Like the technology that serves as its main theme, Black Mirrorattracts millions of people who are divided on its quality and utility. Some people find its twist-filled, mystery-box plots hokey and insipid. Others believe the show is the spiritual descendant of The Twilight Zonein its intelligent science-fiction critiques of contemporary life.
Wherever you fall on the love-hate spectrum of Black Mirror, it's a given that any series will vary in quality from episode to episode. With 23 during its five seasons in existence, a number that includes two specials, the British sci-fi hit that Netflix picked up after Season 2 has given fans everything from "that was devastatingly good" to "did a child write that?" We're here to sift the wheat from the chaff, because this is a valuable service to our readers, and rankings often perform well on the internet -- the tool that destroys you, but which you can't live without. If you don't agree with our choices, you can pull a Bing, shatter the screen, and turn your phone/computer into a black mirror forever.
You'd have to have some kind of futuristic vision-altering device implanted in your brain not to see the twist coming in "Men Against Fire," a plain-vanilla allegory about genocide and the military-industrial complex. Exploring how war dehumanizes those who participate in it has been a prominent theme of war literature at least since the beginning of the industrialized conflicts that have defined the 20th and 21st centuries. Black Mirror has more than a century's worth of material on which to draw, then, but in this episode the show chooses to put forward the most bland thesis imaginable: To make killing palatable, you must see the enemy as literal monsters. Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a soldier whose MASS implant device (placed in all soldiers to give them augmented reality stats, make the enemy appear as mutant, and so on) begins glitching out, learns the hard way that carrying out a genocide requires every human sense and instinct to be dampened. The episode is boring, tediously plotted, and telegraphs almost every move it's going to make.
22. "The Waldo Moment" (S. 2, Ep. 3)
It's not clear whether it's the foul-mouthed cartoon bear or the "really makes you think"-ness of "The Waldo Moment" that makes it so annoying, but it's a very annoying Black Mirror episode. The premise becomes clear after the first 10 minutes or so: A washed-up comedian is stuck being the voice behind this irritating little character named Waldo who, through the machinations of his parent company, ends up weaseling his way onto the political scene after absolutely destroying a British politician in a debate. Long story short, his dick jokes make him unbelievably popular among the voters, who don't really care about politics at all, and Waldo is swiftly elected king of the world. There's even a line about the guy needing to prime himself to fire off "Twitter-ready zingers" during political debates. Underneath the rather prescient main arc, though, is a somewhat telling examination of how far a jilted man will go when his pride has been hurt. The most valuable lesson might be: Don't sleep with dudes whose alter egos are smack-talking bears.
21. "Smithereens" (S. 5, Ep. 2)
Find Chris, the "hot priest" of Fleabag, driving for an Uber analog in this Black Mirror episode, eventually kidnapping an intern for a Twitter-like tech company, demanding he get an audience with its CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). Why's he so keen on a phone call with Bauer? The answer is the twist of the episode, which mostly lolls around the rhythms of Chris's life on meditation apps, eating in cafes, and attended grief support groups. However, none of this coalesces into a story that's particularly interesting, focusing instead, as Black Mirror is wont to do, on naval gazing. We get it: We're addicted to our phones.
20. "Metalhead" (S. 4, Ep. 5)
A lot of Black Mirror fans hate on "Metalhead," and it's easy to see why. The black-and-white post-apocalyptic thriller is light on details, and doesn't offer the Black Mirror signature "Oh shit!" twist that sticks with you whether you want it to or not. Director David Slade keeps the story focused, opting for a simple, yet harrowing, machine-chasing-human plot with no explanation as to how or why this is happening. As Bella (Maxine Peake) runs from a seemingly indefatigable robot dog that has implanted a tracking device in her, you can't help but join her on the emotionally exhausting escape. "Metalhead" does little to reinvent the wheel, but in contrast to most Black Mirror episodes, it winds up achieving more through simplicity than making grand statements about modern technology.
