‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’: Choose Your Own Torture

‘Black Mirror’ ruminates on the concept of free will in its most ambitious installment yet — while putting its protagonist through the wringer.
By  · Published on January 7th, 2019

For all the times you’ve yelled at your television in utter futility, begging the character on the screen to do something else, you idiot, anything else: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has you covered.

Black Mirror’s latest installment, which dropped on Netflix late last month as one of its final original releases of the year, is a choose your own adventure film. It features a meta-narrative in which we follow young programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, vulnerable and dangerous all at once) as he struggles to adapt a fantasy novel, the titular Bandersnatch, into a video game. Haunted by a traumatic past, an enigmatic mentor, and a strained relationship with his father, Stefan throws himself into his work, and the stress begins to take its toll.

Bandersnatch gets its name from a creature found in Lewis Carroll’s works, and, much like the author’s own Alice, Stefan falls deep down the rabbit hole. No matter which cereal you pick, the episode guides Stefan and its viewers through any number of scenarios that become increasingly absurd. Bandersnatch follows in the literary nonsense tradition of Carroll, in which logic warps and meaning is loaded to the point of delicious excess. Stefan even has his own white rabbit: famous game creator Colin Ritman (Will Poulter at his charismatic best), who appears periodically to draw Stefan to the brink of sanity: “A bit of madness is what you need.” The credits roll only once Stefan climbs through the looking-glass (literally, in one case) and threads of his reality, in one way or another, unravel.

Co-creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker, who penned the film, ruminates on the same existential questions his show tends to flirt with. Bandersnatch follows in the nihilist tradition of previous Black Mirror works, in this case positing that none of us are in control of our actions, only trapped in the grand design of some great Other. Each new ending refutes the concept of free will, arguing instead that our choices have no meaning, that we’re all trapped in a maze of vaguely Orwellian meaninglessness. (It’s set in 1984 for a reason.) Yet it only briefly touches on a number of scenarios as explanations for whose design we’re trapped in, before ushering us backward to explore something new. Is it the government? Scientists? Are we in a nightmare, haunted by demons, or trapped in someone else’s screen? Colin’s own neon-colored hallucinogenic trip echoes this myriad of possibilities. Manic, he picks apart reality in circles, speculating wildly (“The government monitors people. And they put drugs in your food. And they film you.”) but never quite reaching enlightenment.

As such, any choice that attempts to guide Stefan out of this self-destructive spiral either cuts short or directs the viewer back to the central narrative of his undoing. Bandersnatch is less of a choose your own adventure than it is choosing wrong answers and being directed back to Stefan’s torture. Much like Stefan, we only have the illusion of control. Our choices matter as little as his do. “No future,” says a billboard early in the episode, followed by the episode’s trademark branching pathway symbol, implying that as far away as we pull from Bandersnatch’s intentions, there is no escape from the twisted labyrinth it’s trapped us in. We can’t save Stefan, much less properly determine his fate. He remains destined to be a tragic figure.

And yet, Bandersnatch is a gamechanger. The interactive aspect serves as more than a mere gimmick. Stefan passes through parallel timelines, and all we have to do is press a remote or a mousepad. Even if we can’t determine the ultimate outcome, if we can’t wrap up Stefan in a blanket with a cup of tea like he so desperately needs, we can at least discover the side paths and Easter eggs Brooker has laid out for us. Here is a new way to entertain, to put the interactive elements of streaming television to use by engaging even the most casual of viewers and seemingly offering a stake in what unfolds on screen. We can only hope future Netflix endeavors allow their viewers to truly choose their own adventure, to fully explore branching paths and feel the weight of their consequences.

Stefan eventually becomes aware that his choices are coming from elsewhere, and the episode hits its stride once it takes on a sense of meta-commentary, pressing right up against the fourth wall. Bandersnatch’s biggest strengths lie here, in our meta role as gamemaster, as it forces us to reflect on our own tendencies, on our role as a vengeful or merciful God. Would we make the same choices if we were in Stefan’s position, or are we willing to set aside morality if we’re removed from the consequences? How predetermined are our own choices, and who controls what we do? Is our own will determined by our own small choices or are they consequences of the larger systems we find ourselves trapped in? Or is there some grand design, someone watching our own actions and guiding us down some unseen path? Bandersnatch doesn’t have the answers. Perhaps it’s on us, then, to find them ourselves.

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East Coast writer, tweeter, and pasta aficionado. On a journey to befriend Barry Jenkins.