Black Mirror doesn’t really make bad episodes. Today’s Twilight Zone, as it is has been hailed, is remarkably consistent in its vision of a future filled with oddities that occasionally become nightmarish. This anthology series uses each of its thirteen existing hours to tell a distinct story. These stories are all set in the near future, and they all illuminate some downside of the progress that comes at us every day.
In Black Mirror’s world, things are moving too fast, and consequences are being largely ignored. Technology brings enormous benefits with it, but it also brings challenges and potential threats that must be examined. At its best, though, Black Mirror is also a show about humanity, and the way we struggle to connect in this world. That’s what separates the show’s best episodes from its worst. Black Mirror can tear you apart when it’s great. To do that, it has to be terrifying and moving. With that in mind, and given the recent release of season three on Netflix, here’s a spoiler-free ranking of every episode of Black Mirror.
13 Shut Up and Dance (3X03)
“Shut Up and Dance” isn’t bad or offensive. It’s only problem is that it feels so generically Black Mirror. At its best, the show is capable of filtering its usual cynicism and technophobia through something strange and unique. At its worst, the show become predictable and obvious, and these are the two problems that plague “Shut Up and Dance.”
The episode follows a young boy who is blackmailed into completing a series of tasks after he is caught doing something inappropriate (and possibly illegal) on camera. From there, the episode plays out almost exactly as you would expect it to. The boy does increasingly horrifying things to keep his life from being ruined, and the audience is forced to reckon with the fact that every action we take can be recorded now. Black Mirror is always smart, but in “Shut Up and Dance” it is also a little bit too obvious for its own good.
12 The Waldo Moment (2X03)
In our current political climate, “The Waldo Moment” can feel a little too easy. The episode focuses on a cartoon character who shakes up an election by joining the race as an empty change candidate. Waldo stands for nothing, he’s vulgar, and he says what’s on his mind. In 2016, that seems almost too familiar. The episode is an examination of the ways in which characters can enter into politics and harm a democratic system that was designed for high-minded politicians.
The problems with “The Waldo Moment” stem largely from how mundane it seems by comparison to the world we live in. The show’s unrelenting cynicism is on full display here, in an episode that basically suggests politics is a completely irredeemable mess and that it might be better to tear it all down. Black Mirror is at its best when it balances its fears with a healthy dose of hope that, at our core, we can rise above. In “The Waldo Moment,” we definitely can’t.
11 The Entire History of You (1X03)
“The Entire History of You” has one of the better premises in Black Mirror’s run. It imagines a world where memories can be recalled with perfection. Nothing is lost to time, and everything you’ve ever witnessed can be endlessly analyzed. The episode follows a married couple whose marriage slowly unravels as the husband endlessly analyzes the behavior of his wife with a former flame.
The problems with “The Entire History of You” come largely from the way this jealousy plays out as the highest form of drama. This isn’t to say that the terror of having everything you’ve ever done recorded isn’t a real one, but what it leads to is the kind of fracturing that could have occurred without the device. The memory recording devices enhance the ability to obsess over things, but these obsessions are inherently human at their core. Memories can destroy you, even if you can’t recall them perfectly.
10 Playtest (3X02)
“Playtest” is, in some ways, Black Mirror’s most terrifying episode. In part, that’s because the episode is largely focused on an augmented reality horror game designed to terrify those who play it. But it’s also one of Black Mirror’s most immediate episodes, revealing how technology alone is not dangerous, but it can be when it’s coupled with humanity’s ability to make grave errors.
“Playtest” is also the kind of episode that works to break your heart. Cooper, played with aplomb by Wyatt Russell, is in many ways running away from his actual life as he enters the world of his own augmented reality. He wants to forget about the problems he will eventually face, and his attempt to escape from the real world ultimately plays a key role in the point that the episode works to drive home. On the whole, “Playtest” isn’t Black Mirror’s most memorable or poignant outing, but it’s an excellent standard-bearer. The show can be pretty great, even when it isn’t at its absolute best.
9 Hated in the Nation (3X06)
“Hated in the Nation” is the show’s longest and most complicated episode. It follows a series of killings that are intimately tied to the venom of social media. In this episode, the ideas of advancement are intimately coupled with the lethal havoc that intelligent people cause with such a platform. When technology rules our lives, hackers are capable of terrorist attacks on a level that is entirely new, and it’s one that should frighten all of us.
The episode is, in its best moments, tight and thoughtful, using a procedural formula that Black Mirror has rarely adopted before. “Hated in the Nation’s” major flaw is in biting off too much. The episode wants to comment on the hate that can fester online, but also attempts to deal with the effects of climate change and what our increasingly technology-centered world can do to harm us. “Hated in the Nation” is a little bit too long, but it’s also gripping in fairly large chunks. The catastrophes it predicts are more than enough to stoke fear, and they certainly live up to the show’s reputation.
8 Men Against Fire (3X05)
War has been endlessly examined by art, but Black Mirror waited until the end of its third season to tackle the subject. The episode follows soldiers tasked with exterminating a race of zombie-like humans who are seen as toxic and referred to Roaches. Really, though, the episode focuses on the way we wear down the humanity in our soldiers, asking them to be just inhuman enough to kill.
Like many Black Mirror episodes, "Men Against Fire" takes an abstract concept and literalizes it. This results in an hour that carefully examines what soldiers can be taught to do, and the horrible things that we consent to without even thinking about them. There’s a reason so many of the people who have fought in a war come home completely destroyed by the experience. War is meant to degrade the humanity of those fighting it, and in “Men Against Fire,” it does just that.