19. "Bandersnatch" (Special, 2018)
Sometimes, ambition destroys creativity and quality. It's one of the meta-themes of "Bandersnatch," about a young video-game programmer (Fionn Whitehead) who wants to adapt a celebrated choose-your-own-adventure novel into a game, and applies on a meta-meta level -- whoaaaa -- to the special itself. Formally daring in its willingness to take on a technologically advanced approach to storytelling, "Bandersnatch" seems to have forgotten that there's a reason the vast majority of choose-your-own-adventure books are for children. It's extremely difficult to create compelling characters and give depth to a story when the reader/viewer constantly jumps from one narrative to another, and "Bandersnatch" muddies the water even further by attempting to turn the story into a meta-commentary on Netflix itself and the nature of free will. If you happen to be a fetishist for 1980s video games, particularly those of Imagine Software, a company that went bankrupt before it could release the actual Bandersnatch, you may feel particularly close to this special. It gets points for experimenting, but, like most first-time experiments, it ultimately fails.
Miley Cyrus can't save this episode that jostles around the "dangers" of poptimism, technology and socialization, and siphoning consciousness without ever really making any of these things its central motive. In the episode, the introverted teenage Rachel finds comfort in the self-empowering, if basic message and music of the pop star Ashley O (Cyrus), even while taking shit from her punk older sister Jack about her interests. Ashley releases a tiny robot AI version of herself, Ashley Too, which Rachel, of course, buys and gains sentience until it's able to express that the real Ashley O is in danger, her songwriting prowess being exploited by her aunt-ager (aunt-manager) to funnel into a performing hologram of Ashley. It's messy, but the acting is better than it needs to be, carrying this episode.
17. "Arkangel" (S. 4, Ep. 2)
Helicopter parents get the Black Mirror treatment in "Arkangel," an often silly, sometimes queasy episode from 2017 directed by Jodie Foster. Single mother Marie installs a device in her daughter Sara's brain that runs the experimental Arkangel program, basically the high-tech equivalent of parental controls-meets-geolocating, that prevents Sara from having to see or experience anything violent, scary, or remotely bad. It's no shock that Sara does not grow up well-adjusted, at one point self-harming to draw blood, which flows out of her as pixelated colors. Eventually, Marie relents, turning off the software from the tablet she's grown obsessively attached to by monitoring the location and surroundings of Sara, who binges on all of the messy content she's been missing out on, from ultra-violence to porn. When Sara goes to her first high school party without Arkangel, Marie gets just a little curious and decides to check in just one more time (which, of course, will not be "the last time") and ends up watching her daughter lose her virginity, and goes back to manipulating Sara. It's the first episode of the series to be directed by a woman (took long enough), but as commentary on policing women's safety, the argument is a little thin.
16. "Crocodile" (S. 4, Ep. 3)
The saving grace of "Crocodile" is Andrea Riseborough's tense performance as Mia, an up-and-coming architect, who will stop at nothing to keep her darkest past from coming to light: Driving back from a night at the club in the early morning 15 years prior, her friend Rob in the driver's seat hits and kills someone (inexplicably) on the side of the deserted mountainous road. Instead of reporting the death, he pressures Mia into disposing the body. Fast forward to the present: Rob, now sober and in an AA program, wants to confess and apologize for what they did, and Mia disagrees, with fatal consequences. Of course, there's an extra wrinkle threatening to destabilize Mia's life even further when Shazia, a diligent insurance claims agent, comes along investigating an accident with a driverless pizza van hitting a pedestrian that Mia is a witness to. Shazia's got a new memory recall technology to help piece together the moment of the accident, and when Mia is questioned, her attempt at focusing her memories gives away more than she intended, which sets her off on a frenzied, leave-no-witnesses rampage. Clearly, Mia carries deep unresolved trauma that's triggered with Rob's reappearance, but her murder spree, which still ends in her arrest because the recall technology works on pets -- you can't defeat technology!!! -- feels excessive, even by Black Mirror's standards.
Black Mirror is hardly shy when it comes to exploring sex and sexuality through a technological lens, and "Striking Vipers" is its latest effort. A follow-up of sorts to "San Junipero," this Season 5 episode finds two buddies playing a newly released video game from a franchise they both love, this time made in highly realistic virtual reality. With their avatars -- a man and a woman -- they end up having sex in-game, which obviously deeply complicates things in their friendship as two straight men. Even with a premise boiled down to something as crass as "is it gay to bang your bro if your bro is a woman??," "Striking Vipers" handles this scenario with surprising tenderness, even if the execution is kinda clunky.
