Horrible things happen in “Black Mirror,” which can be pretty hard to watch. Fortunately, these dark tales have attracted some amazing talent, some of whom are well known and others less so. Regardless of their resume, these actors have the unenviable task of taking such challenging and often off-putting stories and making them not just compelling, but relatable as well. Whether it’s serving as the comic relief, the everyman caught in a frightening situation, a politician asked to do the unthinkable, or a crazed villain that haunts our dreams, these characters become palpably real in this grim reflection of our world.
Here are some of the standouts performances that moved us over the past four seasons:
Hayley Atwell, “Be Right Back”
For this unusual sci-fi romance to work, Martha has to be a character that is warm and loving enough to sell the central couple, but have enough insecurity to make the audience doubt that having a robotic Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) back in her life is a bad idea. That contrast is what makes “Be Right Back” so thrilling at times and heartbreaking in its conclusion. It’s a difficult thing for an actor to convey, someone who has made up her mind about the right thing to do, but also be able to show the same inability to actually do it. There’s a universality in the way that the episode wrestles with the legacy of loved ones who leave us too early, but Atwell captures the specific joy and pain of basking in those treasured memories.
Oona Chaplin, “White Christmas”
As we said in our ranking of “Black Mirror” episodes, Matt (Jon Hamm) heartlessly speeding up the time that Greta is trapped inside the mind-prison “cookie” might be the most sadistic thing any of its characters have ever done. But what really sells that punishment is the frantic terror on Greta’s face when she finally gets a glimpse of the outside world. When the environment inside the cookie is so minimalist and blank, what clues the audience into just how long she’s been trapped is Chaplin’s frenzied movement. Even in the way she turns her head, you can see the months of isolation creep through on her face. We make it out of the cookie, but she makes us feel locked in there with her.
Daniel Kaluuya, “Fifteen Million Merits”
Long before entering the sunken place, Kaluuya delivered this mesmerizing performance that caught Jordan Peele’s eye and got him cast several years later in “Get Out.” His ability to convey so much energy and nuance without utter a word is his greatest strength, whether it’s taking the role of a mindless drone bereft of joie de vivre or barely containing his frustrated agony. This sterile world of exercise bikes, merits, and blinding screens everywhere is as chilling as they come, which makes Kayuuya’s warm, despairing, and eventually blazing presence all the more essential for us to be able to identify. Through him, we are able to truly feel the enormity of that society’s horror.
Gwyneth Keyworth, “Hang the DJ”
In one of the lighter and optimistic episodes in the “San Junipero” vein, “Hang the DJ” gave us some genuine laughs, thanks to an excellent cast, including scene-stealer Gwyneth Keyworth. Her uptight Nicola is not at all down with the System, which purports to eventually match you up with “the one,” but not until you’ve dated a line of partners in order to calibrate the algorithm. She’s quite possibly the most unromantic romantic out there, which is at odds with her actual participation in the System. Her lack of pretense, her DGAF attitude, and her utter disdain make for one of the most deliciously comical characters in the series.
Rory Kinnear, “The National Anthem”
However you might feel about one of “Black Mirror’s” most controversial installments (which also happens to be the very first episode) there’s no denying that it wouldn’t work without Rory Kinnear’s compelling performance, which places him in an impossible situation with a devastating conclusion. It’s not the actual act that proves hardest to watch, in the end, but the final moments that show the full impact of this insane, soul-crushing moment.
Alex Lawther, “Shut Up and Dance”
To play Kenny, a young man with unspeakable desires, is no easy task. To make him sympathetic is even more daunting, but that’s exactly what Lawther has done. From the start, Kenny seemed fragile and uncertain, but as he gets drawn into the elaborate blackmail schemes of the Shrive, he shatters completely. It’s a devastating disintegration to witness, made all the more horrifying by the sickening revelation about Kenny in the end. Rewatching the episode with this twist in mind is an unsettling new experience, but Lawther’s performance is still just as affecting.
Kelly MacDonald, “Hated in the Nation”
We don’t end up learning a ton about Kelly MacDonald’s tough but cool detective at the center of the third season mystery, but we don’t really need her life story in order to appreciate the strong character work being done. It’d be easy to watch an entire series following DCI Karin Parke and her colleagues, with or without “Black Mirror’s” patented tech weirdness — there’s something to be said for capable people solving crime.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “San Junipero”
Both of the women leading “Black Mirror’s” most romantic love story do remarkable work, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance, in particular, stands out, as she navigates both Kelly as we first meet her — a young vibrant woman having a good time at the club — as well as the full truth of her character in later scenes. Bringing a rich maturity to the character, especially in heartbreaking scenes that feature her brutal honesty about her life and family, it’s a star-making turn that has us eager to see more from her.
Maxine Peake, “Metalhead”
Jonathan Prime / Netflix
Any extended performance without much dialogue is going to present a specific challenge. But when acting against a militarized murderbot, Peake is asked to carry much of the terror and resilience that makes “Metalhead” more than just a grim glimpse at a “dog”-controlled future. So much of her heavy lifting comes when she’s escaping the predator over cliffsides and through forests, but Peake really anchors the impact of the whole episode when Bella encounters a dead family in an abandoned home. If the true horror of “Black Mirror” is recognizing what we’ve lost, then seeing Bella in that final moment of sacrifice, admitting defeat, is a heartbreaking final note for the kind of future we all dread.
Wyatt Russell, “Playtest”
The divide between reality and illusion runs through some of the best “Black Mirror” episodes. But it takes an equally conflicted performance to sell that disorientation. Watching the slow descent from amused gamer to a person on the verge of a mortifying psychotic break is Russell‘s best contribution to the story. Even though we get to see the alien/humanoid monstrosities that populate this VR world, it’s seeing Russell‘s reaction that really makes the episode come alive. “Playtest” can’t just be a scared person shouting for an hour — there needs to be pure unadulterated revulsion to go along with it. Paired with some terrifying physical work when the story hops back to him sitting in the gamer’s chair, Russell elevates an illusion-gone-bad scenario to something even more haunting.
Kiran Sonia Sawar, “Crocodile”
Trust “Black Mirror” to present one of the most charming characters in one of the bleakest episodes. Despite a gruesome plot that delves into the darkest corners of human nature, Sawar is a beacon of light. Playing insurance agent Shazia who is investigating an accident claim, she is warm and authoritative all at once. She is a trustworthy person we’d let attach a high-tech thumbtack to our temples and to whom we’d confess our sins, with or without the help of a memory device. And while much screen time is given over the criminal dealings of one Mia Nolan (the equally excellent Andrea Riseborough), Sawar has accomplished something that is rare in the “Black Mirror” universe: creating a character whom we are adamantly in denial about having to see fall victim to the show’s worst impulses. Most of the time, there is an inevitable acceptance, but here, Shazia is such a vibrant force that her downfall is completely crushing.
The Entire Cast of “USS Callister”
One of the series’ strongest overall ensembles, with dynamite, complex performances from Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Billy Magnussen, and Michaela Coel. Playing multiple versions of each character, while also leaning into the heightened nature of a “Trek”-inspired universe to varying degrees, it’s a fascinating mix that gave us the gift of Plemons’ stellar William Shatner impression and Milioti becoming the fierce heroine that will inspire us all as we enter this new year.
Seasons 1-4 of “Black Mirror” are currently available to stream on Netflix.