Black Mirror’s best episode (obviously 9 > 1 you know your maths), but up until season 3 it was the best primer for the show. Black Mirror is not for everyone, it’s at the best of times hard to watch, and can be downright depressing. There are episodes of Black Mirror that depending on who you are and what you’re going through will ruin your whole day. “The National Anthem” is not that bad but it’s also not that tame either. The episode also has some of Brooker’s favorite themes: mob mentality, the destructive properties of greed, dark humor, the power of anonymity, and false heroes. The slow burn of the episode is so well done; and as the first episode the viewer isn’t trained in Black Mirror’s ways yet so the futile attempts to dodge the ransom seem possible. This episode really couldn’t come much later in the show’s run because the devastation the audience feels at the failed attempts to get the Duchess back wouldn’t be possible for an audience who knows how the show works—but they are executed—just think about how you felt while you watched “Shut Up and Dance” vs “The National Anthem.”
“Playtest” is the only episode of Black Mirror that I would strictly call horror. Black Mirror is terrifying from top to bottom, but not normally because of traditional elements of horror—except when it comes to “Playtest.” An episode full of silent suspenseful walking through an empty house and jump scares seems like it would be both out of place and a weaker moment for Mirror. That proves not to be the case; “Playtest” starts off in a seemingly typical London setting Cooper, an American is making the best of the last bits of his trip around the world when he meets Sonja—played by Hannah John-Kamen—on Tinder which I’m going to have to ding Black Mirror for. If women that looked like that were actually on Tinder I might actually be on tinder, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for a brief moment. The episode starts off cheerily, which should let anyone know things are going to get bad, real bad, and real fast. Once in the house it becomes the Cooper show; most of the episode is just holding your breath waiting for the next horrifying spider or knife wielding stranger to come around the corner. The middle third of the episode is pretty well crafted psychological terror, it manages to be sufficiently scary while constantly reminding you that nothing in this world can hurt Cooper. It’s the final act that has such a powerful effect on the viewer. You should be noticing a pattern here, where Brooker builds up tension for the entirety of an episode and then rips your heart out at the last moment. It is a formula sure but it’s a formula that he has mastered and it works beautifully. The Inception style reveal at the end is as visceral as any in Black Mirror episode, watching Cooper lose himself over and over again in layers of nightmares is horrifying. Which it’s meant to be obviously as you’re watching his greatest fears unfold in front of him. The pinnacle of which is of course that he doesn’t call his mother enough—hold on gotta call my mom be right back.
7. White Christmas
The Christmas Special. And I do mean the Christmas Special. My apologies to decades of Doctor Who and more recently—the god himself Bennedict Cumberbatch. But when I think Christmas Specials now I inevitably think about Jon Hamm in a remote cabin drinking cocoa. An episode that seems like it is going to boil down to two men having a conversation, telling stories, takes a left turn pretty quickly when Matt’s story goes south in a blink of an eye—almost literally. “White Christmas” is an episode with a lot of stellar performances and not a lot of likable characters. Black Mirror has a reputation for managing to get good names and brilliant television actors alike to put together great performances but this episode in particular is pretty stacked, from lead Hamm to Rafe Spall, Oona Chaplin, Natalia Tena, and Janet Montgomery it’s just a shame the episode is only about an hour and some change to allow them more time to work. The episode does a pretty amazing job of challenging who is good and who is bad, all of the characters take a turn from good to bad to pitius; it’s particularly hard in “White Christmas” to decide who, if anyone to root for. Personally, I’m rooting for Harry because he just had the worst Bumble date ever it’s really not his fault. The episode is really just an in-depth look into intense psychological torture in its many forms. It starts when we see what Matt’s job is, which horrifyingly is to break a tiny version of yourself so that you can have the Alexa 5.0 in your house. Watching Oona Chaplin as Greta go through the most extreme version of solitary confinement imaginable is harrowing to say the least, and as is Black Mirror’s style asks some pretty tough moral questions of the characters and the viewers. Potter’s entire storyline is about psychological torture; obviously we find out at the end of the episode that he is suffering the same fate as Greta’s dystopic Google Home, but even before that he puts himself through the same torture that we all have with our ex’s Facebook pages.
