TAGGED AS: Netflix
It’s arguable that creator Charlie Brooker’s episodic anthology series Black Mirror is one of the scariest shows on TV — not because it relies on zombie attacks or murderous clowns, but because it shows just how easily phones, computers, and other advancing technology that we are increasingly dependent on can be used against us if we’re not paying close enough attention. (The fact that all of these episodes are available to be played on Netflix, the innovative streaming giant known for obsessively monitoring our usage without really sharing what they find, should not be overlooked.)
A chapter of this paranoia-fueled scarefest, “Bandersnatch,” was unleashed at the end of December 2018. A choose-your-own-adventure interactive episode, the release was experimental, and its score of 72% reflected an uncertain reception. Season 5 dropped on Netflix in 2019, tackling the familiar technology-as-terror ground, with an all-star cast including Topher Grace, Miley Cyrus, and Anthony Mackie. Watch the trailer above.
Rotten Tomatoes has crunched the numbers to rank the best Black Mirror episodes down to the worst. We’ve updated the list to reflect the current Tomatometer score; however, it’s worth noting that early episodes like “The National Anthem” and “15 Million Merits” have scores of 100% on fewer than 20 reviews, while more recent episodes, may not have perfect scores, but have more reviews — season 4, Episode 1: "USS Callister" 95%, for example, scores in the 90s, but on 38 reviews. In case of ties, those titles with more reviews ranked higher with the “Average rating” (under “See Score Details”) taken into account where episodes had the same score and number of reviews.
Think we missed something? Sound off in the comments. (Also, spoilers follow, obviously).
UPDATE (7/28/21): List updated to reflect added reviews and changing scores.
#1The first-ever episode of Black Mirror lives in infamy for two reasons in particular. The first is that its plot — a prime minister (Rory Kinnear) has to do the unthinkable in the name of saving his country’s kidnapped princess (Lydia Wilson) — prepares audience’s for the show’s macabre humor as it pokes fun at privacy, political corruptness, and our obsession with technology. The second is that it became a footnote in a real-life political scandal a few years later when then-prime minister David Cameron’s reputation was muddied after — and there’s really no way to say this delicately — it was rumored he’d had a roll in the sty with a pig.
#2A sort-of Hunger Games—meets—environmental disaster story, the show’s second episode highlights one of its most popular themes: our society’s addiction to fame. Here, we have a world where humans must peddle exercise bikes in order to both power their surroundings and earn “merits,” or payments. Ways out include inheritance (because inequality is still prevalent in dystopia) and participating on a reality competition show. The episode also showcases Black Mirror’s uncanny ability to cast actors just as they’re on the verge of hitting the mainstream. Alongside known names like Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay and My Best Friend’s Wedding’s Rupert Everett is future Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya.
#3A winner of five Emmy Awards, this episode should make us wonder how many of the TV Academy’s voters secretly hate their coworkers. By day, Jesse Plemmons’ Robert Daly is a mild-mannered programming ace who co-founded a popular multi-player game. He also has a habit of taking his work home with him; stealing the DNA of co-workers and employees who routinely ridicule him (like his partner, played by Jimmi Simpson) or don’t realize they’re the objects of his attraction (a new employee, played by Cristin Milioti) and uploading digital copies of them to his own private, Star Trek—like universe. Stay to the end to spot the voice of a surprise guest star.
#4Do you enjoy that euphoric rush of someone liking, commenting on, or retweeting your pictures or commentary? Then you might need to do a nosedive into your own priorities after watching this episode, which enjoys a byline from Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur and Rashida Jones and is based on a story by creator Brooker. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, an eager-to-please office dweller who is desperate to be popular. Part of the reason for this is that social media has made it so that she can still keep tabs on her childhood best friend (Alice Eve), whose life is full of #goals. It’s also because Lacie’s not alone and this world seeks to monetize hers and others’ lusts for perfection, making these digital interactions a form of currency (something not so different from what China seems to be planning). Things go awry and let’s just say that Howard may not get as many wedding invites as she used to.
#5Just when you think online dating couldn’t get any more awkward and uncomfortable, there’s this season 4 episode. Set in a world where an algorithm will handle the messy work of finding you a mate (yay!) and enforce exactly how long you have to cohabitate with that person (eh), it stars Broadchurch’s Georgina Campbell and Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole as star-crossed lovers who must learn to listen to their hearts instead of the programmers’ commands. It’s also one of the few Black Mirror episodes that comes with a truly happy ending as the couple make like Butch and Sundance to buck the system and stay together.
