The rise of “Black Mirror” has been a fascinating thing to watch. It first aired fairly quietly in the fall of 2011 on the U.K.’s Channel 4, with a short run of three episodes. It hailed from creator Charlie Brooker who, though he had a couple of TV series behind him (hipster satire “Nathan Barley,” co-created with “Four Lions” helmer Chris Morris, and zombie-reality-TV miniseries “Dead Set”), was best known as a TV critic and on-air personality. So the show wasn’t all that much hyped, despite a starry cast, and the idea of a “Twilight Zone”-style anthology hadn’t been cool for years.
But it won great reviews, and decent ratings, and a second season of three episodes followed, along with a one-off Christmas special in 2014. But what had been a cult concern in the U.K. became increasingly mainstream that same year when Netflix brought the seven existing episodes to U.S. audiences, with word of mouth swiftly making it a hit among Hollywood creatives and more general viewers. And when Channel 4 hesitated on picking up further episodes, Netflix swept in, commissioning a dozen further episodes across two seasons.
The first fruits of that deal landed this past Friday, with six new episodes of the show hitting the streaming service worldwide, nearly doubling the total output of the show. Its increasing popularity is reflected in the calibre of talent now involved, with some big name stars, directors, writers and composers joining Brooker on the latest run of technologically-themed morality plays, but with a greater scope, production value and variety of genres enabled by the Netflix cash too.
The show’s been dominating the pop culture discourse over the weekend, and we were just one of many who binged all six episodes. And now, having the complete run to date under our belts, we’ve sorted them out and ranked all thirteen installments of the show from worst to best below. Take a look, let us know if you agree or disagree, and pray for our death by robot bees in the comments. Some spoilers ahead.
13. “The Waldo Moment” (Season 2, Episode 3)
In recent months, Season 2 closer “The Waldo Moment” has had a moment in the sun it didn’t really get at the time, with some giving credit to the episode for predicting Donald Trump’s rise (and Brooker somewhat concurring, telling The Daily Beast “At the time, I thought that was one I didn’t nail, I didn’t get the stakes right… And you look at it now and go, ‘Fuck me – that’s Trump.’” We’d say he’s about half right: he didn’t nail it, but while the subject’s sort of Trump-adjacent, it’s not quite as prescient as some might claim. Penned by Brooker and directed by Bryn Higgins, the episode stars Daniel Rigby as Jamie, a washed-up comedian who voices and performance-captures a foul-mouthed cartoon bear called Waldo, a sort of Ali G-ish figure who mocks politicians on a comedy show. His producer (a wonderfully slimy Jason Flemyng), in search of more publicity, suggests that Waldo stands for election as an MP against one of his rivals (Tobias Menzies), but Jamie increasingly realizes that he’s being used as a tool of the establishment. Brooker was inspired by buffoonish British politician Boris Johnson (who, in a twist more horrifying than anything in the episode, was the main Brexit cheerleader and is now Foreign Secretary), but the episode’s tone is a bit wonky and broad. Ultimately, it’s a rare case where Brooker’s imagination was in the right neighborhood, but didn’t quite go dark enough: Trump isn’t just an entertaining distraction, but a dark malevolent force in and of himself.
12. “Fifteen Million Merits” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Skewering reality TV in a sort of “Hunger Games”-ish dystopian setting, “Fifteen Million Merits” is the rare “Black Mirror” episode that feels like it almost isn’t ambitious enough. Directed by Euros Lyn and written by Brooker and his wife, TV presented Konnie Huq (credited under her birth name Kanak Huq), it’s set in a future where most of the population spend their days cycling on exercise bikes to generate power, accumulating ‘Merits’ which gives them certain advantages. One such worker bee, Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) encourages a friend (Jessica Brown Findlay) to enter televised talent competition Hot Shots to find a way out, buying her the tickets with his merits, but when she’s humiliated and forced into working in porn TV, he sets out for revenge. The cast in particular are brilliant — Rupert Everett has a ton of fun as a sort of Simon Cowell analogue, and Kaluuya is, as ever, terrific (it’s taken a long while for Hollywood to catch up to him, but with “Get Out” and “Black Panther” following “Sicario,” he’s finally getting the attention he deserves), and the world is vividly created. But perhaps because the sci-fi setting is the most removed from our world of any of these episodes, and because reality TV seems like an unusually glib and easy subject to be tackling, it never quite takes off. The ending is the most interesting part, Brooker’s self-loathing streak also displayed in “The Waldo Moment” coming out as Kaluuya’s rants are absorbed into the system as further distraction. But it’s a bit of a slog otherwise, despite the excellent central turn.
11. “Shut Up And Dance” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Coming at the mid-point of the new season, “Shut Up And Dance” might in some respects be the bleakest of the new offerings, but while it’s well executed, it ends up feeling like a rather hollow retread of past glories. James Watkins (“The Woman In Black”) directs a script by Brooker and newcomer William Bridges, the first story to be set entirely in our world with our technology since “National Service.” Alex Lawther (“The Imitation Game”) takes the lead role as Kenny, a teenager who receives a mysterious email telling him that hackers have, through malware, captured video of him masturbating in front of his computer. If he doesn’t want the clip sent to his friends, family and co-workers, he must obey the instructions they send him via text, which sees him teaming up with another victim of the malevolent forces (Jerome Flynn from “Game Of Thrones”), robbing a bank and, eventually, fighting another stranger, seemingly to the death. In the end, it’s to no avail: the hackers send their evidence around anyway, and it turns out Kenny was so desperate to follow their wishes because he was watching child pornography. It’s a very “Black Mirror” twist, but while Watkins keeps the episode rattling along, and Lawther and Flynn are both very good, the twist helps aid a slight feeling of pointlessness to the whole endeavor. The writing has tension, but not a lot of actual drama, with the characters essentially following orders correctly for most of the episode, and then discovering it didn’t matter anyway, and that we were wrong to care about them in the first place. The show’s often accused of nihilism, and that’s mostly unfair, but an episode like this doesn’t help its case.