Netflix Review – Black Mirror: Bandersnatch: We Control the Choices, But The Choices Control Us (Spoiler-Free)

Netflix releases their first “Choose Your Own Adventure” story and it’s not quite what you would want, but it’s still a good first try.

SUMMARY

It’s a choose-your-own adventure, so stuff can go in a lot of different ways, but basically, it’s the 80s and your main character, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), is trying to adapt a massive “Choose Your Own Adventure” book called Bandersnatch written by a murderer named Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter) into a video game. He is hired to make the game by Tuckersoft, a company run by businessman Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and famous video-game maker Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). At the same time, Stefan is dealing with issues with his father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), and mental health issues that send him to a therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe).  Everything past that set-up is determined by your choices.

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You get a few seconds to make each one. 

END SUMMARY

So, I remember when there were games in the 80s and 90s that you could play on VHS and Betamax by going to different parts of the video to see what happened next. I’m sure that there are also DVD versions of that, but I think the truth of the matter is that we have video games for that now. If we want to see a movie play out based on our choices… why not just play Red Dead Redemption and see whatever Western you want? Well, that’s why they set the movie in the 80s when the concept of an elaborate “choose your own adventure” game is about as high-tech as it gets.

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This should get a DVD release. 

The point of the story, no matter which paths you take, appropriately, is the main character realizing that he doesn’t have control over his choices. The difference between this story and other, similar, horror concepts is that rather than God, a shadowy government organization, fate, or whatever else might be taking away the character’s choice, in this you, the viewer, are the one making his choices. The story rather cleverly allows you to make both Stefan’s major and minor choices, from what cereal he has for breakfast to whether or not to kill himself. Now, that may sound like a good premise for a Black Mirror episode, but actually, that’s not the real episode.

You’re in the real one.

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Sometimes, what moves characters is some brilliant, twisted minds who loved Jim Henson.

Unfortunately, I’m now going to have to put a spoiler alert in order to explain why. Before I do that, though, I’ll give any of you who still want the experience my recommendation:

This isn’t just a thing for watching or playing through. You really need to try and replay it and get as many endings as you can before you get the message of the episode. It’s not until you see all the ways that the story can play out that you can actually see it. Now, I admit that the story and performances themselves aren’t the best of Black Mirror, but this is an interesting use of the streaming medium that deserves to be explored, so give it a shot.

***SPOILER ALERT***

There are no happy endings. There just aren’t. The entire episode is set up so that you either fail at making the game Bandersnatch or the process of making the game ends up leading you into madness and murder. See, no matter how hard you play the game, no matter whether you find the secret passwords or the hidden number or whatever, you don’t win. You’re the one who’s actually without choice, because none of your choices can ever change the fact that the ending is bad. Arguably the two best endings are the five-star ending, which involve Stefan killing his father and realizing that the key to the game is only to give people the illusion that their choices matter (hint hint), and the 0 star ending from saying Yes to the offer to make the game in which the game fails but everyone lives, though they state they’re going to do it again (prompting you to redo the scenario immediately).

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This is an incomplete flowchart of endings. Complicated.

The thing is, you don’t really have control. You can control between the choices, but you don’t get to control what the choices were. The feeling of control you have is just as much of an illusion as Stefan’s belief that he can craft the game. You didn’t create anything, you’re just running through a series of seeming choices that ultimately don’t make much of a difference.

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I already wrote a more optimistic take on this.

And that’s life, kids. You can make whatever choices you want in the meantime, but inevitably, you’re going towards the ending and it all ends pretty much the same. You’re trapped in a video-game that likely doesn’t let you replay when you hit the ending and you didn’t get a choice about playing. But, at least you can have fun in the meantime, so you’re beating Stefan.

***END SPOILER***

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Author Bonus: 34a) San Junipero (Black Mirror)

If you’re confused, read my post on add-ons. So, now that we’re through that, here’s the review:

Black Mirror is designed to be a British Twilight-Zone-like anthology about media and spectacle. The screen we look at, the screen upon which this is read, the screen upon which it is written, these are all the black mirrors in which we look to see ourselves, others, and ourselves through others. For the first 2 seasons, the show usually had about 1 great episode in 3, with another 1 being good/really good, and another being okay. After Netflix took over, I think the quality rose a bit in season 3, if only because they managed to produce this episode.