7 White Christmas (Special)
In many ways the oddest episode of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” focuses on a series of interrelated tales that all tie beautifully together in the episode’s final moments. Even in an episode as sprawling and strange as this one, not a second is wasted in giving us every essential factor and character detail that will eventually become critical to the episode’s unfolding.
Told as a single conversation between two men getting to know each other, “White Christmas” manages to be a Christmas episode of Black Mirror without losing the central bitterness that is at the show’s core. The way our social lives can be changed by technology is examined through a device that enables you to block people from your life as you might online, while a new form of artificial intelligence creates a version of you that helps you perform routine tasks. In many ways, “White Christmas” is almost a grab bag episode of Black Mirror, but it’s one that is tightly plotted and manages to make all of its point without feeling scattered.
6 Be Right Back (2X01)
“Be Right Back” is straight-up heartbreak from minute one. The ideas at its center are ones of grief, and of the way it can be suspended by the advancement of technology. We follow Martha (Hayley Atwell) as she deals with the loss of her boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson), who died suddenly in an accident. Martha is left to grieve, and she discovers a service that can replicate her boyfriend’s behaviors through his online imprint.
“Be Right Back” lives and dies on its central performances, and they are among the best the show as ever produced. Atwell’s Martha is so completely destroyed by her grief that she turns to something she doesn’t completely understand, and is left in a horrifying stasis where she is unable process the loss she's experienced. Black Mirror is often disturbing, but it is rarely so devastatingly sad. In “Be Right Back,” the show tells a beautiful story of what it means to lose, and what the difference might be between a person and a mere collection of their actions.
5 Nosedive (3X01)
The second best outing from Black Mirror’s solid third season, “Nosedive” follows a young woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard as she attempts to advance her own social standing. The complicating factor: every interaction in this world is rated, and your social status stems largely from your ranking. As the episode plays out, we’re forced to cringe at the way humanity’s online presence gives us an overwhelming tendency to reduce everything to a single emotion.
Whether it’s likes or stars, “Nosedive” shows us how debilitating it can be to crave approval from everyone. In the end, though, “Nosedive” also suggests that there’s some hope left for humanity. If we can embrace each other on a simpler level, and choose to understand each other as something more than a rating, we can still live full lives. Black Mirror opens its third season with a note of hope. Technology is destroying everything, but at least we still have each other.
4 The National Anthem (1X01)
“National Anthem” is in many ways a prototypical Black Mirror episode. It’s technically the show’s pilot, whatever that may mean for a series where the stories aren’t interrelated. In this episode, Britain’s Prime Minister is blackmailed into performing an intimate act with a pig when a member of the royal family is kidnapped. “National Anthem” is the perfect opener to the series.
It introduces us to a world not unlike our own, where technology is both a gift and a curse. As the events of the episode unfold, it becomes clear that whatever the outcome may be, it will certainly be horrific. “National Anthem” also touches on the idea of spectatorship which would eventually become one of the show’s more consistent thematic through lines. The episode suggests that what you think you want to watch may differ from what you actually enjoy seeing. Essentially, “National Anthem” tells us to be careful what we wish for, but in the best and most horrific way imaginable.
3 San Junipero (3X04)
Black Mirror is near its best when it deals with death, a subject which intersects with technology more often than most people might realize. In “San Junipero,” we enter world built on nostalgia, one where technology is almost completely a benefit, even if it might seem slightly twisted. At its heart, this episode is a love story. It’s the story of two women, played beautifully by Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who meet and fall in love inside of this nostalgia-riddled world.
Despite its somber themes about death and loss, “San Junipero” is also one of Black Mirror’s sweetest hours. It’s set in a world that’s still riddled with emotions, one in which technology’s abilities are both profoundly disturbing and deeply moving. “San Junipero” is one of the most emotionally gripping episodes Black Mirror has ever produced, and it tells that story without abandoning everything that makes it unique. “San Junipero” is one of the show’s most alive outings, and also one of its very best.
2 Fifteen Million Merits (1X02)
There are few similarities between the world of “Fifteen Million Merits” and our own. The lives these people lead involved televised programming and energy-producing bikes that they must peddle to earn "merits". The future of “Fifteen Million Merits” is the one most unlike the world we live in today, and yet its key themes ring true precisely because it seems so distant.
“Fifteen Million Merits” focuses on a singing competition designed to thrill and humiliate its contestants. Those with talent become mindless puppets, and those without are the subject of endless ridicule. In this world, genuine feeling is worthless. The emotions of the characters-- their feelings and actions-- have little or no impact at all on life. In a world where the system is all-encapsulating, everything, even rebellion, is co-opted as mere entertainment. “Fifteen Million Merits” is dour and unceasing, but it’s also a stark look at what entertainment can-- and has-- become.
1 White Bear (2X02)
“White Bear” is everything Black Mirror wants to be. It’s a tightly-packed, surprising hour that plays with your sympathies and doesn’t let you take anything for granted. The episode also manages to subvert expectations, creating a world in which technology is the villain, and then pulling things back to reveal that there is still a cruel stink humanity behind every tortuous act.
“White Bear” isn’t just an entertaining and astoundingly brilliant episode. It also shows us our unrelenting penchant for watching punishment play out. It touches not only on the manipulative abilities of technology, but also on the ways in which technology plays into everything that was wrong about humanity long before it existed. Black Mirror condemns everyone in “White Bear.” It’s an unrelentingly cynical look at what people want and who they really are. It plays into every dark and terrifying impulse the show has ever had, and that’s precisely what makes it so great.
Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix.