"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Choose Very Carefully: a Review of Black Mirror – Bandersnatch

comes from manus:

We see ourselves
and hope in this way
to come to grips
with our reality

When it was
still hands
manipulating us
manipulation was
still human

– Erich Fried

By the time its fourth season premiered, Black Mirror had made its basic formula rather clear. Within the first few minutes of an episode the audience is presented with a vaguely morose individual as well as with a particular technology (which could be futuristic or already available), and by the end of that episode that technology would be responsible for making that character miserable (or worse). Certainly, there were episodes that deliberately played with that formula, but if a viewer began watching an episode of Black Mirror with the expectation that some high-tech device was going to result in suffering, they were probably right. As a result, it became easy to dismiss of Black Mirror as being rather formulaic – but with its prominently touted “choose your own adventure” structure, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch promised to be far less predictable.

Granted, it’s still pretty predictable. If you go into Bandersnatch expecting that things will turn out badly for Stefan, you’d be correct. And yet, whether it was intended or not, there is something more interesting going on in Bandersnatch. For the main character at the center of the technological tragedy in this episode of Black Mirror is not really the hapless and helpless protagonist, but the viewer. Bandersnatch represents the inevitable conclusion of Black Mirror’s social commentary: telling the viewer that they are already in an episode of Black Mirror.

[Spoilers ahead – consider yourself warned]

Set in 1984, Bandersnatch tells the story of Stefan Butler’s attempt to turn a strange choose your own adventure style science fiction novel about ancient gods and government conspiracies, by an author who went insane, into a computer game. As Stefan does this he is anxiously watched by his overbearing father and his psychiatrist, both of whom fear that he is undergoing a mental breakdown linked to lingering guilt over his mother’s death. Adding to the pressure on Stefan’s fragile psyche is the fact that he is being urged to work at a speedy pace in order to get the game ready for a Christmas release, a process in which he is encouraged along (depending on your definition of “encouraged”) by the already established video game designer Colin Ritman. As this is an episode of Black Mirror it should come as no surprise that things end badly for Stefan…or, things end strangely for Stefan…or, things end in a very meta way that break the fourth wall. The episode features branching paths and decisions, and as a result, there are quite a few different ways in which Bandersnatch can end. Nevertheless, “happily ever after” doesn’t seem to be one of those endings.

The obsessive focus of Bandersnatch is about choices, it is a topic that characters talk about constantly, and it is the technological character upon which the entire episode hangs. Early into the episode the viewer is compelled to choose which breakfast cereal Stefan will eat, shortly after this the viewer is compelled to choose which music Stefan will listen to, later the viewer must choose whether Stefan will jump to his death or whether he’ll make Colin jump, and in one instance the viewer even gets the option of telling Stefan that they are controlling him by watching him on Netflix. And though it can be difficult in the moment to tell how much a given choice matters (does it really make a difference which cereal Stefan eats?), given that this is Black Mirror every single one of those choices seems as though it might be the thing that pushes Stefan towards his inevitable doom. And each of those choices that the viewer makes occurs under a sort of duress as options need to be selected within a short timeframe, and as the viewer puzzles over the best route the action continues, showing the characters anxiously awaiting the viewer’s decision.

Stefan is obsessed with the novel Bandersnatch, on which he is basing his video game of the same name, and it is clear that he has read the book multiple times in an attempt to discover all of its branching paths. And it’s clear that the makers of this episode are hoping that viewers will be compelled to do the same, going back to the start and meticulously testing out all of the slight differences to see if it all really does come down to Stefan’s choice of breakfast cereal. Granted, the show is a bit more forgiving, and when the viewer reaches an ending they are offered the ability to return back to a “key” decision point and select another option – but if a viewer genuinely wants to test all of the possible paths, they’ll have no choice but to start over (and keep a notepad handy for tracking which choices they picked at every moment). The endings generally take the form of a clip from a video game review show (from 1984) in which a young man delivers a review of the completed video game – in some endings he raves about the game, in others he trashes it, and in many he couches his comments in words about the strange/tragic/murderous fate of the video game’s designer Stefan. And there is at least one ending that jumps from that review show to the present and introduces Pearl Ritman (possibly Colin’s daughter) who is apparently remaking Stefan’s video game for a streaming video service. And though one of these endings seems like the “real” ending (given that it incorporates the credit sequence into it), none of them feel like the wrong ending.