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Or because they have funding now!

“San Junipero” is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of a Black Mirror episode. The episodes usually take the point of view that the “Screen” is bad. That our virtual lives and obsession with spectacle are actually hurting our existence and our society. They manage to convey this through exaggerated scenarios, ranging from the contemporary to the dystopian future. To be fair, there are a few episodes in which the screen is not entirely negative, such as using it to punish pedophiles or child murderers through psychological torture, though in those episodes they point out that the pedophile and child murderer both used screens to commit their offenses. The closest they’d had to a positive episode was “Be Right Back,” which features a woman replacing her dead husband with an android copy… and it’s not super happy. This episode completely goes the other way and shows the absolutely magical potential of social technology through something that everyone can understand: Falling in love.

SUMMARY

BlackMirrorSanJuniperoLook
You know the look

The episode starts in the 80s-est 80s that ever 80s-ed, in the beach town of San Junipero. The audience is then introduced to two women, the timid virgin Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and the bisexual party-girl Kelly (Gugu “I deserve much more work” Mbatha-Raw), who admits she was previously married to a man. The two form a quick, complementary relationship, which ends with the two having sex. When Yorkie returns the next week, she seeks out Kelly, but is unable to find her. Yorkie is advised to “try a different time.” She then searches  through bars in the 1990s before finding Kelly

BlackMirrorSanJuniperoKelly
The 80s were her time

in the 2000s. Kelly brushes her aside, leaving Yorkie crushed, until Kelly finally seeks her out to inform her that she is dying, and is just trying to avoid finding any real connections before she passes on. Kelly then asks to meet Yorkie in her real life.

At this point, it shifts to the Real World, where we are introduced to the real Kelly, an elderly woman with terminal cancer in a nursing home, and the real Yorkie, a woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since she was 21 years old, 40 years ago, when her religious parents’ rejection of her sexuality led her to drive her car off the road. Now that San Junipero exists, Yorkie is trying to get euthanized so that her consciousness can be permanently uploaded to the program. In order to overcome her religious family, Kelly agrees to marry Yorkie to authorize the procedure. However, afterwards, Kelly reveals that she doesn’t want to spend eternity in the program, because her daughter and husband won’t be there. She acknowledges that she doesn’t believe she’ll be with them in the afterlife, but she also thinks that it would be breaking a promise to them if she stayed in San Junipero. Ultimately, though, Kelly chooses to join her new wife in their digital afterlife, together forever.

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And yes, it’s set to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle.

END SUMMARY

As I said, Black Mirror doesn’t do happy endings. Usually, their take is that technology is leading society to revel in spectacle, rather than actually living. But, this episode points out that spectacle isn’t always bad. Yes, San Junipero isn’t exactly the best place for deep introspection, but that’s not what they’re using it for. This isn’t the story of two young people using it to avoid living their lives, it’s the story of two people who can only really live through it. It isn’t replacing their real world, it’s giving them a chance to have a real world. It gives them a chance to really be with people in a way that life hasn’t or no longer does.

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There’s a shirt.

Some people probably complain of the ending, because it is somewhat cheesy and unbelievably upbeat, but here’s the thing: Unless you die young and fast, there will come a time when you have to rely on something beyond yourself. It’s a part of mortality. You will look for something more to deal with the fact that you aren’t going to be here anymore. Several episodes on this list deal with that very thing. You might find faith, you might find peace in nihilism or existentialism, but, ultimately, you’re going to want something. This one just picks a different thing in the end. It’s a heaven of man’s own creation. It’s the ultimate showdown of science v. religion, because in this science has managed to replace the afterlife, the biggest and best “spectacle” religion has to offer. One day, this episode’s premise may be a reality, and we’ll have to see what people choose.

It’s on Netflix. Watch it.

PREVIOUS – 31: Doctor Who

NEXT – 30a: Gravity Falls

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.