7. "The Waldo Moment"
Even the least successful episode of Black Mirror packs quite a punch, and "The Waldo Moment" gets in its share of body blows, especially in the televised debate scene, where it bubbles over with some genuine ire at a political system in which so much that's said and done is only for show. But the sixth episode of Charlie Brooker's anthology series of dark, near-future technofables is the only one in which Black Mirror's ever-present undercurrent of pessimism feels unearned.
Based on an idea conceived of for Brooker and Chris Morris' biting hipster satire Nathan Barley, "The Waldo Moment" isn't precise enough in its depiction of how a cartoon bear voiced by a failed comedian (Daniel Rigby) goes on to become a legit political figure — there's just too little to Waldo to explain the devoted following he accrues. The character's origins as an Ali G–style prankster ambushing unsuspecting interviewees who think they're guesting on a kiddie show make sense, but removed from that, he's just not funny, all name-calling and lazy dick jokes. Brooker may be trying to take aim at his own history of media mockery, raising questions about whether such nihilistic send-ups just encourage people to further disengage. But in not making its cartoon bear convincingly compelling, the episode ends up feeling like a too-easy jab at the public being dumb and dupable.
6. "White Christmas"
As the most recent installment of Black Mirror, the 2014 Christmas special has the distinction of running longer than the other episodes and serving as a sort of tribute to them, filled with little nods to the other alt-universes that have come before. Its own alt-universe is a gleefully bleak one in which everyone has an ocular implant called a Z-Eye that's like the ultimate smart device, and also it's possible to make a Cookie, a copy of your own consciousness to use as the best, most disturbing digital assistant.
These are two different and unrelated types of technology, and "White Christmas" is terrific when it's engaged in the mini-stories contained in its larger framing one, where it can explore the implications of each. As the slickly manipulative Matt, Jon Hamm first introduces us to the Z-Eye's capacity for voyeurism, as he links up to an awkward young man to help Cyrano de Bergerac him into potentially getting lucky at a party. As the anguished Joe, Rafe Spall experiences the way Z-Eye can allow someone to cut off your real-life access to them by blocking you. There's an intriguing MRA theme to the Z-Eye tales — Matt's a PUA guru on steroids, while Joe is essentially a thwarted stalker who sees himself as a victim of the tools his ex has been given to distance herself from him. They're both twisted characters who don't see themselves that way. The Cookie segment works well as its own Twilight Zone nightmare.
So why the low ranking? "White Christmas" eventually brings its two types of tech together, but they still feel like they could have been separate episodes entirely in which there would have been more space to explore the fascinating possibilities of each. The blocking idea in particular could have benefitted from more balance — it's only seen as used by women in relationships, silent treatment that can be flipped on with the touch of a button and maintained forever, making it seem uncomfortably like some passive-aggressive power play rather than something presumably used and misused by all of society.
That final shot though — it's a killer.
5. "Fifteen Million Merits"
"Fifteen Million Merits" takes place in the furthest, strangest future contained in Black Mirror, and the episode makes this work by allowing the world in which it's set to be a little abstract, and by letting too many questions go unanswered. Why does everyone live underground? Do traditional homes and family units exist? Is the compulsory biking like military service, and does it come to an end?
Who cares. "Fifteen Million Merits" presents a world ruled and numbed by reality television, in which human batteries rack up credits, only to spend them all on meaningless apps, avatar tweaks, and entertainment. Its characters spend all day peddling on stationary bikes while watching porn, game shows, or an X Factor–style competition called Hot Shots. Their lives are colorless, solitary, and so regimented they have to pay to opt out of commercials — though in their tentative romance, Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) and Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) manage a touch of something real before it all goes to hell.
This is the most scathing episode of Black Mirror, but that's not a bad thing, given how fabulously grim a point the ending makes about authenticity and the power of a system to co-opt just about anything. And extra points to Julia Davis as Hot Shots' lone female judge, who without apparent hesitation sells out a young woman contestant who could have used some protection, then has that telling moment of discretely dabbing away a tear before it ruins her mascara, never breaking character as she does it.
4. "The National Anthem"
On first viewing, I would have placed Black Mirror's premiere, "The National Anthem," further down on the list. But rewatching it a week after The Interview was threatened out of major cinemas, it felt scarily prescient and on point. This is the episode that isn't dystopian at all — there's nothing in it that couldn't happen in the present day, as a beloved royal is kidnapped and held ransom, the perpetrator demanding not money but an act of bestiality on live television involving the Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) and a pig. It's an outrageous premise to which "The National Anthem" applies rigorous logic. Everyone acts the way that reasonable, believable people would.
