Warning: The following has spoilers for literally every episode of Black Mirror produced to date. It’s kind of in the title, but still: you have been warned.
Black Mirror’s runaway success with U.S. and other international viewers should say something about where we’re all at these days. Rarely has a show this consistently depressing also felt like such a must-watch, creating a weird dissonance after each episode ends: something like “Wow, I feel extremely bleak about life! Time to binge the next one!” Despite series creator Charlie Brooker’s love of perverse humor and insistence that the show comes from comedic premises played straight, the anthology show has always reveled in its grimness, in various shades of despair, horror and cynicism that only a show birthed in rising tensions of the early 21st century can. Whee!
In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, Black Mirror began as a British sci-fi drama show with fewer than 10 episodes but has galloped into the international consciousness thanks to Netflix. The third season helped it past that double digit mark but even with four total there’s still a tidy enough crop that we can easily arrange all of the twist (and non-twist) endings, for now, based on how much you just wanted to stare at a blank wall for a while afterwards. Now that “Bandersnatch” is the water cooler discussion show of choice (for those who still work at places with water coolers), let’s take a close look at all the many different shades of sadness you can find in this gloriously morose anthology. And just a note: this is not a ranking based on quality, so don’t let my high placement of a certain infamous clunker worry you.
23. “Hang The DJ” (Series 4, Episode 4)
Frank and Amy don’t know how good they have it. Not only do they avoid the horrific fate of 99% of Black Mirror protagonists, they don’t even have to endure the emotional stress we see their simulated selves go through in this story. I’m sure being bounced through a series of bad relationships sucks, of course. It’s just hard for me to feel too bad knowing the myriad ways this show usually fucks its characters up beyond repair, especially with all of the sex they’ve got to enjoy. The simulations don’t seem to feel any pain upon deletion, the entire sequence of events happens in a real-world nanosecond and we know that Framy are destined to do well together.
If it weren’t for Morrissey singing over the end credits, the whole thing might feel unbearably chipper. I’m sure some people feel it is anyway. Nicola aside, this is the brightest future we’ve seen on the show, and “Coach” seems to be decent at her job. It seems like we’re going to get one of these per season from now on, so don’t be surprised if this spot changes once a year or so.
22. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (Series 5, Episode 3)
There’s a moment about two-thirds through this episode where it seems like things are about to get very dark indeed. Ashley O (who is, yes, played by Miley Cyrus) lies unconscious, held hostage by her aunt and stuck on life support. Her would be rescuers, sisters Rachel and Jack, discover too late that the mini-android Ashley Too has pulled the plug on her real-life counterpart, since she’s a perfect copy and knows it’s what the “real” Ashley O (Ashley One?) would have wanted. If this episode had ended with our heroes having to choose between two artificial versions of a dead pop star, a hologram or an AI copy, this would have been pretty bleak.
Don’t worry, though. Somehow, Ashley Prime is fine, and the entire ordeal ends with an onstage confrontation that stops the bad guys. Flash forward and Ms. O is now allowed to swear onstage and sing industrial rock, much to her former fans’ horror. Unless this is all meant as a sarcastic piss take at Disney Channel Original Movies, as some people in the AV Club comments apparently think it is, then this really is one of the best possible outcomes of any Black Mirror episode to date. The fact that “Achieving My Goals”…uh, I mean, “Head Like a Hole” plays such a prominent role in this episode might be the only reason it’s not ranked as the least depressing. I mean, a triumphant version of a Nine Inch Nails song can only be so un-depressing.