6. San Junipero
I kept waiting for it all to go wrong. But it never did, which in a sense is the greatest Black Mirror twist of them all. An actual happy episode, and beautifully done. The unlikely love story between Kelly and Yorkie starts off in what seems like the uncharacteristic setting of the late 80s. The slow reveal of the episode is my favorite part, it becomes clear pretty quickly that things are probably not what they appear to be, especially since by episode 11 of Black Mirror the viewer should probably be on the lookout for the unexpected. Once Yorkie and Kelly end up on the roof it is pretty obvious we’re in a computer simulation then of course there’s all the time traveling. But even that isn’t the full story. The love story development and the challenge of Kelly’s past and her choice to not pass over is expertly done. A good love story is only as good as its two actors and a great duo can make or break a romance. “San Junipero” succeeds on the back of pretty stellar performances from Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire fame and Gugu Mbatha-Raw of having the best name ever and being the saving grace of a lot of terrible movies fame. Not to mention paired with Owen Harris’s fantastic second directorial appearance on Black Mirror and after the job he did on “Be Right Back” it should come as no that he knocked this particular storyline out of the water. I love the ending of this episode, for much the same reason I love many of Black Mirror’s endings; because they are so unexpected in the moment and completely predictable in hindsight. This had the added bonus of making me smile instead of ripping the soul out of my chest and shitting on it.
5. Hated in the Nation
Black Mirror’s move to Netflix for season 3 meant two things; basically a blank check for Brooker to do with what he pleased and that episode runtime was no longer limited by TV time slots. And thus, the full-length movie “Hated in a Nation,” the final episode of Black Mirror thus far. As far as social commentary goes Black Mirror has some pretty amazing moments and it has its fair share of misses as well. “Hated in the Nation” is timely and poignant and terrifyingly realistic—other than the whole killer robot bees thing that is. As time goes on I find myself wondering more and more if there is anything good or if anything ever good has come from social media. I honestly can’t think of any good that’s come from social media and every day I see more examples of how it brings out the worst in humanity. And then I watched this episode. It has everything I love in great British cop drama; a badass DCI with a personality issue and a penchant for solving crime, a fresh blooded computer nerd, and faceless seemingly all powerful bad guy who can only be stopped by those two bad bitches. It’s all of my favorite police procedural clichés with a touch of Charlie Brooker and James Hawes brilliance thrown in. James Hawes has always been one of my favorite television directors and getting to watch him flex his muscles on this episode was a real treat. The performance of the cast is pretty spectacular, I had little experience with Kelly Macdonald before this but she was a pleasant surprise. I have been a big fan of Faye Marsay since The White Queen and this is a pretty amazing performance on her part. The moment when the audience is meant to believe she commits suicide after feeling responsible for the death of millions of people is heart breaking. Outside of the leads, this is one of the most stacked casts of any Black Mirror episode; from Benedict Wong to Ben Miles and Jonas Karlsson everyone delivers a pretty amazing performance. The premise is pretty simple and the execution is nothing revolutionary but not everything needs to be groundbreaking to be breathtaking. The troublingly realistic commentary on mob mentality and the danger of anonymity in the Twitter age coupled with an excellent cast and amazing director is a perfect formula for a brilliant episode of TV.