14. "Fifteen Million Merits" (S. 1, Ep. 2)
In Black Mirror's first season, "Fifteen Million Merits" carries the seed of everything that would make the show's bad episodes miss the mark. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Bing, one of millions trapped in a futuristic hell where they must cycle all day to power the vast amount of technology enabling their close quarters and closely monitored lives. Cycling allows people to rack up "merits," which can be used to obtain minor conveniences like skipping ads, or to apply to a reality competition that offers escape from their slavery. Bing's well-intentioned gift to Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) of 15 million merits allows her the chance to showcase her singing talent on the American/British Idol-style show, but instead, she winds up coerced into doing pornography -- hate when that happens! Kaluuya always delivers a compelling performance, but the resolution comes off as trite, with Bing choosing comfort over freedom and getting his own TV show on which he rails emptily against the injustice of the system. Especially in a world so familiar to our own, with screens delivering targeted ads daily and anonymous masses influencing our every decision, the arc remains too close to the surface to make any deeper points.
Not the bees! Yes, it's the bees: Autonomous Drone Insects, invented as mechanical pollinators when Britain's native bee population dips too low, get hacked and start killing people named via the #DeathTo hashtag on social media. What begins as an environmental commentary morphs into a crime thriller, with elements of pure horror worked in -- the Hitchcockian scene where the bees invade the "safe house" might give you a permanent phobia. While the social media theme veers into the purely didactic quality that some critics of Black Mirror despise, what makes this episode work is that it's the backdrop to a complex plot (the reveal that the ADIs have facial recognition for national security purposes deftly adds another layer to the technological folly) and strong ensemble work from a cast led by Kelley Macdonald, Faye Marsay, and Benedict Wong. In the end, this is a fresh take on a British detective show; a group of dedicated investigators try to find a mass murderer in a race against time. Who doesn't love that?
12. "Black Museum" (S. 4, Ep. 6)
While it's not a universally beloved episode -- and this may have something to do with its rather graphic (even for Black Mirror) cruelty -- "Black Museum" is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this show work so well. Told in three interlocking parts (similar to a previous episode in the series, "White Christmas"), the episode wends its way through the deepest, darkest recesses of our lizard brains, and the prospective technology that could make it even easier to get there. Delectably slimy museum proprietor Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) delights in telling Nish (Letitia Wright), the museum's sole visitor, about three technological inventions he used to swindle a trio of unsuspecting stooges into giving up their souls in exchange for a moment of peace, or power. The episode gets darker as it goes, but the first part especially is a can't-look-away horror tale that would fit right in with any of Stephen King's wildest nightmares -- and is based on a short story by Penn Jillette!
In a totally randomized Tinder hellscape, two star-crossed soulmates meet for just one night before being experimentally paired off with other people, all in the name of finding a way to algorithmically map love. Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) live in a walled society where everyone's romantic partnerships are determined by a little handheld assistant "coach," which chooses and introduces you to your new partners and can inform you of your relationship's predetermined expiration date. After spending just one night together, Frank and Amy have to choose between upholding the system or risking everything to find each other again. There's a particularly eye-opening twist at the very end of this one that (spoiler alert) sits it firmly within Black Mirror's small family of happy-ending episodes.
10. "Be Right Back" (S. 2, Ep. 1)
The first time Black Mirror dipped its toes in the icy water of death, it was far less optimistic than the subsequent Emmy-winner "San Junipero." "Be Right Back" relies, necessarily, on Ash's (Domhnall Gleeson) social-media addiction, because after he dies in a car crash it's the data contained in his online footprint that allows his girlfriend, Martha (Hayley Atwell), to construct an artificial intelligence version of him that will live forever. Of course, the reconstructed version of Ash, which eventually powers a lifelike android replica of him, doesn't quite match the real thing. It's just a reflection of what he chose to share on social media, after all, and the most active users of Twitter, Instagram, etc. likely reveal less of their interior lives than, well, just about anyone else. Coming so early in the series, it landed with a ton of emotional heft -- what does technology mean for death, man? -- but given the show's return to the same territory time and time again, with little new left to say, "Be Right Back" lands comfortably in the middle of the pack.
