Black Mirror: Bandersnatch directed by David Slade, Netflix, 2018
Reviewed by Hannah Hulbert
That sure was something, wasn’t it?
Whenever I sit down to watch a new episode of Black Mirror, I have that fluttering apprehension that verges on fear. The knowledge that something unsettling and wholly unexpected awaits, and that I am embarking upon this journey of my own volition. It is like all good speculation, in that it takes you out of your comfort zone and drops you into a world of unanswered questions. And a Black Mirror that is interactive? Surely this will melt our minds even more than any of the previous 19 episodes?
All of the elements are there. The uncertainty. The second-guessing. The twists (oh my, the twists!) and yet… My husband asked me on Saturday morning, after a night to meditate on the experience (and what other word can there be for the consumption of choose-your-own-adventure television?), why Bandersnatch felt less ‘Black Mirror-y’ than the episodes that came before. I never questioned the truth of his assessment, and yet struggled to put my finger on what was different.
But first, for those who have watched the trailers and read some of the social media hype but have been avoiding the real deal, here are the bare essentials: Stefan Butler is a young programmer who is in the process of creating a video game version of a fictional choose-your-own-adventure book, Bandersnatch, written by a man with a dark and mysterious story of his own. Stefan has a tragic back story, mental health issues and is surrounded by unstable family and friends. And then one of five main plots unfolds as we make choices on Stephan’s behalf, leading us to explore one of these facets more closely, and taking us to its own unique twist.
I enjoyed Bandersnatch immensely. The story lines were all good and presented with the right balance of suspense and dripping detail. The atmosphere was excellent and I cannot fault the production itself. But… I think the problem was the format.
No, don’t sharpen your pitchforks just yet. This wouldn’t have worked without the interaction and, though it may not be the first interactive TV, we’re going to look back on this one day as a landmark. But there’s the problem. The barrier between me and the mind-melting revelation that I was bracing myself for was the controller in my (husband’s) hand. I was so focused on how it worked and making the ‘right’ choice (this is Black Mirror – you know that all the choices will be wrong!) that I was never fully immersed in the story.
Which leads us to the second problem. You know it’s not just one story. And you know that you’ll look up the flowchart after and try all the other timelines. The interaction nullifies the impact. Without finite consequences, the experience looses significance. When you know your favourite characters can be brought back in a future episode, all death scenes become emotionally stagnant (here’s looking at you, Green Arrow).
Charlie Brooker and David Slade have created something significant here. This is territory that mainstream media has never taken a global audience into before. Before 2019 is out, I predict that we will have seen a lot more of these types of interactive experiments on our screens. But we’re judging this by our pre-existing standards and feeling disappointed by the results. Like looking at an aerial-view of a pyramid and condemning it for being a poor rendering of a triangle. I put my own disappointment down to the fact that I am remembering the first ‘conclusion’ we reached as the ‘correct’ one, and then our subsequent forays into the material as ‘bonus features’. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that I am rating that first experience as 7/10, without really registering that this is only a fifth of the story, and that the sum of the parts is greater than those individual threads taken separately.
But for all my disappointment that Bandersnatch lacked the impact of those shockers that we’ve sat through for the past four seasons, the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing this in a house full of sleeping people, unable to rest with these thoughts ricochetting around my head. So I guess maybe it is Black Mirror-y after all. Maybe the mind of the viewer slowly unravelling as it attempts to make sense of what it has gone through is the twist ending? Maybe me writing this is? Or maybe you reading this and deciding to sign up for a trial month of Netflix is the twist? Dammit, Charlie Brooker, you’ve done it again.