Comparing installments of an anthology like “Black Mirror” is an inherently tricky prospect. Most of the entries have a certain “We’re all doomed” streak that runs through them, but whether hopeful or defeatist, there’s something distinctly different animating each of these episodes.
Arranging them in quality doesn’t necessarily make for the ideal viewing order either. Want to bit of uplift with your futurism? Bent on basking in the futility of trying to avoid a planet without dangerous automated attacks against nature? The rhythms of this series rise and fall more on their themes than the wallop each of these stories delivers.
But if you’re a die-hard fan or just wading into Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ murky sci-fi waters, a new season is on the horizon, so we’re adding our rankings to the mix.
Arnaldur Halidorsson / Netflix
Charges of misanthropy are often unfairly leveled at “Black Mirror” — there’s a distinct difference between telling stories of characters experiencing distinct trauma and fictionalizing pain simply to manipulate an audience. But “Crocodile” is the closest the show has ever come to the latter, laden with enough dead and psychological suffering that the episode itself becomes little more than an endurance test. Sometimes the inevitability of a character’s fate works in this show’s favor, but watching one woman systematically remove all barriers between her and the cozy, murder-suppressing life she’s created for herself is a slow-motion wreck that the show is usually far better than. The episode’s strongest assets, a pair of performances from the perpetually under-appreciated Andrea Riseborough and the thankless role-elevating Kiran Sonia Sawar, are enough to keep you watching to the end, but only barely.
21. “The Waldo Moment”
This wasn’t the most innovative or surprising of the bunch, and lacks that oomph that comes with the recognition that the story parallels our own lives in eerie fashion. That said, the tale of how a crude blue cartoon bear ran for office and actually did well despite common sense became far more relevant once Donald Trump began campaigning for the presidency. The idea of an entertainer with no political experience who could win people over by insulting opponents and misbehaving hit just too close to home. The night Trump was actually elected, the “Black Mirror” Twitter account even commented, “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.” As with many other “Black Mirror” episodes, it skewered a particular aspect of our society with laser-sharp focus, thought it loses steam in the end, getting too caught up in the storyline of an ousted artist instead.
Christos Kalohoridis / Netflix
While “Black Mirror” has evolved over the years, every season makes sure to include a few basic “How would this technology affect a key human relationship?” installments. Thus, in Season 4 Jodie Foster directed this nuanced look at a single mother and the daughter she’s able to monitor all too closely thanks to technology. While narratively, it’s a relatively predictable storyline (who would have thought that it’d be a bad idea for a parent to be able to see everything their teenager is up to?), the performances are great, especially Rosemarie DeWitt as the mother just trying to hold on.
19. “Entire History of You”
This isn’t so much a bad episode of “Black Mirror” as it is an episode that hasn’t aged brilliantly since Season 1, largely because it plays into all of the show’s most established tropes: Technology is bad, people are arguably worse, and the mix generally leads to genuine disappointment. It also suffers from the fact that the ability to replay every single instant of your life thanks to an embedded implant in your skull sounds like a pretty hard sell, even if its hypothetical effects on society are interesting. Bonus points, by the way, for featuring the first female Doctor of “Doctor Who,” Jodie Whittaker, in a solid supporting role.
18. “Men Against Fire”
Between Malachi Kirby (criminally under-recognized for his work in the 2016 remake of “Roots”), Michael Kelly, and Madeline Brewer, this is a classic example of “Black Mirror” having a talent for casting the stars of tomorrow. However, while one of the smartest aspects of “Men Against Fire” is its choice of subject matter — not nearly enough attention is paid to both the modern state of warfare as well as its aftermath for those who participate — the ways in which “Men Against Fire” explores the potential use of technology in combat end up veering alarmingly over the top.
17. “Shut Up and Dance”
This, let’s be clear, is an episode that plays 100 percent differently the second time you watch it as opposed to the first. And that’s with full credit given to both the oh-so-subtle hints planted in “Shut Up and Dance’s” opening minutes, as well as the extremely well-calibrated performance by Alex Lawther as Kenny, whose fear and shame prove genuinely palatable from the beginning — though it’s not clear why, until the end, he’s so desperate to play this game.
16. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
Most of this chapter has the level of subtlety you’d expect from one centered around the glossy public persona of a global glam pop star. All the business with Ashley’s off-stage life feels ripped from a standard contentious relationship between loose cannon celebrity and overbearing manager. But when the focus shifts to a pair of sisters who stumble on Ashley’s latent consciousness trapped inside a mass-produced Siri/Barbie hybrid, it gives Miley Cyrus the delightful opportunity to riff on her own public perception. The divergent parts of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” never quite coalesce, even when their smashed together with the force of a speeding truck. But it’s hard to imagine a time when the show was having this much fun with its own nonsense.