If your response to Bandersnatch is to say that it sounds gimmicky, you’d be correct. And if your reaction to Bandersnatch is to recall that choose your own adventure books tended to be amusing in the moment, but ultimately not particularly good, you’d also be correct. But just as other episodes of Black Mirror were often tightly focused on a particular technology, so too is Bandersnatch obsessively focused on a technology, but in this episode’s case it’s the technology by which the viewer chooses Stefan’s path. There is constant talk about choices, characters repeatedly discuss the ability to go back in time and do things over, characters seem to have déjà vu for former storylines, in conspiratorially tinted tones characters imagine that their actions are actually controlled by some unseen force, and the menacing sigil that haunts the episode is itself the symbol for branching pathways. Unfortunately, these discussions don’t really give the show more than a thin coating of depth. These aren’t really deep inquiries or invitations for serious consideration, rather they are a glass ashtray with which Bandersnatch repeatedly smashes the viewer over the head. For Bandersnatch screams “Stefan doesn’t have free will! Because you the viewer are controlling him! And you can go back and re-watch this but take different paths! Get it!?”

Say what you will about Black Mirror, but subtlety has never been one of its strengths.

And yet, what if the point Bandersnatch is making actually is less obvious? What if Bandersnatch is not really about someone making a video game, or a fantastical warning about things to come? What if all of its storytelling silliness is to cover up the fact that this is actually a stark warning about the present? Admittedly, this is a quite generous reading, but it is nevertheless worth considering: what if the point of Bandersnatch is not that Stefan is living in an episode of Black Mirror, but to warn the viewer that they are also living in an episode of Black Mirror?

Though many episodes of Black Mirror have involved spectacular futuristic devices, the show has not always relied on such gadgets. Two of the show’s most disturbing episodes, “The State of the Union” (Season 1) and “Shut and Dance” (Season 3), rely entirely on pieces of technology that were already commonly available by the time those episodes premiered. Or, to put it differently, Black Mirror is not only about the dangers of future speculative technologies but also about highlighting the dystopian potentials of current technologies. And with Bandersnatch, Black Mirror is simultaneously showcasing a new entertainment technology and (potentially) sounding the alarm about it. To be clear, Black Mirror has not invented the idea of the choose your own adventure scenario, but what makes it significant here is that this technology for choose your own adventure entertainment is connected to Netflix’s massive data gathering apparatus. Netflix already knows quite a lot about its viewers, but this choose your own adventure technology opens up impressive new vistas for information gathering.

On the one hand it’s easy to see how this data can be mined and sold to advertisers (in Bandersnatch the viewer makes seemingly banal choices about breakfast cereal and what music to listen to – but that information could be of interest to companies). It’s also easy to see how it enhances Netflix’s understanding of its viewers’ tastes (when given the option, did you push Bandersnatch to get more violent?). And given the types of disturbing choices Bandersnatch asks viewers to make (did you have Stefan commit suicide? Did you have Stefan use hallucinogenic drugs? Did you have Stefan kill his father and chop up his body?) it’s not impossible to see how pharmaceutical makers, insurance companies, or law enforcement might one day be interested in this information. And the idea that the data gathered winds up getting obfuscated by a viewer going back and replaying sections is questionable seeing as Netflix is almost certainly able to log the choices in the order they were taken – sure you replayed Bandersnatch, but your initial motive was to pick the Thompson Twins.

Granted, most of this is fairly speculative. After all, Bandersnatch is really just something new and pretty gimmicky – and it’s easy to imagine that this format of streaming content won’t really catch on. However, think carefully for a second about the moment when a new technology is introduced to a society: it often appears as gimmicky at first – but later it becomes pervasive, and many people only come to face the negative consequences when that new technology has become thoroughly normalized. There are certainly some who might be eager to dismiss of such concerns as technological paranoia befitting a character from an episode of Black Mirror, but if the last year of tech company scandals has made anything clear it is that we should be far more skeptical of the “fun” things that technology companies insist are harmless. It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to imagine a headline five years from now about how the data from Netflix’s choose your own adventure programs have been improperly shared or hacked.

