“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” is different things for different people. Literally.
For some, “Bandersnatch” is the story of a failed teenage video game creator; for others, it’s a tale of conspiracy via PACS (Program and Control Study). Or, if you choose wisely, it’s the story of two teens having a really intense acid trip.
And for some particularly adamant viewers, those who spend hours (just me?) going through all the possibilities and endings, it’s all of these.
Netflix released “Bandersnatch,” an interactive film, on Dec. 28.
While watching, each viewer chooses how the story goes, or rather, the actions of the main character, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead). Different actions lead to the development of different plot lines. At certain points, both arbitrary and pivotal, viewers are prompted to select one of two options.
Regardless of which decisions are made, the background is the same.
It’s England in 1984. Stefan lives with his single dad, a widower. Stefan is set to have therapy for mental illness multiple times a week and is creating an interactive video game called “Bandersnatch,” named after a choose-your-own-adventure book by his favorite author, Jerome F. Davies.
Davies is described as a brilliant writer who went crazy and murdered his wife toward the end of his career and life. Beyond that, the story starts to branch off into different arcs.
Remember, just as the XTC song “Making Plans for Nigel” — one of the many ’80s-era songs played in the episode — goes: “We’re only making plans for (Stefan). We only want what’s best for him.”
So while in 1984, we make decisions for Stefan only — never for his dad, Peter (Craig Parkinson); the other adolescent programmer, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter); the calm therapist, Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe); or the obnoxious CEO of the video game company Tuckersoft, Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry).
Whatever we choose for Stefan dictates the arc we as viewers will follow.
No matter the arc, though, there’s a lot of Easter eggs; long-term fans should keep their eyes out for allusions to previous “Black Mirror” episodes.
Some of the themes of “Bandersnatch” pertain to filial frustration, the illusionary aspect of free will, paranoia, psychosis, parallel realities, guilt, regret and Netflix.
Netflix actually plays a major role, even if it was founded 13 years after the show takes place.
Another fascinating subject the episode never resolves is what the “happiest” (Stefan’s word) ending for the protagonist is.
I’m still debating between two for “happiest” ending: Stefan cutting his father up into pieces, placing them around his room in some sadistic version of feng shui that releases his inner creativity and gets his game a five-star rating or Stefan dying in therapy after mentally going back and dying alongside his mother on the train.
You decide between an amoral, happy-go-lucky psychopath’s success or a dead man relieved of his depression and trauma. Certainly the latter is more poetic, but I have yet to convince myself it is Stefan’s best choice since we don’t know how much he loves the Bandersnatch game versus how much he uses it as a distraction from his life and guilt.
Whitehead as Stefan does a spellbinding job portraying a character with mental illness. His jitters, facial expressions and general aura communicate his paranoia and trauma without being stereotypical, a real feat for 22-year-old Whitehead.
Now, although the plot lines and endings are disturbing in their own right and there is a beauty to the complicated nature of the episode’s interactivity, the choose-your-own- adventure aspect isn’t perfect.
I don’t love video games. I don’t like having to restart or backtrack. And “Bandersnatch” is somewhere between game and TV, as you can reach an ending only to be forced to go through the same plot before getting the chance to select again.
If you reach a “proper” ending, where the credits roll, you have to start from the beginning again.
Sometimes, it feels like a really frustrating version of “Groundhog Day.” For as clever and funny as Colin’s lines are, hearing them more than a handful of times gets old. Also, “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood will never get out of my head.
Regardless, “Bandersnatch” might be the most meta “Black Mirror” episode yet.
No, it isn’t just because of Colin, the hyper-aware guru. (If “woke” were a slang term in the ’80s, Colin would have been called that countless times.)
But “Bandersnatch” is meta for more than this. For one, it’s arguably the least “Black Mirror”-y episode of the series, and not because of its new, interactive format.
For something to be “Black Mirror”-y, it’s usually centered around technology of the near-future and how it corrupts humanity or further reflects mankind’s corruption.
And “Bandersnatch” is missing that first point: technology. “Bandersnatch” is different from the other episodes because it’s set fully in the past. (No, fellow “Black Mirror” fans, “San Junipero” wasn’t set in the ’90s. It was a period piece because San Junipero was programmed to resemble the world when the old women were young.)
Thus, there are no smartphones, laptops, cloud networks or artificial intelligence systems. It’s the ’80s — the worst of technology was either missiles or metalheads’ music.
So what is the futuristic or technological aspect that makes viewers feel uncomfortable — a quintessential aspect of any “Black Mirror” episode?
We are the sick people from the future getting entertained by choosing ways for a person, albeit one of fiction, to suffer — and by a highly complex algorithm at that!
We get bored with the little choices — the cereal Stefan eats, the music he plays on the bus — and readily or steadily go against our moral compasses in the name of the game.
This is a new kind of entertainment. With movies, there is a sense of detachment. We’ll enjoy whatever violence or pain comes along, but we don’t cause it as the viewers. Such is not the case with “Bandersnatch.”
We watch Stefan’s life become more and more of a mess, and if we make a “bad choice” and get stuck in a loop, we’ll pick horrible things to get out and find out what’s next.
Furthermore, the more one plays the “Bandersnatch” game, the more one realizes that the viewer might not be the one in control after all.
For some choices, Stefan will face the same outcome. The choice is being made for us, as Colin once says.
And even with all the choices to be made, there are far fewer endings than paths to go down. Multiple paths end with Stefan imprisoned later; two or three end with the same TV clip of the game receiving a rating of 2.5 stars for lack of creativity.
Our choices don’t always matter because the game is already set; the algorithms are predetermined, and sometimes, no matter what we pick, the destination is the same.
To recap, this episode is about people being controlled, to some extent, by an algorithm. This algorithm is designed to entertain people by helping them find ways to lead the protagonist down a path of self-destruction, one on which he may commit murder and/or suicide.
“Wow, that sounds like a good episode of ‘Black Mirror!’” an enthusiast of the show, familiar with its oft-disturbing plots about the dangerous side of technology, might say.
Oh wait, we are that episode. The black mirror we’re watching is no longer a TV show but ourselves, reflections on the other side of the tinted TV/computer/smartphone screens.
And in that way, it’s the most ”Black Mirror”-y episode in the series.