The Branching Horrors of Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’

A surprise episode of the series takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure game.

Fionn Whitehead in 'Bandersnatch'
Fionn Whitehead in 'Bandersnatch' (Netflix)

This piece contains spoilers for the Black Mirror special “Bandersnatch.”

For most of its existence, Netflix’s streaming television service has largely existed to pump out more and more content. Its never-ending feed is packed with new shows, revived classics, licensed hits from other countries, and big acquisitions such as Black Mirror, a cult hit from the U.K.’s Channel 4 that tells warped Twilight Zone tales for an internet age. Given the onslaught of “more,” it stands to reason that eventually one television episode would offer the viewer thousands of choices all by itself. That is Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch,” a feature-length special that behaves like a choose-your-own-adventure book, proposing various branching story options that lead the audience down different paths, many of them grim.

It’s a piece of interactive television that feels like an obvious new direction both for Netflix and for Black Mirror. It allows Netflix to harness its online platform in ways that classic broadcast television never could, letting subscribers choose plot options using their remote control and load every permutation of the story onto their site. And it allows Black Mirror’s creator and writer, Charlie Brooker, to explore the blinkered sense of freedom that comes from gaming—video gaming, especially. In “Bandersnatch,” the viewer is in control, nudging the main character, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), to make various life choices, though the reality of the programming means there are only so many options.

Brooker started his career as a game critic and writer, working for PC Zone magazine in the 1990s. Some of Black Mirror’s best episodes, such as “Fifteen Million Merits” and “Playtest,” explored the horrifying limits of futuristic gaming. “Bandersnatch” is set in 1984, at the height of computerized text adventures such as The Hobbit and Zork, which first introduced gamers to worlds that didn’t entirely proceed on rails. You could make choices, solve problems in different ways, and even arrive at different endings, much like you can in “Bandersnatch.”

The story itself is a simple bit of meta-narrative: Stefan is an aspiring programmer, who is building a game called Bandersnatch based on a fictional choose-your-own-adventure novel by a psychotic, now-dead cult author. He visits a cool gaming company and meets his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), and the business-minded manager Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry). The latter offers Stefan a chance to create the game in-house, while the former stresses independence; it’s the first significant choice of many the viewer will make, picking between options that flash on the screen (if you don’t choose within 10 seconds, the show randomly chooses for you).

But there are insignificant picks the viewer can make, too, such as which breakfast cereal Stefan eats, or what music he listens to, or how he talks with his father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), and his therapist (Alice Lowe). Or are these choices so meaningless? With every click of a button, the story begins to snowball in weird and confusing directions, and the panicked sense of making the wrong pick every time increases the stakes. That’s the magic of video gaming, of course—the sense that you’re in control, that every right (or wrong) move is attributable to your thinking.

Games like BioShock have poked at the fallacy of that concept. Everything is, after all, programmed; even with advanced technology at work, there’s always going to be a limit to how much you can mimic real life through scripting and algorithms. In “Bandersnatch,” Brooker sometimes lets the viewer go back if a decision ends in Stefan’s death or artistic failure, much as you could always flip backward in a choose-your-own-adventure book, or reload from a save point in a video game. I explored various permutations of Stefan’s story before finally hitting a brick wall and an end-credits sequence (the entire viewing experience ran about 90 to 100 minutes for me, but it can be shorter or much longer).

The episode also, unsurprisingly for Black Mirror, veers into self-awareness; at one point, I communicated with Stefan through his computer screen, sending him messages about how I was watching him on Netflix (from the vantage of 1984, he was mostly baffled). At another moment, I loaded a completely pointless action scene that seemed to exist mostly to mock any complaint that things were getting too boring. I’m sure there are many more rabbit holes for me to tumble down, but the overall darkness of the story (Stefan is frequently being pushed toward madness) might make it a slog to watch over and over again.

Still, that’s the magic of video games: The more you play, the more you’re emotionally invested. Through the various branches I found, I never got to an ending of “Bandersnatch” that felt truly happy or fulfilling, though I’m sure one exists; the best (and last) one I arrived at was, at least, somewhat peaceful and touching, if a little mournful. But the show’s cleverest stroke of all came when I finally exited out of the episode and returned to Netflix’s main page. Next to “Bandersnatch” was a typical red progress bar, which usually indicates how many minutes you’ve watched a TV episode or movie. In the case of “Bandersnatch,” the bar was barely full; I’d just completed the story, but there are plenty of other completions to find. It’s fiendish stuff, but an undeniably clever new entry in the boundlessly reflective Black Mirror canon: the episode that never ends.