9. "Playtest" (S. 3, Ep. 2)
Speaking of death, what if it's just one massive firing of every synapse simultaneously, so that your final moment plays out like an unending nightmare of your worst fears? Oh, that probably should've had a spoiler alert. Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is a restless American who's stopped to collect a thin layer of moss in London, where he loses his credit card and decides to pick up a couple of extra bucks by participating in a test for a revolutionary augmented reality game. The bulk of "Playtest" is straightforward horror, with effective jump-scares and disturbing special effects worthy of any blockbuster, and though the final twist makes the whole episode feel a bit thin, it's also a welcome relief to have your heart come down out of your throat.
Black Mirror has plenty of #relatable episodes, but in the age of social media, there is no episode more relatable than "Nosedive," the one that sees Bryce Dallas Howard spiral out of control while living in a society in which everyone lives and dies by a star rating. The episode imagines an idyllic, pastel-toned world where everyone is a prisoner of everyone else's perception of them: If your rating is good, you get the good schools, good jobs, good friends, but if you start accruing bad points, no one wants to associate themselves with you at all. It's the horrific logical conclusion of social media and review-based sites, the two ultimately colliding in a singularity that turns the human into a reviewable product. The episode is maddening, mesmerizing, and so uncomfortable to watch that it's one of the darkest and most effective stories Black Mirror has ever done.
7. "White Bear" (S. 2, Ep. 2)
In a series that loves to fuck with an audience's sense of reality, "White Bear" stands out not just as the first episode to introduce the "wait, everything I thought was happening was wrong" form, but also one of the show's more suspenseful takes on the chase thriller. It toys with the audience's sense of empathy -- it's certainly nothing new to portray the "bad guy" as the hero, but "White Bear" puts you in the place of a person rightfully convicted of a heinous crime and sentenced to one of the most cruel and unusual punishments a sci-fi television show can cook up. As is the case with most of Black Mirror, "White Bear" explores the space between the anonymity and depersonalization of the internet and the real-world, human responses to that anonymity and depersonalization. Knowing the crime Victoria has committed doesn't change the cruelty of her punishment, but the glee the public takes in watching it play out remains unchanged each day. Hmm... that almost sounds like... THE INTERNET.
6. "USS Callister" (S. 4, Ep. 1)
"USS Callister" is by turns a Star Trek parody, a Nice Guy takedown, and a delightful imagining of the future of open-world gaming that deserves to be its own movie. After an impotent CTO (Jesse Plemons) at a game company uploads a near-identical copy of one of his cute coworkers (Cristin Milioti) into his own virtual simulation, she has to win the help of all the other trapped digital people and escape from their own "captain's" despotic rule. Amid the Trek-inspired jabber and the fun back-and-forth between the real world and the virtual one is an all-time great performance by Jimmi Simpson in perhaps the most exhilarating episode Black Mirror has ever produced (aside from a certain '80s-inspired whirlwind romance fantasy).
5. "San Junipero" (S. 3, Ep. 4)
Beloved by fans and critics alike, "San Junipero" was also the show's first foray into giving its hapless characters a genuinely happy ending. And while the extent of the happiness is open to debate (spending an eternity after death as data in a great big bank, hopping around virtual recreations of your favorite decades can't be awesome ALL the time), you can't deny that we were all on the edge of our seats hoping against hope that Yorkie and Kelly would somehow end up together. You could argue that a happy ending is against all the pre-established rules of Black Mirror, and that's valid, but the resolution is all the more satisfying because it's well earned -- after five years of torment, we all deserved something truly joyful.