21. “Nosedive” (Series 3, Episode 1)
A lot of things go wrong for Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Lacie in this one. She loses her chance at a dream home, ruins things with an important high-status friend and pretty much ensures her days as a social climber are over. In the world of this show, though, this is what passes for a light comedy, albeit one with heavy amounts of cringe. Lacie may wind up in jail but she’s finally got the catharsis she’s craved, and her conversation with the friendly trucker lady earlier suggests that there’s a happier life awaiting her on society’s fringes, as long as those in the upvoted upper class don’t decide to start a war against the one-stars anytime soon…
20. San Junipero (Series 3, Episode 4)
A tear-jerking, heartbreaking masterpiece, “San Junipero” was a little like Doctor Who‘s “Blink” episode, the wild exception to the norm that wound up becoming an award-winning standout, and perhaps the best single episode ever. Maybe viewers were excited to see a story that was merely bittersweet instead of oppressively bleak, or maybe it was the progressive, nbd portrayal of a queer relationship that helped it stand out. Regardless, it was undeniably poignant to find out that Yorkie and Kelly would have some kind of virtual closure, even if the logic of how the “crossing over” works isn’t super-clear. It’s almost a relief to see any version of anyone on this show get what they want, so good luck to the happy couple in their Heaven on Earth. This is only spoiled a little bit by the idea that the entire episode is apparently an elaborate Friends spinoff, as confirmed by Netflix.
19. “Striking Vipers” (Series 5, Episode 1)
Am I being too cynical, putting this one this far up? Most reviewers seem to read the final moments of “Striking Vipers” as a positive, surprisingly practical solution to an unusual dilemma, and I certainly give the episode credit for avoiding many of the obvious ways out. There’s no scene where Theo accidentally logs into the fighting/fucking game Striking Vipers X herself, or walks in on her husband, or reveals herself to have been Karl in a meta-disguise all along because we’re all in the REAL game, maaaaan. Instead, everyone comes up with a plan that allows them to live their lives and get what they want.
Except…well, I’m not so sure how long this will last. It’s just a hunch, but the contrast between Karl and Danny’s gleeful fuck session and Theo’s march to the hotel bar does not make me think that everyone is really, truly fine with this situation. We don’t see Theo’s reaction to the guy smiling at her, and there’s still a sense of tension. So while I wish this show was giving us an unabashedly positive portrayal polyamorous queer relationship, what we have is far murkier. One thing that is 100% good about this ending: Karl got a cat!
18. “Be Right Back” (Series 2, Episode 1)
Guess what, guys? Turns out resurrecting your dead lover as a pseudo-organic AI copy isn’t the best idea. Although things get a little hairy before the end, Haley Atwell’s grieving Martha finally learns her lesson about letting go and figures out a way to use her Domnhall Gleason robot to move on. The final scenes may suggest that she’s still got some coping to do, but at least she’s alive and looking towards the future. That’s way, way more than you can say for the protagonists of many of the other Black Mirror episodes.
17. “The National Anthem” (Series 1, Episode 1)
In a general sense, the infamous series premiere has a happy ending. After all, the kidnapped Princess Susannah escapes her captor intact and the tormented Prime Minister emerges from his ordeal as a hero. Order has been restored, and the country has learned that having sex with a pig can apparently be a noble act. It’s only when we peek under the surface, at the very end, that we see hints of the undoable damage left behind. You don’t get forced into unwilling bestiality on national TV without a few emotional scars, and it’s probably safe to say that Callow and his wife are paying a very deep price that will last the rest of their lives.
16. “Black Museum” (Series 4, Episode 6)
I feel bad for Douglas Hodge. He tries his hardest to make Rolo Haynes, a museum proprietor who has seemingly collected mementos from every other Black Mirror episode and then some, a believable character within the context. Unfortunately, no amount of RSC training can make lines like “dick-puke baby paste up her wazoo” sound like something a real human being would ever say without getting questioned immediately. Hodge does better towards the end of the episode, when Rolo finally reveals how he’s treated the hologram of the convict Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), a former death row inmate who visitors used to be able to virtually shock over and over and take clones home for souvenirs. By this point we all hate Rolo, and it’s satisfying to see Clayton’s daughter Nish (Letitia Wright) unleash a sort of triple punishment, killing him, electrocuting his digital consciousness and keeping a copy in eternal agony. She even gets to take Carrie’s monkey home before burning the museum down.
