Netflix’s Black Mirror has consistently capitalized on sending audiences down a dark rabbit hole of technology and its detrimental uses. Each episode, especially early installments, perversely waved any catharsis away from the viewing experience in exchange for emotional dissonance, even existentialism in a world revolving around these gadgets of technological advancement. But in continuing to toy with catharsis and technology, Black Mirror‘s ‘choose your own adventure’ vehicle, “Bandersnatch” exploits a warped form of entertainment. Falling further into the deadly spiral of the experiment, “Bandersnatch” is an exercise in Schadenfreude.
Note: Spoilers Ahead
When Black Mirror first debuted, the narratives produced in episodic, or made-for-TV-movie, style toyed with the intersection of corruption and technology. Each feature would demonstrate the dark ways in which technology pervades our lives and how all succumb to it as a tool of humiliation and ruin. With each installment, Black Mirror continued to push audience expectations. In search of a wholly cathartic conclusion audiences were often, much like the characters in each story, left in a state of despondency, even emotionally backed into a corner by the outcome.
Black Mirror rarely gives audiences the emotional release of a justified ending. Ever pushing their boundaries, the creative team released a beast, the “Bandersnatch.” With “Bandersnatch,” devoted fans of the series have an opportunity to be immersed in it, not only by ideas and broad commentary but a conscious role. In the day-to-day of Stefan’s (Fionn Whitehead) ordinary life, it is the person on the other side of the screen dictating the narrative. Holding the remote audiences can push and pull Stefan this way and that, putting him in life or death situations or just choosing his morning’s cereal.
Audiences get to play God. A warped storyline of conspiracy, video games, and trauma, “Bandersnatch” is designed for viewers to take control while Stefan relinquishes and comes to term with the limitations of his own agency. Whoever holds the remote decides how long each story will last, simply based on the binary choices made.
If on the first try, the narrative ends abruptly, Black Mirror gives these controllers’ the opportunity to try again. Testing different scenarios that often turn deadly, “Bandersnatch” exposes a certain inverted morality in its viewers. What lingers on the fingers while pressing the next action are the results of Schadenfreude, a concept defining how people gain enjoyment out of the misfortune of others, or the damage-joy effect.
The more damage caused, the further the story goes and the more anguish we put Stefan through, all for the sake of entertainment. But the effect is only met through tedious action – which viewers quickly observe through choices of inaction. Knowing that “Bandersnatch” had numerous possibilities for where the story could go, a few decisions in, and the story could end. For example, if the audience chooses to let the company work on the game within the first few scenes of the show, the outcome is failure. The game is not a success, and the game we have just played isn’t either; we lose. But a chance is given to start over and correct the error, leading viewers to choose the alternative approach setting off a new storyline altogether and therefore new consequences.
As the success rate continues, for some viewers it may click that inflicting the outcomes of destructive decisions on Stefan or the characters around him makes for a fundamentally more entertaining experience. Instead of holding back – not talking about Mum, for instance – whoever holds the controller chooses based on furthering the story and increasing the entertainment value. In doing so, viewers get the joy of watching what happens next and trying to figure what the end goal is; becoming a crucial part of the production.
But beyond the control value and setting out a specific storyline, there’s pleasure in watching the damage created. Unlike maneuvering the world away from Black Mirror, audiences don’t have to deal with the consequences of Stefan’s misfortune. When a viewer makes the decision for Stefan to ‘kill dad,’ there’s no concern of what may happen to the troubled young man as a result. As long as the story continues to entertain and bring satisfaction to the controller, Stefan’s suffering is inconsequential. When controllers have exhausted all possibilities, shattering Stefan and his world numerous times, what’s left is a new, troubling rumination on our relationship with technology.
This exercise in Schadenfreude is the latest in the ways Black Mirror has commentated on human and technological interaction. When given the power without the consequence, viewers can inflict psychological harm even murder on Stefan and gleefully do so. Because while Black Mirror has, in some ways, tortured the conscious reality of humans’ relationships to technology, with the tool in their hands, people can inflict pain on the product of Black Mirror. “Bandersnatch” entertains, boggles the mind and even brings viewers a certain amount of joy to be in this specific point of control, holding onto the remote without the consequence. Black Mirror puts character agency in the audiences’ hands and the opportunity to relish the pain inflicted and the damage done.