4. "Shut Up and Dance" (S. 3, Ep. 3)
While most viewers know that Black Mirror is about technology, one of the themes it most thoughtfully explores (with mixed success) is empathy. Sometimes this exploration comes off as hack and superficial, as in the case of "Men Against Fire," but other times it transcends the reality-questioning setup and reaches for a higher emotional plane, as in the case of "Shut Up and Dance." Some fans find that the plot is too similar to "White Bear," but the episode does more than hide the true nature of what's happening to a person deemed irredeemably awful -- it asks you to go on the journey as it happens, to lose your own sense of right and wrong as you witness a total disregard for laws and human life. The fast-paced, crime-spree plot keeps viewers hooked, but it also masks some of the implications of Kenny (Alex Lawther) and Hector's (Jerome Flynn) actions. They're so terrified of humiliation that they're willing to commit any other crime, including murder, to avoid having their secret come out, and both Lawther and Flynn imbue their roles with a depth that makes you pull for them even as they're progressively violating more of society's norms. What does this say about the human capacity for empathy, or the fear of punishment and societal damnation? Maybe the strongest aspect of the episode is that, with the final scene offering nothing but unrelenting punishment, it refuses to provide easy answers.
3. "The National Anthem" (S. 1, Ep. 1)
Among all the cheesy, thinly plotted, and improbable aspects of Black Mirror that justly receive derision, you can't say that its pilot doesn't deliver a sufficiently fucked-up introduction to the "dark side of technology" (in 2011, that premise was still mostly fresh, OK?). Most of the episode is spent with the (fake!!) British Prime Minister Michael Callow and his cabinet in the war room after a publicly beloved member of the Royal Family is kidnapped. Her captor uploads to YouTube a video of Princess Susannah reading an extortion script, which quickly goes viral. The demand is that the PM have sex with a pig on live television in exchange for the princess' life. The action bounces between the politicians' heated debates of whether or not to go through with it and the public's growing interest in the terrorism-turned-spectacle by nature of experiencing the developments unfold through push notifications and tweets. It's not a surprise, but it is extremely disturbing, when Callow walks onto the sound stage, alone with a pig and a camera broadcasting to the entire country to hold up his end of the deal. The end whodunit twist is kind of lame -- the perp was a reclusive writer trying to teach the country a lesson about its obsession with media! -- considering we just watched a leader of the free world engage in bestiality, but overall, "The National Anthem" is easily one of the more successful black mirrors Black Mirror has done.
2. "White Christmas" (Special, 2014)
Virtually every episode of this show is cruel, but "White Christmas" really went all out in its own personal nightmare-scape of cruelty. The show's first Christmas special debuted in December 2014 and was the last episode to be televised before its move to Netflix. It was also the first episode to feature a well-known American actor: Jon Hamm, doing his sneaky salesman routine, is holed up in a cabin with Rafe Spall as a winter whiteout rages outside. Hamm's character loosens up the Christmas Eve mood by telling his companion about his life prior to the cabin and the tech he used to do his shady business: an eye implant that allows him to coach sad sacks about how to get women to sleep with them, and a new kind of personal assistant that's actually made from a piece of the user's own consciousness. Spall, in turn, has his own very melancholy story about an ex-lover that chillingly ties into Hamm's tales and leads to one of the scariest endings of the whole show. The layers of plot and the questioning of consciousness and reality are Black Mirror at its finest, and each reveal builds on the last in a way that advances the story, rather than gunning for the shock value of a huge twist.
1. "The Entire History of You" (S. 1, Ep. 3)
The Season 1 finale of Black Mirror sharply focuses the interactions between human emotions and technology, and it does so with nuance and lack of sentimentality -- perhaps it's no coincidence that this is the only episode not written or co-written by creator Charlie Brooker, instead having been penned by Jesse Armstrong (Succession, Peep Show). Liam (Toby Kebbell) is a lawyer who's having trouble at work and home: He just received a crappy performance review, and he suspects his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) is having an affair. Thanks to technology called the Grain, people with the device implanted behind their ear can replay any memory captured visually, and even utilize a lip-reading tool to decipher spoken words that weren't heard. After confronting his wife's suspected lover, a drunken, spiraling Liam eventually forces Ffion to play him all her memories of the affair, which is obviously a terrible idea. The result is a devastating revelation that destroys everyone involved, which is why "The Entire History of You" is the Black Mirror episode that most clearly conveys the show's main premise; it's not that technology is "bad," but that it fundamentally changes the way humans interact with each other, and those changes have consequences we still have yet to fully understand.