The government tries to trace the location from which the demand was uploaded, while a backup plan involving a digital effects team and a porn actor is discreetly put in place. Saying you don't negotiate with terrorists is one thing, but when the stakes are questionable — an act of public humiliation or the release of an R-rated comedy put up against the threat of violence — it's not as easy or noble to draw a hard line. But what "The National Anthem" gets most painfully right is the way that, without question or debate, everyone gathers to watch, the various people the episode has cut to throughout gathering in pubs and at work, laughing or wincing, but staying and looking. In our current age of the internet, when images we shouldn't watch, from beheadings to stolen nudes, regularly fill screens anyway, that sequence is dead on.
3. "White Bear"
For a little while, "White Bear" looks like Black Mirror's big whiff, a lame duck technophobic saga of a signal turning everyone into mindless zombies obsessed with documenting everything, while the few bad apples unaffected by it take advantage of the chaos to go around killing people. It's the stuff of a middling horror movie into which a dazed, amnesiac Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) has been dropped — until the twist.
That twist. That twist is a reassurance that, once again, Black Mirror is just as clever as you think it is, which is more so than just about anything else on television. That twist also reveals that the signal and the hunters are indeed all part of a middling horror scenario, albeit one custom-made to be Victoria's personal nightmare. What seems like a paranoid, formless story about technology making both a passive observer and a Kitty Genovese out of everyone turns out to be a far more exacting one about public tragedy and mob vengeance.
The first part of White Bear is certainly spooky, with the hordes of impassive cell phone cameras tracking Victoria as she runs, screaming, from someone trying to kill her. But the reveal is disturbing in entirely new ways, as we get a glimpse of the daily cycle at the White Bear Justice Park, and the jocular air of celebration among the people who've gathered to mete "justice" on Victoria. We do all love an opportunity to be righteously angry at someone — it can practically be entertainment.
2. "Be Right Back"
The episodes of Black Mirror that most resonate with me are the ones with the more intimate scopes, the ones that look at how their particular type of not-quite-invented technology affects life in a household. That's the case for "Be Right Back," which manages to cover a lot of the ground Her does, before Her ever reached theaters. And it does so by way of the idea of using someone's social media profile as a mold from which to create a copy of that person when he dies, which is what happens to Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) not long after he and his significant other, Martha (Hayley Atwell), move into a house in the country together. A grieving Martha has signed up for an online service that essentially creates a high-end Ash bot for her to chat with, and in a moment of stress she tries it out, and goes from there to talking with the digital Ash, then test-driving a physical version.
"Be Right Back" allows digital Ash to be charming and warm and still not quite human, and in the same way, it allows the tech that's enabled his existence to be both positive and creepy. Martha never got a chance to say good-bye to the love of her life — he disappeared, in the way people can, abruptly and without warning. The artificial Ash is a ghost made of circuitry and synthetic flesh, but he'll only ever be a reflection of the real Ash's online self and the memories Martha shares with him, and with elegant poignance and unease, the episode allows him to be a symbol of mourning, of the potential to cling to the past forever, and of the promise of moving on.
1. "The Entire History of You"
Liam, the lawyer and family man played by Toby Kebbell, would have been jealous and insecure with or without the grain implants in this episode that allow everyone to record their lives and play them back. His wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) would have still been emotional and prone to bad decisions, like having an impulsive night with an ex after she and Liam had had a fight. But what makes "The Entire History of You" (which, yes, was optioned for a potential movie adaptation by Robert Downey Jr. last year) so excellent is the way that technology exacerbates the problems between them until their relationship splinters.
The idea of the "grain" isn't so foreign — it's kind of like Google Glass, but less douchey and more invasive, and every argument you might try to come up with against it runs up against so many that are pro, and that are neatly folded into this universe. No more subjective memory incidents, no more airport security issues, no more misrepresenting the work you've done for your company, or having it misrepresented. Everything's there in high-def detail, easily shared on public screens and rewound for instant replays. No one ever forgets anything.
And just how insidious and terrifying a prospect this is unfolds over the course of the worst weekend in Liam's life, as he goes from fixating on the tiny details of an appraisal at work to fixating on the tiny details of how Ffion is acting around Jonas (Tom Cullen), an old friend of hers, at a dinner party. Thanks to the grain, his arguments with her become miniature versions of The Daily Show, and he pulls up old footage as evidence she's contradicted herself. He demands their babysitter watch a redo of a joke Jonas told and evaluate its funniness. His meltdown is a slow-motion accident from which we can't turn away, and in a series filled with good performances, Kebbell's is particularly strong.
But "The Entire History of You" takes the top slot here for all of the other brilliantly thought-out glimpses we get at how grain tech has shaped this world, at the way Liam's appraisal almost gets turned into party fodder, at the way Liam and Ffion quickly peruse their child's night with the babysitter, at how they liven up sex by losing themselves in footage of themselves at a more passionate time, listlessly conjoined while their eyes are blankly focused on old memories. It's a future that doesn't seem far away at all, and that's a breathtakingly bleak thought.