That all sounds about as good as you can hope. Is there a “but” to Nish’s story? I’m not sure, and unless Brooker suddenly decides to start doing sequel episodes, we’re unlikely to find out. All I know is that pretty much every piece of fiction on the subject I’ve ever read says that getting your revenge has consequences, no matter how much the target deserved it. Let’s hope that having her mother living inside her brain keeps Nish from going too far off the rails. Monkey loves you.
15. “USS Callister” (Series 4, Episode 1)
The more you think about this ending, the more complicated it gets. The show certainly acts like it’s a triumphant one, with cruel “captain” Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) losing his crew of digital clones and left to rot in his apartment. However, it’s possible to argue (if you really, really, really want to play devil’s advocate) that Daly didn’t know how self-aware the characters in his game really were, or that they weren’t truly sentient until Nanette (Cristin Milioti) joined the crew. If that was the case, then how were his actions any worse than the average Chaotic Evil RPG player? Then there’s the fate of the real Nanette, who, at the very least, is probably going to be traumatized when she finds out what’s happened to her former idol, not to mention paranoid about being blackmailed again.
Still, this episode deserves praise for reversing the old “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” dichotomy and making us cheer for a situation that would, in most cases, seem like a doomsday scenario. A group of self-aware AI’s entering the Web sounds like the precursor to Skynet. Good thing these guys seem nice. For now.
14. “Playtest” (Series 3, Episode 2)
This one might arguably belong higher up on the list, depending on what you think of Cooper, the American abroad who ends up getting his brain fried by a super-real VR game. Although he’s a nice guy with some truly tragic family issues plaguing him, I’m putting this ending here because he makes some dumb decisions: it was a bad idea to take the gig at SaitoGemu, a worse one to try and trick the powers that be and his death could have been avoided if he’d been more careful. Still, it’s hard not to feel bad about his confusion and horror as he loses his mind.
13. “White Christmas” (Christmas Special)
Golly, does Black Mirror love trapping its protagonists in neverending hellscapes. It takes a while to figure out where this extended-length Christmas special is headed, but once we do, the horror of Matt and Joe’s fates, as well as that of the Greta cookie, becomes plain. This isn’t the most sophisticated or logical episode the show’s ever produced, and it seems like Charlie Brooker thought of the ending first and everything else later. It is a doozy of an ending, though, and its depressing element is only mitigated by the fact that the protagonists are, once again, responsible for their crimes. The music covering the final shot might be an even better match of visuals and soundtrack than the famous ending sequence of “San Junipero”.
12. “White Bear” (Series 2, Episode 2)
Another story of endless punishment, “White Bear” is a little harder to stomach because of how wide it casts its net. Victoria, the frazzled heroine played by Lenora Crichlow, is probably guilty, but it’s for something she didn’t do rather than something she did. Still, while she was part of a horrifying and deplorable act, how much should someone pay the price for complicity? Once you learn the truth, you might even think Lenora’s fate is relatively light considering what she was a party to…until you follow that logic to its conclusion. Ever stood by and Instragammed while someone needed help? If so, you may be visiting White Bear yourself soon…
11. “Crocodile” (Series 4, Episode 3)
I’m always interested in the moment in Hitchcockian crime stories where a character passes the point of no return. I’d like to think there was a way for Mia (Andrea Riseborough) to redeem herself for helping her ex-boyfriend get away with a hit-and-run early on, one that didn’t involve murdering a baby and his entire family in cold blood. No such luck. The message of this story may be an old one but it’s a classic for a reason: guilt gets worse the longer you let it sit. Mia falls into that category of “People Who Get What’s Coming to Them” quite nicely long before she kills Rob, going from accomplice to dangerous killer and guzzling gallons of white wine in the process. How many insurance adjusters do you think decided to change their careers after seeing this episode?
