With “Black Mirror” preparing to drop its sixth season on June 15, there’s no time like the present to revisit 15 minutes in the future. Created by Charlie Brooker in 2011, “Black Mirror” uses each of its standalone episodes to craft a (typically) cautionary tale focusing on the intersection of human nature and technology. Some episodes are set in the far-flung future, some in an alternate present, but most tend to sit right at the edges of where we are right now, pushing current ideas, trends, and innovations just a little bit further to create oft-disconcerting tales of where they may lead.
Because each “Black Mirror” episode is intended to function as its own self-contained story, viewers can watch them in any order they please, and even skip episodes entirely if they’d prefer without missing any information that is relevant for the others. Of course, any serious “Black Mirror” viewer will probably want to experience every episode to get the full picture, but for those just looking for the crème de la crème, here are our picks for the 15 best episodes of “Black Mirror,” ranked from worst to best.
15. “Striking Vipers”
The three-episode fifth season of “Black Mirror” kicked off with “Striking Vipers,” which stars the MCU’s Anthony Mackie and “Watchmen’s” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as two long-time friends who have a steamy tryst in a virtual reality “Street Fighter”-esque game called “Striking Vipers.” As their in-game VR avatars, Roxette (Pom Klementieff) and Lance (Ludi Lin), the two strike up an intense physical relationship, while remaining strictly platonic in real life. While the episode raises some fascinating questions about gender, sexuality and monogamy, its execution falls a bit short of its intriguing premise.
14. “Black Museum”
The fourth season of “Black Mirror” ends with an unsettling exploration of revenge, justice and exploitation as we follow Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) on a visit to a very unique museum. Here, visitors can gawk at objects that have been implanted with human consciousness, or even engage in some retributive justice by repeatedly executing a hologram that has been imbued with the consciousness of a convicted murderer. “Black Mirror” has long been fascinated with the idea of transferred consciousness, and while “Black Museum” is not quite as effective as some episodes higher on this list in exploring that theme, combining that technology with the human drive for revenge makes for an interesting episode that will definitely leave viewers reflecting on their own darker impulses.
13. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
In hindsight, the strangest thing about Season 5’s “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too“ is that it took so long for the show to go quite so meta. In the episode, Miley Cyrus stars as an analog of herself, playing pop star Ashley O (whose songs are all reimagined Nine Inch Nails covers, adding to the familiar-yet-not vibe of the episode). Ashley has achieved such a high level of superstardom that she has released her own line of creepy dolls programmed to speak in her voice.
Angourie Rice (“Mare of Easttown”) costars as Ashley O’s biggest fan, who receives one of the dolls and whose dream of someday meeting her idol comes true — but not in the way either of them would have expected. While this episode lacks the punch and polish of others on this list, and revisits familiar themes, it earns bonus points for looping in a real-life celebrity with her own contentious media relationship to comment on our culture’s obsession with celebrity.
12. “Shut Up and Dance”
It’s a little tricky to figure out how to rank what is arguably one of the most disturbing episodes of “Black Mirror” (and that’s something, considering the rest of “Black Mirror” ), yet is also one of the best at delivering its final unsettling twist. The episode follows awkward teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther), who is blackmailed into performing a series of increasingly mysterious and unsettling tasks by a nameless observer who has recorded unsavory footage of him via spyware.
If that was all it was, it would still be an effective commentary on cyber security and the illusion of privacy in the digital age, but the episode takes an unexpected turn in its final act that turns the whole thing on its head. The episode forces viewers to wrestle with how we form our opinions about the people we think we know, who we sympathize with, and whether anyone can ever truly know what someone else is capable of.
While “Black Mirror” is indisputably horrifying in many of the themes it likes to explore, it actually doesn’t delve into what most of us would consider the horror genre very often. A noticeable exception is Season 3’s “Playtest,” which stars Wyatt Russell (“Overlord”) as Cooper, a willing volunteer in a virtual reality game trial. But although Cooper thinks he’s just signing up to play a game, what follows is “Black Mirror’s” twisted version of a haunted house story, in which the house is the human mind itself. Cooper’s nightmarish descent into terror is both wickedly fun and, occasionally, genuinely scary, while also delivering the pointed technological commentary that “Black Mirror” is known for.
As anyone might imagine about a series that attempts to give us a glimpse at where technology could take us — and why we might not want to go there — one of “Black Mirror’s” favorite themes to explore is social media. In the Season 3 episode “Nosedive,” the series takes a hard look at influencer culture, imagining a society in which an individual’s online popularity determines everything about how they navigate the world, from the type of job they can have to the type of car they’re able to rent.
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, an ambitious social climber who is just trying to get to her friend’s high-end wedding when her life is utterly derailed after her personal star rating (think Yelp, but for people) goes into freefall. It’s a sharp satire of our social digital age, and Howard does a great job earning our sympathy while also epitomizing the dangers of placing all of your self-worth eggs into a perfectly curated and filtered digital basket.
