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Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch review: the illusion of free will

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We’ve waited an entire year for it… but finally Black Mirror is back and in the most Black Mirror way ever.

After the release of season four last Christmas (obvs we took an in-depth look at each episode and ranked them), Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s devilishly dark series is back with Netflix on board once again.

But this time it’s completely different. We were given tit-bits of information a few months ago, most of which came from eagle-eyed people on Reddit. And for once, most of the rumours were true:

  • it’s set in the 80s (shit yeah)
  • it’s about an ill-fated game called Bandersnatch
  • it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ story (eat your heart out Telltale)

How bloody exciting?

What’s the story?

Stefan is a young programmer living with his dad. Both are still trying (years later) to cope with the death of Stefan’s mother. If your ‘pathway’ takes you a certain way, you’ll find out Stefan blames both himself and his dad for his mum’s death.

Consequently, Stefan takes anti-depressants and sees a therapist regularly. He’s secretive and obsessive – especially when it comes to recreating ‘choose your own adventure’ book, Bandersnatch by tragic writer Jerome F. Davies. Davies is infamous for ‘going insane’ and decapitating his wife.

Straight from the off we (you) are forced to choose Stefan’s pathway with seemingly trivial choices (Frosties or Sugar Puffs?!) to significantly darker ones – who should jump from the balcony?

This interactive story element introduces a different form of storytelling, of which, most won’t be used to. It allows the viewer to be an integral part of the story, making quick decisions (the 10-second element can make for rash choices) to try and send Stefan onto the ‘right’ path – but is there a right path for him?

Are you really in control?

Choices are thrown at you thick and fast, making you feel an uneasy sense of dread with each ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Quickly, it’s apparent that with each decision, Stefan is plummeting further and further into psychosis.

But the sneaky Black Mirror team have tricked us again – we’re not in control really. With each misstep or ‘wrong’ decision, we’re guided back onto the ‘right’ (or wrong?) track. The episode takes us back to a game menu style waiting area, ready for us to try it again, but differently this time.

It’s also a clever way to show you the ‘other side’ of your choices – something we can’t do in real life. Sometimes even characters say: “I think I need to try again.

After 20 minutes in, it’ll dawn on you: you’re just as much on a pathway as Stefan is. You’re being forced to choose a choice. And it makes for an intense, confusing ride.

The success of the game depends on what you make Stefan do. If you rush decisions, it makes for a poor game – sit back and enjoy the ride. Even if it involves possibly murdering your father.

But no matter how gruesome, you’ll be back for more to explore all of the slightly different endings and hidden content. (We love the super duper meta moment involving explaining what Netflix is to a kid from the 80s.)

Themes

Bandersnatch highlights the seriousness of mental health issues and addiction. Fionn Whitehead portrays the confused and frightened Stefan perfectly – a convincing portrait of someone trying and failing to hide symptoms of mental illness.

Stefan’s obsessive nature over the Bandersnatch book is a coping mechanism – helping to distract him from thinking about his mother’s death. And really, it makes sense for him to be obsessed with a game that lets you choose different paths, it’s what he longs for. He would love to go back in time and choose a different pathway.

It also forces us to sit up and take notice of how are lives our being controlled – putting the power back into our own hands. It’s a nice Black Mirror dig at passive viewers. Previous seasons let you watch drama and turmoil unfold, now you’re forced to be a part of it.

Eagled-eyed viewers may have spotted a Phillip K. Dick poster Ubik in Colin’s apartment – a fitting sight as Ubik involves being able to change past events.

Of course, there are also references to Alice in Wonderland – the Bandersnatch featured in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and can be found in the world ‘beyond the looking glass’. Colin makes reference to this, mentioning “Mirrors are a journey through time.” And soon after taking acid, Stefan goes back to his childhood by climbing through his mirror.

When you consider the Alice in Wonderland theme, the entire episode and gameplay is very similar. With each choice we venture further down the rabbit hole, getting ourselves into stranger and stranger situations.

