Netflix’s Black Mirror
Directed by David Slade
Written by Charlie Brooker
Because Bandersnatch is an interactive experience this recap/review will reflect only part of the journey. You’ll have to take your own adventure(s) to get the whole experience for yourselves.
Great start to 1984 with “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. We meet Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who’s reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies – who apparently went mad and cut his wife’s head off at some point – called Bandersnatch. He lives at home with his doting father. Father Gore’s 1st choice = Stefan has Kellogg’s Frosties for breakfast. 2nd choice = Thompson Twins for Stefan’s ride on the bus (“Hold Me Now“). He’s on his way to meet with a tech startup. Things get metafictional with one of the games produced there being Metl Hedd – a reference to director David Slade’s Black Mirror episode – and Stefan meets the young genius programmer, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Colin’s at work on a game called Nosedive— another Black Mirror episode reference. Afterwards, Stefan shows them the beginnings of his Choose Your Own Adventure game he’s working on, an adaptation of Bandersnatch. The guy who runs Tuckersoft, Mohan Tucker (Asim Chaudhry), offers the programmer the chance to write there at their offices.
Father Gore’s 3rd choice is for Stefan to accept the job. But maybe that won’t be the perfect choice. We skip ahead five months later to a more commercialised version of Bandersnatch being released. Things have been “designed by committee” and the game gets harsh reviews from the tech community. Stefan believes if he tries again things will get better. He starts everything over, like his life’s on repeat. We return to the moment Stefan meets Colin, only the former seems to know things he shouldn’t already know, like he knows things before they happen. And Colin seems to know things he didn’t know previously, too. Mohan gives Stefan a shot at working there, and Father Gore’s 4th choice was to accept the job again.
“Sorry, mate— wrong path.”
But then the story reverts. Seems accepting the job isn’t a choice at all ultimately. 4th choice again = Stefan refuses. He wants to have freedom over how he’ll write the game. Nevertheless, the game’s picked up by Tuckersoft so long as the programmer’s able to finish the work in time for the game to be marketed for Christmas. Y’know, can’t forget the capitalist bottom line.
Stefan goes to see his therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe). He tells her about being at the Tuckersoft offices and it felt “too good to be true,” so he chose to refuse the position there. He’s wondering how he came to make the choice itself, feeling like it wasn’t even within his control. He’s also fed up with therapy. Father Gore’s 5th choice = Stefan decides to talk to Dr. Haynes. He speaks about the morning his mother died. He couldn’t find his stuffed rabbit, which his father took and hid from him. The 6th choice isn’t even a choice— Stefan doesn’t go with mom, and his search for his toy resulted in her being late leading to her being on a train that crashed. Because of all this he hates his father. Dr. Haynes explains to him: “The past is immutable.” Here, we see a parallel between Stefan’s interest in the Choose Your Own Adventure novel concept and his yearning for the ability to have do-overs in life.
At a music shop, the 7th choice is presented, and Father Gore chose the album Phaedra by Tangerine Dream for Stefan to buy. He sees posters for Mtl Hedd, as well as a book about the author Davies which he purchases. In the book is a lot of stuff about conspiracy theories, including writing on mind control and unsettling, gruesome pictures. At home, Stefan gets to work on his adaptation of Bandersnatch, isolated with a copy of Davies’s book and Tangerine Dream alone in his room for weeks on end. 8th choice for Father Gore = shout at dad. This makes dad forcefully take his son out for lunch, only they’ve actually gone to the medical centre, where he wants Stefan to go see the doc again. He thinks his son’s not well. This gives us the 9th choice— Father Gore chose for Stefan to follow Colin instead of staying with dad, after he sees the programmer whiz on the street.
Colin takes Stefan to his place, where his wife Kitty and their son are waiting. He wants to help get Stefan out of “the hole” in his mind. They sit together and share a spliff. Then Colin offers a hit of LSD, and of course the 10th choice is either yes or no— we’ll go with YES. So, the two embark on a trip into the psychedelic mind. Colin uses their trip to connect reality with the Choose Your Own Adventure concept, talking about how our choices create strands of time, different versions of realities, and so on. A genius stroke of writing. Colin talks about the secret messages behind the pop culture in our lives, such as Pac-Man, which he refers to a “Program and Control–Man.”
Then we come to a more dangerous 11th choice. Colin says there are “other timelines,” so dying isn’t really dying. Things will just start over. Who’s going to jump? Father Gore chooses Stefan. We skip to four months down the road at Christmastime. Bandersnatch is on the shelves for the holidays, but the reviews are terrible. See, Stefan died, then somebody else had to finish his game. We get the choice to go back, to either the office with Dr. Haynes, or a different jump. The 12th choice is now Colin, so he tumbles over the building’s edge and makes a bloody splat on the ground below.
Suddenly, Stefan wakes up back at the doc’s office. Dad wants him to go inside, and his son listens this time, no viewer’s choices. Stefan tells Dr. Haynes he feels somebody else is guiding his life choices, as if he can’t control his impulses. The 13th choice? Bite nails. Stefan resists. He’s fighting the viewer’s choices. At home, the 14th choice is either not take the pills, or flush them— Father Gore flushes.
Skip ahead three weeks. Stefan’s hard at work adapting the Davies novel. The 12th of September soon arrives, and he’s got to deliver the game to Tuckersoft. Nobody knows where Colin is, though they trust he’s off getting inspiration. Meanwhile, Mohan’s not impressed to see the game isn’t perfectly programmed on the day of the deadline, but he gives his programmer the weekend to finish things. Lots of pressure! He’s also given a tape Colin left for him.