10. “Shut Up And Dance” (Series 3, Episode 3)
Ugh. The shorter I make this entry, the less I have to think about this well-done but deeply grim postmodern parable. If the hero of “Playtest” is responsible for his fate, what about Kenny, the troubled young boy who looks at child pornography and is almost surely getting a very heavy prison sentence, at best? I remain unconvinced by some of the plot holes in the ending, namely how anyone who saw the video of Kenny masturbating would know what he was looking at. Was there a screencap alongside the webcam footage? If so, couldn’t Kenny just deny it?
Regardless, let’s talk about the implications of the ending itself. The victims in this episode, including Jerome Flynn’s cheating husband Hector, all seem to have done something despicable, so you can reassure yourself that this sort of nightmare would never happen to you. Right? Surely you don’t have anything incriminating in your browser history that would allow a faceless hacker to blackmail you and ruin your life? I’m sure you don’t. You’re totally fine. Probably. Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Right?
9. “Smithereens” ( Series 5, Episode 2)
More ambiguous than most, “Smithereens” features an ending that deliberately keeps information from us. We don’t know what, if anything, Hayley finds in her late daughter’s Persona account, and we don’t know if Chris or Jaden are dead, or both, or neither (probably not neither). While that feels kind of cheap, it’s part of the point, since the final scenes show us how deeply insignificant the entire hostage situation really is, especially since horrific shit happens all the time. It’s a valid message, albeit one that the show has given us before, and better. Honestly, the most depressing thing about this ending may be that Charlie Brooker seems to still be in love with montages set to on-the-nose pop songs.
This is kind of a cheat, since of course the retro cyberpunk horror interactive film “Bandersnatch” has multiple endings, which in effect means it doesn’t really have any one official ending, although one feels a little more canonical than the others. You could do an entire list simply ranking this episode’s endings alone (oh look, somebody did) but that kind of misses the point. To me, all of the endings are kind of around the same level of depressing: no matter what happens, Stefan and his game don’t get to coexist happily. If he doesn’t die, someone else does, and in the worst case scenario at least one person gets killed while the curse of PAX is passed on to the next generation. Correcting Stefan’s childhood trauma results in death, albeit a peaceful one, and even the goofy meta-ending feels sinister. The only real solace is that Colin at least seems to have broken through the multiple timelines, implying that maybe the whole thing really is just a cosmic merry-go-round. Don’t worry, though. If the ending you like is too much of a downer, just watch this one instead.
7. “Hated In The Nation” (Series 3, Episode 6)
Yes, the one with the killer robot bees, probably the most underwhelming Black Mirror episode yet produced. Although the man behind the techno-vendetta against social media pariahs presumably gets caught at the end, he does, you know, kind of murder hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a little hard to feel victorious knowing how much of the killer’s plan succeeded. And though it may be absurd, you can’t tell me that you didn’t have horrific thoughts about bees crawling up your nose after watching this one.
6. “The Entire History of You” (Series 1, Episode 3)
One of the most depressing things about “The Entire History of You” is the notion that some Silicon Valley types will watch it and think that the eye-tech and grain system are good ideas and need to exist (if that’s your takeaway, PLEASE don’t watch any other episodes of this show). Sure, the ability to review your memories might seem like fun, but what did it get Ffion and Liam? Bad sex, a broken marriage and death. Yeesh. You might as well call this episode “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” There’s no startup in the world that will ever come up with a cure for jealousy, obsession and stupidity.
