Even if you’ve never before in your life watched a Black Mirror episode (WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? GET ON THAT IMMEDIATELY… AHEM… back to our regularly scheduled blog post), you’ve likely heard of the latest Black Mirror movie on Netflix titled Bandersnatch, a Choose Your Own Adventure-style psychological thriller (?) that feels slightly different in tone than the rest of Black Mirror until you realize… you’re literally part of the episode and the jokes on you.
Perhaps that’s why so many people seem irritated about the whole experiment. Many reviews have labeled the latest Black Mirror a failure, accusing the show of focusing more on form than it does on content. And that’s fine. I understand. And maybe that’s true. Or maybe you just don’t like what the content of this particular episode is telling you about yourself.
I’m a little intimidated to even cover this topic, since there are already so many articles out there on the Internet with basically the exact same title as mine. Feel free to check those out too. Then come back and tell me how wrong I am. I will be here.
But anyway back to me and my thoughts. Spoiler: I really liked Bandersnatch, and I’m here to defend it. So let’s start there. Some people are frustrated with this Choose Your Own Adventure format because ultimately, all endings lead you to similar places, suggesting that the majority of the choices you made are arbitrary and ultimately lead to the same ending. Yes, the plot points differ in minor ways, but thematically we end up in the same place. Which is… the whole point, my dudes.
If you dislike the episode for other reasons, then fair enough, but if you were disappointed in this episode because of the illusion of choice, then hello. I’m here to talk to you.
Spoilers to follow after the cut, so please check out Bandersnatch on Netflix before reading on.
So if you’re completely lost, Bandersnatch follows the adventures of young programmer Stefan Butler (played by Fionn Whitehead) has he attempts to adapt a fantasy Choose Your Own Adventure novel into a video game circa 1984. You the viewer get to make decisions for Stefan as he goes about his days of programming and living in the world. Some choices are minor, like what kind of cereal are you going to eat for breakfast? Others majorly affect the plot, like will you chop your father’s body up or simply bury it? Many of them end up not being much of a choice at all, like when you’re forced to kill your father in the first place.
In regards to the first type of choice, it can be exciting at first to assume that popping in a different cassette tape could greatly affect the outcome of Stefan’s day, but in reality these day to day decisions don’t really change the trajectory of our day. And if you think about your average day where you wake up, go to work, come home, have dinner, watch tv, and then fall asleep (or whatever it is your usual routine is), how often do you get the opportunity to make major decisions that will change the trajectory of your own plot line?
In reality, most of us normal human beings probably only get a few select chances to make choices that greatly affect our stories in any given week, let alone any given day. Hopefully, one of those major decisions for you isn’t how to dispose of your father whom you just murdered. But, you know, if it is, I’m not here to judge.
Okay fine. So you might be asking something similar to what the therapist asks Stefan when he tells her that his entire story is being watched for entertainment in the future on some futuristic device called Netflix: If Bandersnatch is a show that is meant to entertain, then why is so much of it seemingly mundane? Why isn’t this Choose Your Own Adventure a, you know, adventure?
Well, because this is Black Mirror, and nothing is ever what it seems. In fact, if you’ve watched a lot of Black Mirror, you might have astutely noticed that this is the only episode that takes place in the past, in 1984, and doesn’t feature any sort of insane new technology. Well, friend, that’s because we’re the future, and Netflix’s Choose Your Own Adventure platform is the new technology, so out there that it literally drives Stefan insane when he learns about it.
Black Mirror has always been what it says it is: a mirror, a direct reference to the computers, televisions, phones, etc. that fill our lives and reflect back on who we are as people. Bandersnatch takes this to its most literal point. The show isn’t about Stefan at all. It’s about us.
So then what is Bandersnatch saying about us? I don’t think that it’s going so far as to say that certain outcomes are fated, because that’s too spiritual and frankly optimistic, two things that Black Mirror hardly ever is. Rather, Bandersnatch is pointing out what I mentioned earlier: in our day to day lives, we have very few opportunities to make legitimate choices that will have any sort of effect on the way the world is.
Furthermore, and what’s even more depressing, many moments in our lives deliver us the illusion of choice when in reality if we had chosen differently, very little would have changed.
This point is illustrated in Bandersnatch perfectly in the ending in which Stefan tries to go back into the past and save his mother from getting on the train that would take her life. As an adult, he remembers his mother’s death as being his fault because he was the one who made her get on a later train. He dwells on that moment in therapy sessions and wonders what would have happened if he had done something different. We all have moments like this in our own life, moments of regret where we wonder what trajectory our lives had taken if we had only chosen differently, chosen better.
When Stefan actually has the opportunity to change things, however, the outcome remains the same. He realizes the only real choice he has is to go on that train with her or to let her go. Either way, she dies, and he could die with her. Neither ending is happy, but sometimes all of our options are bad and all of the outcomes lead us to similar places. That’s life. It sucks.
So then the illusion of choice goes beyond the movie itself and bleeds into our own lives. That’s unpleasant. That’s something that’s difficult to face. But that’s kind of what Black Mirror is all about.