9. “Hated in the Nation”
“Black Mirror” loves to play around in different genre sandboxes as it interrogates humanity’s relationship with technology, and the Season 3 episode “Hated in the Nation“ plays out like a taut police procedural. This one is also centered around social media, in which being “canceled” online can have lethal consequences. “Hated in the Nation” follows detectives Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and Blue Coulson (Faye Marsay) as they investigate a grisly series of murders that appear to be linked to a social media hashtag.
At nearly 90 minutes long, “Hated in the Nation” feels almost like a movie, with a much more complicated plot than a typical hour-long episode. The episode braids together multiple subplots (including one about robot bees) as it dives into the perils of online vilification, layering on tension as it races toward a take-no-prisoners finale that, in true “Black Mirror” tradition, somehow leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortably culpable in what they just witnessed.
8. “Hang the DJ”
As one might expect, romance is not a genre “Black Mirror” delves into very often, thanks to the genre’s tendency to build to a happily ever after, and “Black Mirror”‘s tendency to, well… not. However, the episode “Hang the DJ” is the rare exception, and puts its own spin on the world of dating apps and predictive algorithms by imagining a world in which couples know the expiration date of their relationships before they even begin.
The episode follows two characters, Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), who feel an initial spark when they first meet but are discouraged from anything further, thanks to the algorithm predicting that they won’t last. However, as they are paired with others, neither can keep their thoughts from drifting to the one that the algorithm told them to let get away. Ultimately, “Hang the DJ” pushes us to consider just how predictable humans really are, and whether technology will—or can—ever advance enough to understand the complexities of the human soul.
7. “White Bear”
Ostensibly, the name of the series “Black Mirror” comes from the way the TV reflects your own horrified expression back to you after you turn it off at the end of an episode. Which is likely your precise experience after experiencing the tense episode “White Bear.“ The Season 3 episode follows a woman named Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) who wakes up without her memories, only to soon find herself pursued through a small town by ruthless, masked hunters.
Viewers are put in Victoria’s terrified shoes as she attempts to flee her attackers while simultaneously trying to figure out who she is and why everyone is trying to kill her. Of course, we can’t help but feel sorry for her for being put in such an awful situation. However, when we finally learn the meaning behind the nightmarish scenario, we have no choice but to face an ugly reflection of our own notions of revenge and justice. By the time we’re staring at ourselves in the black mirror at the end of the episode, we’re left wondering whether sometimes the act of monster hunting might turn us into monsters ourselves.
6. “15 Million Merits”
If you’ve ever used any sort of “free” digital service, you’re probably familiar with the system of watching ads in order to gain some sort of benefit, be it the ability to watch a video, play a game or use an app. The Season 1 episode “15 Million Merits“ builds a whole society out of this concept, in which most members spend their days riding stationary bikes to earn points known as “merits,” and are entertained as they ride by various programs which are interspersed with ads. The more merits one has, the more privileges they receive, such as the ability to skip ads, buy things or even get the opportunity to participate in one of their favorite shows.
The episode follows a man named Bing (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) who falls for a woman named Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) who loves to sing. Bing decides to help her achieve her dream by saving up the 15 million merits needed to buy her an audition for a reality singing competition similar to “The Voice.” But just like in real life, it turns out that fame is a lot more complicated than it might seem at first glance, and that the price they both ultimately pay to achieve it might be their souls. It’s a moving and heartbreaking examination of consumerism and dehumanization that will likely leave viewers at least a little conflicted the next time they decide to escape into “reality” TV.
5. “White Christmas”
One might assume that a Christmas special is meant to be uplifting, but such is not the case with the “Black Mirror” episode that takes place between Seasons 2 and 3, “White Christmas.“ The episode stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as two men snowed into a remote cabin in the winter wilderness. To pass the time, they each share stories of their lives prior to coming to the cabin: Hamm ran a seedy voyeuristic business in which men paid to watch and listen to each other’s dates via ocular implants, while Spall is reeling from a breakup in which his ex underwent a procedure to erase him from her life, relegating him to human-shaped white noise, which is also how she now appears to him.
The episode unfolds as a series of vignettes alternately focusing on each character and their respective backstories As the layers of what they’re each doing in that cabin gradually unpeel and build upon each other, a disturbing picture eventually emerges which brings all of the seemingly disparate storylines together. Over the course of 73 minutes, the episode touches on some of “Black Mirror”‘s favorite topics, such as AI, consciousness transference, dehumanization, and virtual reality. Functioning almost as an anthology film within the anthology series, “White Christmas” is classic “Black Mirror” through and through, with fantastic performances by its core cast (which also includes Oona Chaplin and Natalia Tena) to really drive its impact home.