Ratings, likes, comments. These aspects of today’s social economy can raise one’s morale or even business standing. In the pastel-inflected world of “Nosedive” though, every interaction and aspect of a person can be rated, and that in turn determines how you’re treated. It’s a caste system based on star ratings. As horrifying as that concept is (is there no tolerance for having a bad day or the socially challenged?), the episode’s cheery palette and occasionally light-hearted, almost heightened-reality tone undercut how relatable the world depicted is. It’s basically a “Black Mirror” rom-com (there’s even a wacky bridesmaid speech) and as such, it comes down to the protagonist (Bryce Dallas Howard) being true to herself, and thus finally able to unlock her potential and be free.
14. “Striking Vipers”
After four seasons of investigating different corners of the world of technology, “Striking Vipers” is a “Black Mirror” episode that feels like the first true Variation on a Theme. Bundling together ideas of digital consciousness and fateful, unexpected romance, this installment adds in its own mix of race, gender, and sexuality. Centered on the story of two longtime friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who find an unexpected connection within the framework of a VR video game, “Striking Vipers” is a decades-long look at how suppressed feelings can flourish in fresh environments. Returning after also directing “San Junipero,” Owen Harris oversees another episode that’s more atmospheric than linear. Still, even when handling these complex ideas in a distinctly stylized way, there’s a lack of nuance in the telling that keeps this from being more than a story of longing grafted onto new component parts.
13. “Black Museum”
Jonathan Prime / Netflix
As gutsy a season finale that the show’s put forth so far, “Black Museum” is somehow both a love letter to the series and a massive grenade designed to blast it to smithereens. As a road-tripping visitor (Letitia Wright) stops into a gas station collection of technological curiosities, the accompanying trio of shorter stories make for a bizarre trip through the show’s self-contained history. Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) is as good a narrator as he is an unreliable one, making for a tour guide through the show’s cemetery who delights in the twisted artifacts of his own creation. With allusions to past installments and extensions of others, it’s the “Black Mirror” equivalent of a bonus track. But what this episode truly delivers is an overwhelming sense of physical terror, the starkest example of characters wrestling with their own bodies (and even their own souls). It’s bleak enough to pacify the most masochistic technophobe, but ends with a parting message that offers the faintest bit of hope that the future isn’t as unconquerable as we might think.
12. “Fifteen Million Merits”
As far as world-building goes, “Fifteen Million Merits” isn’t one of the strongest “Black Mirror” installments. (Why do people sign up for this new world order, exactly?) However, if you don’t question the underlying logic too hard, this is easily one of the most emotionally affecting “Black Mirror” stories. Intimately focused on Bing (played with brilliant subtlety by future “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya) as he mindlessly pedals along in this corporate environment until Abi (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay) turns his head, the dark turns this story takes are capped off by an ending that’s both surprising and all too believable.
Stuart Hendry / Netflix
The best episodes of “Black Mirror” feel like they couldn’t exist as part of any other series. So if there’s a problem with “Smithereens,” it’s that the tech-based motivation of a distressed rideshare driver Chris (Andrew Scott) seems shoehorned into an otherwise-gripping kidnapping tale. Both Scott and Damson Idris (as Jaden, the hostage in this international negotiation) anchor the tension here, especially when the two are confined to a car in the middle of an empty field. It’s an uncertain swirl of anger, regret, and doubt that even extends across a transatlantic satellite phone when Topher Grace’s Jack Dorsey-esque tech CEO enters the mix. “Black Mirror” has always had a fraught relationship with social media, but it’s the way Brooker slips in some insidious cell phone surveillance thread into this story that, along with Chris’ unhinged outbursts, make this the only Season 5 episode to leave the audience with a lingering sense of dread.
“Playtest” is the TV equivalent of explaining to someone a nightmare you’ve just had the night before. It’s usually a recipe for disaster, but occasionally you can find someone who is able to articulate the specific surreal horrors of being trapped inside an approximation of what your biggest fears might be. Watching Wyatt Russell navigate a literal house of horrors, continuously questioning the nature of the reality in front of his simulated eyes, is one of the series best examples of being trapped inside an idea as much as any physical place. The ending sense of consciousness limbo that has capped off so many other sci-fi stories may seem like an extra unnecessary layer of doom. But director Dan Trachtenberg proves once again his monster movie credentials with bringing to life all manners of misshapen creations, digital or otherwise, that would be truly terrifying if ever released into existence.