#6A stunning work of production and costume design and music supervision as it is storytelling, this third season episode follows the building romance between Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly and Mackenzie Davis’ Yorkie through several decade-specific fashions and nightclubs. Along the way, we get lessons on everything from aging to the jeopardized rights of both members of the LGBTQ community and persons with disabilities. It also makes us wonder if there’s a chance that someone who had a pretty crummy life has a chance at finding love and peace after it’s over. Or, as singer Belinda Carlisle reminds us at the end, is heaven a place on Earth?
#7One of a handful of Black Mirror episodes to discuss technology’s role in alleviating loss (see also: part of season 4’s “Black Museum”), this episode stars Hayley Atwell as Martha, a young woman who uses AI tools as a coping mechanism for getting over a boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson) who perished in a car accident. Because your Tweets don’t die just because you do, she utilizes his social media interactions to recreate him in android form. It does not go well for Martha, but it does posit the question of whether the bereaved can ever have closure if we still see our beloveds’ images and data in our phones or receive annual bombardments of their birthdays on Facebook.
#8A perfect holiday special for anyone needing a break from being locked in the house with their relatives, this episode also explores themes seen in the second season episode “White Bear.” Rafe Spall (of Edgar Wright’s blood and ice cream trilogy — i.e., Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men) star as two guys stuck in a cabin for past transgressions. But whose crime is worse? Who stands to benefit when the other spills? And how long have they been in this cabin again?
#9Several of Black Mirror’s episodes deal with technology’s role in — for better or worse — aiding romantic relationships. This episode, which aired as part of the first season, offers a dark turn on something so many of us have seen before: the obsessive need to learn about your paramour’s past relationships to the point where you no longer trust that person, causing the relationship to self destruct. Kong: Skull Island’s Toby Kebbell stars as a guy so obsessed with seeing imperfections that he has a device planted behind his ear that lets him redo various moments of his life. Naturally, this backfires when he sees his girlfriend (Doctor Who’s new lead Jodie Whittaker, because, again, A+ casting) chatting up her ex at a party.
Also, a fun bit of trivia: This is the only episode to date that does not carry Booker’s byline in some capacity. It was written by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong.
#10Similar to the twist at the end of “White Christmas,” this season 2 episode explores the way technology can be used to enforce punishment. It stars Lenora Crichlow as woman who wakes up with amnesia in a strange house where TV screens blast an unknown image and she finds a picture herself with a man she doesn’t recognize and of a small girl. But this is not a sympathetic story of a family’s attempt to reunite. Instead, we learn that Crichlow’s character is named Victoria and she was an enabler in an act so terrible that she has been sentenced to relive her own kind of torture every day for the amusement of strangers who hate her.
#11Another example of this show’s casting department’s ability to grab talent just when they become a big deal — hi, Lodge 49’s Wyatt Russell — this story is a reminder that the products that you use safely now may not have started this way. In an allegory to those who are down on their luck and willing to sign up for drug trails, Russell’s Cooper is a broke American stranded in London who agrees to be a guinea pig for a secretive video game project in exchange for a plane ticket home. Let’s just say that he’s not going to make that flight.
#12Season 3 of Black Mirror closes out with a movie (it’s 89 minutes long — that’s a TV movie!) that serves as a cautionary reminder that cyber bullying and death threats hurt everyone. It starts with various public figures — all of whom have recently provoked the public enough for the masses to call for their demise — actually do end up dead in bizarre ways. That’s when Detective Chief Inspector Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and her team are brought in to investigate. But those who called for their grisly end must suffer their own consequences when swarms of robotic insects turn on them. Bee careful what you say on the internet, kids.
#13This fourth season episode, which is conveniently directed by former child star Jodie Foster, plays on the idea that pretty much every parent has thought but never really had the capacity to enact: Instead of worrying about what happens when your child has access to technology, how can parents harness its powers to protect their offspring? Rosemarie DeWitt stars as Marie Sambrell, an overprotective single mom who embeds a neutral implant in her daughter, Sara’s, brain that allows her to see her whereabouts and protect her from dangerous images. And while this works fine when Sara’s a child young enough to be scared of the neighbor’s dog, what happens when she’s a teenager making the same mistakes that Marie and her friends probably also made? The short answer is disaster.
#14The series’ experimental choose-your-own-adventure movie follows young video-game developer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) in 1985 as he programs a game based on a choose-your-own-adventure book called Bandersnatch. In an interactive twist, viewers make periodic choices for the main character from the frivolous (which breakfast cereal to eat) to the consequential (no examples here, ’cause spoilers). Things get even more meta from there, with Stefan harboring a sneaking suspicion that someone is influencing his decision-making (wink wink). Like “Black Museum,” “Bandersnatch” features many stories coming together (as well as Easter eggs and references to past seasons), but in this instance, the interactive features overshadow the message of the episode.