4. White Bear
“White Bear” has become the face of Black Mirror for better or worse. Even Brooker has embraced it, “White Bear” was me mentioned a few times throughout season three. There were always a few Easter Egg like tie ins in the show before; someone would turn on a TV in the background and something from “15 Million Merits” would flick by or technology would make a reappearance, like the grain. This is the episode, if you’ve never seen Black Mirror it’s the one all your friends have told you harrowing stories about. If you have seen Black Mirror it’s the episode that you tell stories about like it’s your Vietnam. The story of Victoria Skillane at first seems like a pretty standard Black Mirror story of people zombified by their cellphones or some terrifying Truman Show style game show like “15 Million Merits” but with more people trying to kill you. For such a devastating episode the story structure is pretty beautifully executed. From the beginning of the episode Brooker and director Carl Tibbetts do a brilliant job of making Victoria sympathetic. She wakes up from what is pretty evidently a suicide a failed suicide attempt surrounded by pictures of her daughter and husband. The next 40 minutes of the episode feel more like a Liam Neeson movie than an episode of Black Mirror with Jem and Victoria running from the hunters being tied to a tree in a terrifying torture forest. Until the fateful gunshot. It is a testament to Brooker’s writing that he is able to elicit the kind of conflicted emotions he is in the ending of the episode. Who is the bad guy in “White Bear?” Is this too cruel? After the episode ends obviously I was pretty horrified but also I kept cycling through all the moral questions. I still don’t know if I feel sorry for Victoria or not. Obviously if this episode is structured differently, if instead of being the victim of the White Bear Justice Park the episode was shot from the perspective of one of the visitors it would be much easier to feel triumphant at the end. But the decision to make the audience experience Victoria’s horror before she has to live it over and over again is a stroke of sadistic brilliance. Everything about the episode is expertly crafted; even watching the scenes during the credits is trying.
3. The Entire History of You
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Toby Kebbell is the single most underappreciated actor of our generation only slightly beating out Andy Serkis. It is only a coincidence that they have both played apes in CGI suits. “The Entire History of You” is the handbook for: you were right, but it wasn’t worth it. At first we assume Liam is yet another crazy paranoid husband and he’s spiraling out of control due to delusions of his own creation. It should come as some kind of sick catharsis to Liam and the audience when his suspicions about Ffion are confirmed (her actual real name…). Instead watching him destroy his life and lose the woman he loves over his inability to stop playing detective through his own memories is particularly painful. “The Entire History of You” is devastating—as many Black Mirror episodes are—but in a much different way than a “White Bear” or “Playtest.” The episode doesn’t keep you on the edge as you go on the rollercoaster with the main character and in the final seconds get your heart torn out. “The Entire History of You” is about helpless observation; you keep wanting to shout at Liam but instead you have to watch him slowly destroy himself up until the climax when he goes to Jonas’s house and confronts him. Black Mirror is at its best when it tells personal stories, that is why episodes like “15 Million Merits,” “Nosedive,” and “The Waldo Moment” can fall short of some of Black Mirror’s better episodes. Unlike “The Entire History of You,” or most of the episodes that will close out this list, those episodes are comments on society, poignant and brilliantly executed but the show is at its best when it tells the story of society through the lens of the story of individuals like Liam and Ffion. Watching Liam cut out his grain at the end of the episode is a gruesome but beautiful end to the episode. Having to watch Liam live a nightmare of his own creation is very difficult, even more so when his nightmare continues to come true. At the beginning of the episode Liam is a happily married father of a beautiful baby girl Jodie by the end he’s pacing his empty apartment alone living through memories of the wife that left him and the child that isn’t his.
2. Men Against Fire
It should come as no surprise that there are a lot of rankings of every Black Mirror episode out there. I am hardly the first, unlikely to be the last, and I certainly do not claim to be the definitive one either. I mean definitely more definitive than that hot mess that Vulture put out but hey, whatchu gonna do. As far as I can tell from the few lists I checked out no one has “Men Against Fire” anywhere near as I high as I do on their list and many people have “Men Against Fire” pretty low on their list. I can hardly give the exact reason for that obviously but I would assume a lot of viewers have problems with two key elements of this episode and I think I should address those concerns first before I say what is so great about this episode. Firstly, the protagonist Stripe is not the charismatic lead that many of the best Black Mirror episodes have going for them. It’s a fairly lazy cop out to say Stripe is a soldier so he is supposed to be stoic; characters are only as