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I love Black Mirror. It's been one of my favorite shows for some time. "Bandersnatch," the newest episode, has been in my head for months. Ever since I heard there would be an interactive episode, I couldn't stop anticipating. Now that it's finally here, I can safely say "Bandersnatch" is exactly how I imagined it would be; twisted, introspective, and makes me feel bad about myself.
I made notes while I was watching "Bandersnatch," as the choose-your-own-adventure/multiple ending style was bound to confuse me. The notes tell it all. I started with a happy remark about how cool it was to select what cereal our main character, Stefan, ate for breakfast, and ended with me in all caps ranting about how Netflix was controlling me and my decisions. It was a wild ride.
To put it simply, Stefan is creating a game, "Bandersnatch," based on a book of the same name, and has to develop it in time for a large gaming company. Like what we're doing, his game is choose-your-own-adventure. Let the meta-adventure begin.
I'll start with a few negatives, just to get those out of the way before I start to gush over how this game played with my mind. For starters, I have a Microsoft Surface, which doesn't support the interactive feature. This is the same on Apple TV, as well as other select streaming platforms. I had to use my roommate's Mac. Bless her, because I was about to lose my mind if I couldn't watch it. Secondly, there is a bit of thinness to the plot and characters. They feel a little more like stereotypes and vague characteristics at times. We never get a sense of the dad, but I can forgive that because through the eyes of Stefan, nothing ever seems permanent or even real. Stefan himself is a little bare, but when we choose for him in many instances, and he's in the midst of a mental breakdown, I can understand. The characters suffer a little bit from the gimmick, but it was nothing that totally ruined my viewing experience.
At first, it starts out small. Within the first 15 minutes, you can make a wrong decision that sends you back to the beginning. They're sure to speed through everything so you don't literally watch everything you've done again. There are small moments of Stefan finishing someone else's sentences, or Colin knowing things Stefan said to him the first time around. It only gets wilder. There's a point when you repeat a segment and Colin literally appears and says something like "Okay, you've seen this," and he claps, skipping the rest of the repeated segment.
I think the best thing about "Bandersnatch" is the idea of choice and free will, and our capacity to cause others pain. Is there a higher power dictating everything? How "in control" are you really? It also brought up a bit of mental illness, and how certain disorders may manifest.
That's a lot to unpack, so I can parcel it out.
To start with the mental health angle, this may be the least prevalent when compared to the other themes. Of course, it is still front and center. Stefan is in therapy, and he's on medication as well. With his therapist, he expresses that he doesn't feel in control. There are things he does that he can't help. One of the options that particularly struck me was when he was talking to his therapist. He can either fidget with his fingers (or something like that) or tug at his earlobe. It's a small thing, but when you select it, it felt like watching an OCD symptom in action. He does the action you tell him to, but you can physically see him restrain his hand once he realizes what he was doing, and how he didn't realize it was happening. The awareness of something being wrong with your thoughts and not being able to stop them, or stop physical reactions that arise from these thoughts, is very reminiscent of how mental illness can feel. Specifically, anxiety and OCD can feel this way. It's unbearable at times to know what's wrong and not be able to magically fix it or stop it. Because it's a topic I care about, I wish they'd explored it more. However, this wasn't what the focus was, so again, it's understandable to me.
What a large chunk of this special is about is that messy topic of choice. As usual, Black Mirror takes a dark, negative view. After going through almost every ending, and studying a chart of all the endings and scenarios on Reddit, I came to the conclusion that every ending leads to misery. Stefan always ends up in prison, legal trouble, depressed, or even dead. Most endings lead to another loop. You always get thrown back into a loop. The choices you make don't make a difference more often than not. Different choices lead to the same outcome. This is only about you, the viewer and chooser, and the decisions you make.
Then there's Stefan.
His choices aren't even choices. He isn't making the big decisions. The anguish Stefan experiences is sad to watch. He has no control in his life. This is why it doesn't bother me that he's a bit of a blank character. We can't know him when he has no authority or ability to express his wants and desires. The best indicator of this would be a moment when Stefan meets up with Colin at Colin's place. Colin offers Stefan a drug to help him clear his mind. For us, we can choose whether he takes the drug or not. I selected "no" because I didn't think it would be good for Stefan to do that, as he was already stressed and scared. Colin responds by saying, "Just thought I'd give you the choice." In the next shot, he sneaks the drug into Stefan's drink when he isn't looking. No matter the choice, Stefan was getting that drug. Even though the choices were two opposites, they lead to the same conclusion. It's on the nose, with Colin acknowledging the choice so blatantly. It certainly gets the point across.
The biggest thing for me was the idea of apathy towards other human beings. Some episodes of Black Mirror scare me because of how far technology has the potential to go. This one involved the viewer in the action, forcing you to be in a harsh authority role. I felt horrible leaving this episode. Stefan is losing his mind and it's all my fault. Certain choices are worse than others. There will obviously be people out there who want to pick the intense and extreme choices just for the fun of it, and that upsets me. Even though this is just a character, it was hard for me to inflict mental pain on someone. I was uncomfortable playing a god in someone's life, and I found myself trying to pick the options based on what would hurt Stefan less. It was next to impossible to do so, however. Then in a way, it turned into me being frustrated and stressed because I wasn't really getting the choice to choose. My own options for Stefan were so limited, and there was nothing I could do. I was tied up myself. Netflix was controlling me, oddly enough.
There's a scene when Stefan's therapist asks him why someone would want to interfere in his life. He's a normal kid in a normal setting interacting with other normal people. Funny enough, it doesn't matter that Stefan is normal. It doesn't matter if Stefan was a girl named Stephanie, or if he was a billionaire. Who he is doesn't keep us interested. What keeps people watching and interacting is the desire to control what happens, and by extension, control Stefan. In a way, the whole thing might be a "gimmick," but it shows how badly we want to play god and make decisions to see how we can steer events to our favor.
It's a lot to think about. My roommate and I had trouble processing it for the rest of the night. I'll probably be thinking about it for a long time after. Another thing that made us uneasy was the way it was shot. The color was muted with weird pops of orange and yellows. At other times, the image would be grainy for flashbacks, or incredibly shadowy. The camera would zoom in, shake, or take odd angles that put you on edge. Something about it was so odd to experience, like they used 50 million different filming techniques to make it. I really enjoyed it, though.
Overall, there's too much to properly unpack. There's also the surveillance aspect of it, time travel and alternate realities, and other kinds of ideas bundled into this mine of content. That's not even mentioning the references. We have our metal dog from "Metalhead," news stories relating to "USS Callister," "Hated in the Nation," and a video game of "Nosedive." Could this video game company be making games of every episode? Probably not, but never say never with Black Mirror.
I highly recommend "Bandersnatch." I've seen some comments about it being only a gimmick without real substance. I think it's definitely more than that, but even so, the experience is worth it.