Over the course of Bandersnatch, Stefan is driven insane by the creeping suspicion that his every move is being watched by an unseen power, and that his choices are highly constrained. Remove the part about being pushed to the point of mental breakdown, and this isn’t a bad way of describing the actual experience of watching Bandersnatch: the viewer’s every choice is being watched and recorded by Netflix (how else does it know which paths you’ve already taken?), and what appears as freedom of choice is really only a selection between two scripted options (which might not make any genuine difference). Intentionally or not, Bandersnatch makes this point at the juncture where Stefan screams at the heavens “Who’s there?” and where the viewer is offered the opportunity to reply “Netflix.” True, if the “Netflix” option is selected, Stefan receives a message on his computer screen along the lines of “I am watching you on Netflix” – but when the viewer selects “Netflix” they are speaking not only of the force watching Stefan, but of the force watching them make that selection.

So, if one wants to be generous (perhaps, more generous than the show deserves), one can see this as Black Mirror issuing a warning to the viewer: you aren’t watching an episode of Black Mirror, you’re in one. It’s not that Stefan isn’t really in control, it’s that the viewer isn’t really in control. It’s not that Stefan is being surveilled by malign technological forces, it’s that the viewer is being subjected to such surveillance. It’s not that Stefan is living in a high-tech dystopia, but that the viewer is. Stefan may be living in 1984 (a year which no work of dystopian science fiction evokes by accident); however, Big Brother isn’t there in Stefan’s 1984, but he’s here in the viewers’ 2019. And what Netflix is trying to figure out as it analyzes how many people have watched Bandersnatch, is whether or not we already love Big Brother.

Black Mirror is a show about people and technology. The way that people use technology, and more importantly the ways in which people are used by technology. In Bandersnatch the key technology is not the computer that Stefan is using, it is Bandersnatch itself. And thus, Stefan really isn’t the main character in the episode, the viewer is. Certainly, this technology turns Stefan’s life upside down and leads him down a dark path where he must question every choice he makes as he is propelled by forces out of his control towards a batch of bleak conclusions. But Stefan isn’t real. Stefan’s discomfort isn’t real. The viewer, on the other hand, is quite real – and the discomfort they feel at choosing whether to have Stefan or Colin commit suicide is also real.

Thus, Bandersnatch is simultaneously the best and the worst episode of Black Mirror. Though well-made and filled with solid performances, the actual narrative is entirely reliant on a technological gimmick. This isn’t a compelling story that cleverly uses a new technology to deepen the experience, it’s a gimmicky new technology that creates a rather shallow story in order to compel you to use the technology. And yet, Bandersnatch is a very interesting piece of work if the real story it tells isn’t meant to be the story of Stefan, but the story of you watching Stefan. By couching this new storytelling technique in an episode of Black Mirror, the show seems to be saying from the outset “this is risky technology!” Indeed, as you imagine the headlines about manipulation and data misuse from data sets culled from choose your own adventure streaming content, it’s easy to imagine these headlines filled with knowing comments about how “we probably should have been skeptical, seeing as this was introduced in an episode of Black Mirror.”

What Black Mirror says is that simply by deciding to watch anything on Netflix (or any streaming platform), we are choosing our own adventure. But what Bandersnatch reminds us is that as we go about this adventure we are watched, our choices are constrained, and that it all might end very badly for us.

Everything you stream, you watch at your own risk.

So make sure you pick your serial carefully.


More on Black Mirror:

Review of Seasons 1 and 2

Review of Season 3

Review of Season 4

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

27 comments on “Choose Very Carefully: a Review of Black Mirror – Bandersnatch

  1. laurenzucker
    January 18, 2019

    What a great review! My high school students (who just finished watching the episode) will be reading this review and then blogging about the episode on their own sites.

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    • lilhope90
      March 8, 2019

      That was funny …

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