good as the story you tell about. But I think Malachi Kirby’s performance and the character Stripe get a bad rap here; Stripe is a pretty amazing surrogate for the society in the universe of “Men Against Fire.” Like the civilians of the episode—at least all of those in United Kingdom—at the beginning Stripe is pretty brainless, stoic and lost and naïve. And then when Stripe is asked the question that we all get asked on a daily basis he feels the same horror and shock that we all do. But like almost all of us he chooses to, instead of facing the reality of the situation, be it “Roaches” or the any number of atrocities that are happening in any number of countries from Lybia to Ukraine, to Palestine, to really far too many to name, Stripe goes back to being allowed to forget. The second concern is the tone of the episode. It’s grim and dark and unrelentingly so. Unlike “White Bear” which doesn’t let up there is no ah ha moment or like “The Entire History of You” which is unrelenting but at least it’s a relatable narrative (I would argue this episode is far more relatable than any of us would like to admit). I have said it for countless episodes and I will continue to say it because it is what makes Black Mirror so great. The show can tell personal stories to perfection and it can ask big moral and societal questions of its audience at the same time and “Men Against Fire” does both brilliantly. This is the biggest moral question of the 13 episodes—possibly second to “Hated in a Nation” but this episode had such a powerful effect on me. I think “Men Against Fire” is my favorite Black Mirror episode because it asks the most of its audience, the metaphor is both heavy-handed and beautifully subtle. It’s obviously a question of war and how we view the enemy, that aspect of it is almost not even a metaphor but what episode and Brooker are saying about societies involvement in it and accepting the lie is pretty powerful and harrowing. Aesthetically I am a huge fan of this episode; its directed by Jakob Verbruggen, who is still my favorite part of London Spy. It has become a staple of this list and this episode, but my god that ending is heart breaking and as Brooker so brilliantly does it asks us who the hero is.
1. Be Right Back
Someone should send this episode to Channing Dungey. It really shouldn’t take an episode of British television from 2013 to convince the CEO of ABC Entertainment that Hayley Atwell is more than a pair of tits. But judging from the episodes of Conviction I managed to sit through that is basically all that ABC thinks she’s useful for. When in all reality Atwell is one of the most gifted talents working on television right now and “Be Right Back” is the perfect example of that. This is the first Black Mirror episode directed by Owen Harris (the second on this list) and it falls right in the middle of “San Junipero” and “The Entire History of You” on the tragically romantic love story spectrum. Not nearly as crushing as “Entire History” but certainly not as optimistic as “San Junipero.” Martha and Ash—played by Domhall Gleeson—are a young couple who fall in love and move in together and then… he dies. Thanks Black Mirror. As good as Black Mirror can be when it pushes you to your limits it is just as good if not better when it digs deep and tells human stories. Domhall Gleeson is amazing in this performance, but the idea is for him to be robotic executed to perfection but still a pretty thankless role. On the other hand, watching Atwell basically run a four minute mile in this episode is a thing of absolute beauty. Everyone points to the cliff scene at the end as the peak of performance in this episode, and I will not lie it is fantastic. But I knew I loved this episode during the sex scene. Which sounds rampantly perverted but that isn’t how I meant it. The second have is mostly pretty standard PG-13 strategically placed sheet sex but the first half is so charmingly awkward and hopeful and Atwell plays it perfectly. The scene culminates in one of the more awkward “I love yous” in television or film history. “Be Right Back” poses some pretty big questions excellently and that is harder to do than people give credit for. “Be Right Back” is about a relationship ended too quickly and coping with a lost love one but it’s also about who we are and what part of ourselves we release into the public. In the age of twitter, facebook, snapchat, Instagram, etc. the question of which is the real us is becoming more and more relevant. When Martha starts to get mad at the Ash bot is when the episode does its real work. The Ash bot is this incredibly realistic impersonation of Ash, Martha can have sex with him, it looks just like Ash, even talks just like Ash but as time goes on it’s clear it’s not Ash and that begins to anger her. Until she takes its to a cliff to destroy her Ash bot. The end is both beautiful and sad and is the reason I fell in love with this episode. The reveal at the end of “Be Right Back” is that Marth doesn’t destroy her Ash bot which from an outside observer is the wrong move. Martha is refusing to let her self morn Ash she won’t let him go. In much the same way countless numbers of us have spent hours on our ex’s facebook and instagrams torturing ourselves. We and Martha know that ultimately it would be better to hurt for a short while to move on in the long term. But the episode asks how many of us would be able to say no to the chance to live even a cheap facsimile of what made us happy even if it’s bad for us.