4. “USS Callister”
The top of this list is made up entirely of episodes that could easily have been number one if we were using slightly different criteria. Namely, for the purposes of this list, we’ve decided that the number one spot should not only go to an episode that fires on all cylinders when it comes to character, commentary and performance, but is also a perfect encapsulation of quintessential “Black Mirror.” Which is why the Season 4 episode “USS Callister” isn’t walking away with the grand prize; while fantastic, the episode feels only half “Black Mirror,” with the other half most closely resembling a different show that’s almost the polar opposite in its worldview: “Star Trek.”
Taking place half in the “real“ world and half in a virtual reality game, “USS Callister” centers around a game developer (Jesse Plemons, who creates a “Star Trek”-like game in which he is the captain, and populates it entirely with the cloned consciousnesses of his coworkers. While their real-world counterparts have no idea he is doing this, the people inside the game are trapped in their own intergalactic purgatory, in which they have no choice but to endlessly follow the whims of their despotic captain/captor. Layering “Black Mirror”s favorite trope of digital consciousness transference onto the question of whether a digital consciousness can or should receive human rights, “USS Callister” boldly goes where no “Black Mirror” or “Star Trek” episode has gone before in an installment that is simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, thrilling and thought-provoking.
3. “The Entire History of You”
Although the first season of “Black Mirror” kicks off with a rather polarizing episode in “The National Anthem,” the following two episodes are among its best, and season closer “The Entire History of You” is arguably one of the most effective in giving viewers a good idea of what the show would come to feel like overall. In other words, you can like individual episodes of “Black Mirror” and not really like “Black Mirror” as a whole, but if you like “Black Mirror,” you probably love “The Entire History of You.“
The episode follows a married couple, played by Toby Kebbell (“Servant”) and Jodie Whittaker (“Doctor Who”), who seemed perfectly content until receiving ocular implants that allow them to replay their own memories. On the surface, it seems as though this technology should be a gift, offering them a chance to relive their happiest moments as many times as they like. But soon, the monkey’s paw curls, and they find themselves obsessing over every ambiguous gesture and flippant remark. With their newfound abilities to reexamine the past to their hearts’ content, all the little things which may have otherwise gone unnoticed now threaten to tear their world apart. “Black Mirror” loves to play with the idea that we should all be careful what we wish for, and everything about “The Entire History of You,” from its simple memory hack innovation to the intimate and personal conflict between its characters, does an excellent job exploring that idea.
2. “San Junipero”
Much like in the case of “USS Callister,” the biggest factor keeping the delightful “San Junipero” out of the top spot on this list is the fact that it is, in fact, delightful, and therefore entirely anomalous for “Black Mirror.” Jumping through decades in what we quickly learn is a simulated reality, the episode follows Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who meet and fall in love in the virtual beach town of San Junipero. Unfortunately, their fairytale virtual romance doesn’t easily transfer to the real world, forcing the characters to spend the episode wrestling with the choice of which reality they’d rather live in.
While that setup sounds true to the identity of the show, the execution is much more upbeat and optimistic than typical “Black Mirror” fare. The episode’s rare happy tone, combined with the beautiful, earnest performances of Davis and Mbatha-Raw, proves that not all socio-technical commentary needs to be bleak in order to be effective. It also makes “San Junipero” the episode most likely to appeal to viewers who may not otherwise vibe on “Black Mirror”s typically dire wavelength. That being said, if we’re ranking “Black Mirror” episodes, it seems most fitting that the top honor should go to an episode that really knocks it out of the park in every way, including by exemplifying the ethos of the show, which brings us to…
1. “Be Right Back”
“Black Mirror” may not venture into romance territory very often, but when it does, it tends to absolutely annihilate us by clobbering us over the head with our own feelings. Such is the case with the gutting Season 2 opener “Be Right Back,“ which follows a woman named Martha (Hayley Atwell) grieving the sudden loss of her boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson). To cope with the loss, Martha begins communicating with an AI-powered bot designed to impersonate the deceased by learning about them from what they left behind, such as photographs, videos and social media posts. Eventually, instant messaging graduates to phone calls, and ultimately to a robot made to look just like Ash.
At first, the robot is a comfort for the grieving Martha, especially as she carries and delivers Ash’s baby. But of course, even though the android looks and sounds just like Ash, he will never become the person that she loved, a hard reality that Martha ultimately has no choice but to face. While plenty of other “Black Mirror” episodes“ deal with AI and the nebulous line between effective programming and sentience, “Be Right Back“ approaches the topic through the lens of grief and healing, coming at it with a sensitivity and compassion that causes it to hit differently than many of the show’s more ruthless episodes. We give it top marks not just for its nuanced approach to its subject matter and the heartbreaking performances of its two leads, but also because it is remarkably effective in delivering on the promise of the show itself: to use technology to explore what it means to be truly human.