5. “Arkangel” (Season 4, Episode 2)
The best cautionary tales are often acts of transformation for both the protagonists and our feelings about them. “Arkangel” opens with a mother (Marie, played by Rosemarie Dewitt) immediately worried about losing contact with her newborn child right in the delivery room. That’s completely understandable, and it’s not even that unreasonable to see why she’d opt to have a device injected into her daughter Sara’s head to block out unwanted stimuli (replacing it with a nice mosaic effect) and keep her trackable. This gets dicey as Sara becomes a teenager, though, experimenting with sex and drugs while her mom watches. By the end, Marie has her worst fears realized, perhaps even more than she ever thought possible. She should have taken that therapist’s very good advice and left the damn iPad in its cardboard box. Sara’s escape places her in peril at the same time as it frees her from her overbearing mom, and we have no idea if she’ll survive by herself, especially given her sheltered upbringing. Oh, and she just beat up her mom with a blunt object several times and left her for dead. The fact that hyper-protective, technologically-enabled parents are increasingly common adds a lot to the unease factor here.
4. “Metalhead” (Series 4, Episode 5)
We don’t learn a lot from “Metalhead,” not even after the ending. How did the “little dogs” take over the world, and how far have they spread? Who did Bella contact on the radio? Is “Golden Brown” really going to survive the robot apocalypse? Even without these crucial details, the ending is pretty devastating. All of the effort Bella and her friends go through to defeat her pursuer is for nothing, and our lone heroine is forced to kill herself as an endless army of robots swarms the landscape. And the mission that started this whole chase wasn’t for some sort of secret resistance weapon but a teddy bear (a “white bear”, in fact…hmm…) that would have pleased a child. In any other show, that would be a hard level of despair to top. We’re not even in the top 3 yet.
3. “Men Against Fire” (Series 3, Episode 5)
Here’s one for those who thought the last chapter of 1984 was too cheery. What starts as a seemingly predictable army-vs-zombies story pivots and pivots hard when we find out the truth about the undead-ish “roaches”. Those super-cool shiny implants that literally give the soldiers wet dreams? Turns out they’re enabling worldwide ethnic cleansing, and the one guy who figures this out chooses to get his memory wiped and live in a false bliss forever. The big reveal is even scarier because it happens so matter-of-factly. A genocide based on data and neat gadgets is still a genocide, in case you were wondering.
2. “The Waldo Moment” (Series 2, Episode 3)
If you had asked me back when I first saw this episode years ago what I thought of it, I would have probably shrugged. For a long time, Waldo had a reputation as, if not the worst, then the least impressive of the series. Now, though, it’s almost traumatic for me to think about, knowing what’s transpired since it initially aired. The rise of a nihilist, vulgar blue cartoon bear from jokey celebrity to master of the world is more believable than the results of the 2016 U.S. election, and seeing Waldo offer money to people willing to physically assault his enemies feels like it goes beyond parody. This one hurts, folks, and the punchline is that we’re living it. Watch this at your own risk.
1. “Fifteen Million Merits” (Series 1, Episode 2)
And so we arrive at the end of this list. By now we’ve revisited several different despair-inducing visions of the future, and you may be wondering why this one, in particular, is my pick for the top spot. It’s true that the last image of “Fifteen Million Merits”, with hero Bing (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out fame) gazing out at a peaceful forest, is way more calming than most of the other final frames Brooker usually gives us. The horror instead lurks in the subtext. In only its second-ever episode, Black Mirror was already getting meta and showing the futility of its own mission statement. Bing’s commodified rebellion is a perfect metaphor for Mirror’s own place in modern entertainment as a fruitless warning that has no real power to save anyone.
Are you chilled by all these cautionary tales you see on TV? Heeding the ominous signs of technology and the future? Getting educated and speaking out against the system? It doesn’t matter: you’re still a cog stuck in an endless grind, and just being aware does nothing to change your condition. I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect that “Fifteen Million Merits” is one of Brooker’s more personal scripts, since it’s ultimately about how a man who wants to fight against conformity and help people improve their lives gets shoved in a box along with everyone else. The fact that Black Mirror is now yet another slide in the Netflix Originals carousel hammers it all home even more. It’s all just stuff. Material. Product to be packaged, repackaged and sold to enforce obedience. Hooray for television!