Characters

Stefan is played expertly by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, The Children Act). He’s convincing in his portrayal of a naive, grief-stricken teen and his spiral out of control (caused by us), is so affecting, you’ll do anything to try and save him from his destined fate.

Then there’s Colin. A pretty dull name for a such a beguiling character. He’s played by Will Poulter (We’re the Millers, The Revenant) and although Will is usually superb, it felt as if he didn’t come into his own in this role. His comedic timing and monologue about how the government are taking over is inspiring and memorable, but the rest of his performance would probably be something to forget.

Another person of interest is Dr Haynes, played by Alice Lowe (Hot Fuzz, Prevenge). Alice is eerie from the off, turning from a sickly sweet and caring confidant to a samurai sword-wielding bad guy. Her presence marks a sense of dread – is she really helping Stefan?

Style

After San Junipero‘s 80s setting was a hit, it seemed only right to stick to what Black Mirror knows best. And arguably the best bit about Bandersnatch being set in 1984 is spotting the teeny, tiny details that make it feel so authentic – like the way they’re programming games and the local shopfront branding.

In terms of shots, there are lots of close-up shots, capturing the stress and feeling of being trapped (Stefan especially). With each close-up you can almost count the pores on his face! It’s super close for comfort.

In particular, the scene where Colin and Stefan take acid we get a close up of a very dry, very ‘tastebud-dy’ tongue wiggling. It’s one of the best, but weirdest shots of the episode. Could this shot relate to the 2010 graphic novel Calamity Jack? A sequel to Rapunzel’s Revenge, there’s a ‘pet Bandersnatch’ that has a long tongue and is able to spit acid. You decide.

Another advantage of using extreme close-ups is that it blurs everything else out, creating an otherworldly feel. It also shows how the rest of the world is a blur to each character – they’re completely absorbed by their own pathway.

Easter eggs/references

Now for the best bit. Everyone loves Easter eggs and Black Mirror is laced with them.

Letting us into fall deeper into the rabbit hole of the Black Mirror universe, here are all the trivia points/Easter eggs and clever little references to other episodes we found:

  • Tuckersoft’s ‘Metl Hedd’ game – a reference to S4 episode, Metal Head
  • Tuckersoft’s Nohzdyve game – a reference to S3 episode, Nosedive
  • the choice symbol is the same symbol used in S2 episode, White Bear
  • Stefan’s doctor’s name is Dr R. Haynes – possibly a reference to Rolo Haynes, owner of Black Museum in the episode of the same name
  • Dr R. Haynes practices at Saint Juniper’s Medical Centre – a possible reference to S3 episode, San Junipero

Black Mirror is also known for choosing fitting soundtracks and Bandersnatch is no exception. Although only a few tracks, they’re packed with meaning:

  • when Stefan is asleep on the way to see Dr R. Haynes, XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel plays on the radio and the lyrics describe Stefan’s situation:

We’re only making plans for Nigel 
We only want what’s best for him 
We’re only making plans for Nigel 
Nigel just needs this helping hand

  • if you chose the Thompson Twins cassette, you’ll make Stefan listen to Hold Me Now:

I have a picture,
Pinned to my wall.
An image of you and of me and we’re laughing and loving it all.
Look at our life now, tattered and torn.
We fuss and we fight and delight in the tears that we cry until dawn.

You say I’m a dreamer, we’re two of a kind
Both of us searching for some perfect world we know we’ll never find
So perhaps I should leave here, yeah yeah go far away
But you know that there’s nowhere that I’d rather be than with you here
today.

Overall thoughts

It’s a big change for Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s Black Mirror adventures, but it also feels like a natural progression. It takes a little getting used to, but it forces you to be assertive and get onboard.

Regarding narrative, it doesn’t feel as dark or sinister as other episodes, but for the interactive features and sheer playfulness, it’s a win in our eyes. And a brand new string to Netflix’s bow, proving it’s always one step ahead of its competitors.

And the best bit is… we might not have to wait that long for another instalment. Black Mirror. There are rumours a Black Mirror season five is coming very soon. And we can’t wait.

What did you think of Bandersnatch? You choose. Then tell us on Twitter at @flick_whatUK.

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