#15This love story bested the rest of season 5’s episodes with the highest Fresh score of the three. When old college buddies Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) reunite, they discover a deeper connection in a new VR version of their favorite old video game. In their late-night play, Karl appears as fighter Roxette (Pom Klementieff), while Danny’s avatar is Lance (Ludi Lin). When the fighting gets heated, the two challengers’ tangling takes on a sexual charge, which confuses and excites both men. But Danny has a wife and kids, and this unexpected connection could mean an upheaval of Karl’s bachelor lifestyle. Robert Rorke of the New York Post said of the episode, “Mackie and Mateen deftly convey the exciting but threatening change in their relationship.”
#16The fourth season finale is a collection of anecdotes that work great as short stories, but aren’t long enough to hold their own for a single episode — a museum curation, if you will. They all come together through the narration of Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) as he takes a young visitor (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, thus reconfirming the casting department’s sixth sense in this arena) on a tour of artifacts from past technology misfires. Spoiler alert: They’re often props from past episodes of the series.
#17This fourth season episode may be one of the best examples of how well Black Mirror utilizes the self-contained episodic anthology format. Shot all in black and white by David Slade (Hard Candy; Breaking Bad), we’re very quickly dropped into a world with no backstory and no idea of who is the true enemy. We’re left to see things from the perspective of Belle (actress and activist Maxine Peake), a human on the run from creatures that look like those robotic dogs that can dance — except now they are killing machines. Is this the future where the dogs have inherited the earth and people are on the run? Is Belle actually a horrible person out for her own gain? We’ll never know.
#18Andrew Scott (Sherlock) plays ride-share driver Chris, a deranged gunman looking for satisfaction. Or is he? After taking young intern Jaden (Damson Idris) hostage, the episode unfurls a tragic tale of loss and misplaced blame, as Chris accuses social media mogul Billy Bauer (Topher Grace) of enabling a powerful addiction that unraveled the former teacher’s idyllic life. It’s Scott’s “astonishing control and range that elevated a too-tidy plot into something much messier and more profound,” wrote Benji Wilson of the Daily Telegraph.
#19What if someone had access to the worst things you ever did? This season three episode involves an elaborate scavenger hunt dictated by a secret society of all-knowing Big Brothers who have been monitoring our most damning acts. The teen-age Kenny (Alex Lawther) becomes an unlikely ally of Hector (Jerome Flynn), a man in the throes of an ill-advised midlife crisis, as they team up for increasingly risky and illegal acts in the name of saving their reputations. Alas, they get exposed and we all learn valuable lessons about keeping the video screen of their laptops properly covered and not downloading software from strangers.
#20One of the most politically relevant of the series, this season 3 episode takes on topics like refugees as well as government-approved experiments and hate crimes. Malachi Kirby, who starred in History’s 2016 revival of Roots, plays Stripe, a soldier trained to kill supposedly dangerous human mutants known as “roaches.” He soon learns that nothing is really as it seems — not even his dreams.
#21She would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that self-driving pizza delivery van! Andrea Riseborough, Andrew Gower, and Kiran Sonia Sawar star in this story that, albeit having a plot that requires some suspension of belief, is another reminder that technology is making it even harder for criminals to get away with their acts. And this goes for anything from vehicles hitting pedestrians to voyeurism to … murder.
#22Music superstar Miley Cyrus is credited with what’s right with the episode for a compelling, committed performance as pop idol Ashley O, whose consciousness is so thoroughly transferred into a robot doll that one of the products recognizes a conspiracy to incapacitate the artist and mine her for her creative juices. The doll, her lonely teen owner, and the girl’s rocker sister embark on a quest to save Ashley O. It’s a lot to unpack in 67 minutes.
#23A mix of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy and Comedy Central’s The Gorburger Show with a special dash of American politics sprinkled in, this second season episode stars Daniel Rigby as the failed comedian behind an extremely popular cartoon bear named Waldo. Waldo’s main claim to fame is his booking agents’ ability to book guests on his late-night talk show by lying that it’s geared toward kids. Things get out of control when someone suggests Waldo run for public office and only escalate after an American agency steps in to brand him for an international audience.
It should be noted that this episode aired in February 2013 in the U.K. — more than two years before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for U.S. president. Maybe that whole thing isn’t Seth Meyers’ fault after all.