“Your fate has been dictated”
Stefan watches the tape at home. He sees a commercial for Kellogg’s Frosties taped over. One segment of the tape involves Davies and his eccentricities. Davies had a mental breakdown because of his ideas about fate, believing he was unable to use free will, that his wife was poisoning him, and that Pax – the demon from his novel – was torturing him. This led to the author murdering his wife. The 15th choice = hit the desk. Stefan’s frustrated just as much as he’s confused about the nature of reality. 16th choice? Pick up the family photo. Stefan’s entire life is one based around the effects of choices, and it plagues him like a hereditary illness.
He goes to sleep, waking up in a strange reality. In the bathroom, he puts his face and hands through the mirror, emerging as his childhood self on the other side. He returns to the day of his mother’s crash, intent on figuring out where his father put his rabbit. But then Stefan comes to, back in reality. The 17th choice is to toss tea over the computer. Again, Stefan refuses to let the viewer’s choices dictate his actions. He calls out to whoever’s out there manipulating him. 18th choice = tell him we’re watching him on Netflix, making his decisions. This throws the programmer into anxiety. The 19th choice is to tell him more. He’s in 1984, nearly three decades before the streaming part of Netflix emerged, and he can’t understand. The 20th choice is tell him more, further making him feel crazy. His father finds him talking to the computer and sends him to the doc.
Dr. Haynes tries to help ground Stefan in reality again, suggesting there would need to be “more action” if this were actually a TV show. The 21st choice? FUCK YEAH, GIVE US MORE ACTION! So the two are about to fight. 22nd choice = fight her. Looks like the doc is pretty kick ass, wielding a couple batons. Then dad is there to fight his son, so the 23rd choice is to kick him in the balls. Once it’s over, dad drags him out of there.
The 24th choice, instead of skipping to the credits, is only: Who’s there? This takes us back through the various events of the film until we return to Stefan asking for a sign. The 25th choice = a house-like symbol rather than Netflix. Now, the young programmer sees he’s “being controlled.” We’re given a 26th choice, and Father Gore decided Stefan should kill his dad. He tries to resist, but he whacks dad with an ashtray, busting his head open with a bloody gush.
And then what? Stefan isn’t sure what to do anymore. A 27th choice involves getting rid of the body. This sick bastard chooses to chop up the body, even if Stefan doesn’t like it. At Tuckersoft, Kitty goes looking for Colin, and Mohan has no idea where he’s gone. The conversation comes round to Stefan, who’s busy trying to forget sawing his father to bits, having another therapy session with Dr. Haynes. Stefan has decided to showcase the “illusion of free will” in Bandersnatch. He’s exerting maximum control, after all this time. He keeps dad’s head on his file cabinet for inspiration. His video game is released and gets a 5-star rating.
We jump ahead decades to hear about Stefan’s murder being discovered. Now, Colin’s child is grown, deciding to resurrect the Bandersnatch game and make it better. But, are all those choices too disorienting? Will the game claim another mind, body, and soul? The 28th choice is for her to destroy the computer.
You can actually return to bury the body, which leads to another timeline where Stefan is given a 29th choice to complete his game on time or not. Father Gore chooses yes. This gives the programmer one last day to finish his product. First, he must bury dad, but he gets a visit from Colin, looking to check in on his work. He sees the knife and Stefan tells him what he’s done. The 30th choice? Let’s kill Colin. He actually allows himself to be done in. Following these events, Stefan is throw in prison, his game is never finished, and Tuckersoft closes its doors. The programmer continues on scratching his ideas on the jailhouse wall.
Another do-over allows us to go back and get the rabbit from dad when Stefan was young. He returns to the past, as if lucid dreaming, and he gets the key to the locked door from his father’s clothes. He goes to the room and finds a locked cabinet. The 31st choice is the password: Father Gore chose PAC, unlocking the cabinet. Inside, Stefan finds records with the little house symbol on it from the Program and Control Study (P.A.C.S.). These files reveal surveillance on Stefan from birth to the present day. He’s been a lab rat— experimented on, drugged, controlled, and watched. His whole life’s essentially been a rat maze in a laboratory. He discovers that moment with rabbit was just another part of the experiment – “trauma inception” – which occurred on a stage made to look like their home. Dad finds his boy there, and Stefan hits him with the ashtray.
But Stefan wakes up again at his computer. A 32nd choice is P.A.C.S. The shadowy organisation reveals itself to the programmer through his computer. Again, this fate leads back to the son attacking his father with the ashtray. The 33rd choice is a bunch of numbers. We have to try and remember a phone number. Father Gore led Stefan to a disconnected number, so the programmer goes out back and buries dad in the garden. It doesn’t take much for a dog to unearth the corpse, though. Everything leads back to Stefan’s breakdown and Bandersnatch has been released in a state of half-completion. You can always go back and try again, if you dare.
GODDAMN FANTASTIC! Absolutely bonkers, brilliant, and deep piece of filmmaking. Not only that, it pushes the boundaries of what Netflix can do in the future, or any streaming platform for that matter. This Choose Your Own Adventure style is impressive. An endlessly rewatchable piece of cinema. Look forward to other filmmakers using the format in the future. Interesting how many endings can result from the various choices we’re given.
And we’re all thirsty for the new season of Black Mirror in general, too.