Charlie Brooker’s unnerving Netflix series, Black Mirror, envisions a close-future time where our technological innovations become victims of our collective id. Or is it the other way around? What makes this series so mesmerizing (and so essential) is the way in which it pushes us to reevaluate our relationship with technology, and hence each other. It boils down to what you really want vs. what you really need.
With season 4 available Friday, Dec. 29, Playboy ranks the show’s 19 episodes by plausibility. As seen in the list below, Black Mirror offers us serious philosophical fodder that few shows are able to. And that’s a refreshing change of pace. (The following list contains some spoilers.)
1. SHUT UP AND DANCE (Season 3, Episode 3)
A teen boy and a middle-aged man become unintended partners in crime when online blackmailers use compromising data collected from their PCs to become their puppet masters. This concept isn’t far off; in fact, it’s happening now. In the age of phishing, malware, PC hijackings and webcam hacks, anyone can be manipulated by unseen forces intending to do harm. While the scenario in this episode escalates to a crazy level, the bleak denouement feels very true to life. What goes online, stays online. Forever.
2. THE WALDO MOMENT (Season 2, Episode 3)
When a crooked conservative politician looks set to wipe the floor with a weaker liberal opponent, a man who voices and animates a profane TV cartoon character named Waldo takes him on in the election as a lark. A firestorm of controversy heats up the race into an improbable contest between two humans and an animated buffoon. While that idea may seem far-fetched, the 2016 presidential election had more than its fair share of Waldo moments, just from a real-life cartoon character, and he has gotten more preposterous and dangerous since then. Let’s also not forget those Russian bots trolling social media as fake Americans.
3. NOSEDIVE (Season 3, Episode 1)
Imagine a society in which all of our personal interactions are ranked by people using their phones. People do their best to give a good impression, so their rankings will go up. While that may seemingly bode well for positive public behavior, it also means people muzzle their sincerity and honesty to attain popularity. Let’s face it–social media runs many people’s lives now, and unplanned, impulsive actions can be judged quite harshly. While people might not be rating our actions every second of the day in the near future, social media could be the main way in which everyone—from family to prospective employers—do judge us, from our tweets to our Facebook rants.
4. THE NATIONAL ANTHEM (Season 1, Episode 1)
When the Princess of England is abducted, her captor’s ransom is highly unexpected: He wants the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig, live on television. Naturally, the government is eager to track down the culprit before the deadline. It’s an outrageous premise that would be unlikely to happen to anyone in power. But a civilian? That’s certainly possible. The more disturbing aspect of this episode is how much depravity we are willing to accept in our lives. Sadly, it seems to be a lot these days.
5. ARKANGEL (Season 4, Episode 2)
After a neurotic mother is traumatized when her young daughter goes missing for a short time, she implants a chip into her body that not only tracks her every movement but can show what she sees through her eyes. But as she becomes more concerned about the company her daughter keeps, her spying becomes invasive. Even though we do not have technology that can capture what’s literally in your eyes, tracking software and devices are all too common these days, and the potential for abuse of them is high.
6. HANG THE DJ (Season 4, Episode 4)
Imagine a world in which all your dates are set up through The System. You carry around a “Coach” device with a female voice that shows you who and where to meet on your first date, and it lists an expiration date for the coupling, which can last from 12 hours to five years, and then till death do us part. The arranged relationships are required and enforced, and only The System can dictate when you have met your ultimate match. This sounds like lunacy, but we live in a world where not only do arranged matches still exist, but apps like Tinder and Bumble have turned dating into a form of supermarket shopping. With America wading into fascism and people becoming brainwashed by their addiction to social media, this scenario is not so far-fetched.
7. FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS (Season 1, Episode 2)
In the 1984-ish world depicted here, common people literally spend all day on exercise bikes (essentially, the treadmill) accruing points that they can use to pick what content they want to indulge in on the video walls that comprise their living cubicles. One young man decides to trade in all his points to help an aspiring singer win an American Idol-like show with cruel hosts and a virtual theater audience. It doesn’t go the way he plans. The world depicted is metaphorical but reflects our money-obsessed culture.
8. WHITE BEAR (Season 2, Episode 2)
A woman wakes up in a housing complex with no memory of who or where she is. She becomes hunted by psychopaths while the rest of the populace simply records the savagery on their phones. Random images of her past life flash through her brain, but she cannot sort them out. In the end (spoiler alert!), it is revealed that she and her deceased boyfriend tortured and murdered a girl, and now every day, after she has endured this reality-show exploitation, her brain gets zapped, and she reawakens into another cycle of fear. It’s a deranged premise that could transpire, although inevitably the criminal would suffer some sort of stroke or heart attack. More frightening is the idea that there would be an audience for this–Fear Factor taken to a horrifying new level.
9. THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF YOU (Season 1, Episode 3)
In a future where contact lenses can record everything onto chip implants in our head (“grain” technology), our actions can be shared and scrutinized—before our eyes or on TV screens—with everyone from national security personnel to our inner circle. When a man suspects his wife of cheating, he wants to probe into her painful past by forcing her to relive it. In an age of body cams, and with Sony, Google and Samsung racing to develop contact lenses than can record video, this scenario is not that far off. Sometimes it’s just better to have the real memories rather than recorded ones, and sometimes the hard truth of specific memories is too traumatic to deal with.
10. METALHEAD (Season 4, Episode 5)
In this tale of A.I. literally run amok, a quick-witted forager flees from a homicidal robotic “dog” in a world where machines are wiping out humankind one by one. It’s a scenario that’s been envisioned for decades, with robots becoming a bigger part of our society. It would not take sentient AI to achieve such a holocaust; human error, or design, could lead to this.
11. HATED IN THE NATION (Season 3, Episode 2)
Following the bizarre, high-profile deaths of two public figures, authorities suspect the manipulation of ADIs (Autonomous Drone Insects) that have been created to replace the essentially extinct honeybee population. But who is manipulating them, and why? As far as the plausibility factor, nanotechnology has become a reality, bees are becoming endangered and hackers have certainly become craftier. Killer bees were a real, if now laughable, fear in the late ‘70s. A digital swarm controlled by humans is a far more terrifying concept. Regardless, hacking gone haywire is a very valid concern. Just look at our recent election.
12. MEN AGAINST FIRE (Season 3, Episode 5)
The army is waging war against the “roaches"–humans who have become mutated and can spread their infectious disease. To aid in their cleansing efforts, soldiers have chips implanted in their heads that help with their military skills, plan out raids and even watch live drone footage. But when one soldier’s chip starts to go bad, he sees the world differently because, as it turns out, the army is using software that literally alters the way he perceives things. This type of technology certainly is more than just a Hollywood CGI fantasy, and the moral implications are staggering.
13. BE RIGHT BACK (Season 2, Episode 1)
After the death of her husband, a pregnant woman signs up for a service that at first allows you to message your lost loved ones through a service that generates responses based on catalogued e-mails. But things escalate to a creepier level when she orders a malleable android that can look and be trained to act like him. Except it isn’t the real thing. The idea of the IM service is not far-fetched at all. The android? Well, 3D printing keeps evolving fast. The reality of grief being channeled into digital wish-fulfillment? Probably a temptation we should avoid but which bereaved individuals would certainly indulge in.
14. PLAYTEST (Season 3, Episode 2)
A young American backpacking across America runs out of cash in England and needs to find a way to save more money to get home. His salvation arrives when he gets the chance to become a guinea pig for a company testing out a new virtual reality game that exploits one’s greatest fears in a spooky mansion setting. Naturally, the outcome is not good. VR is nowhere near being able to read our minds, but the possibility of such technology going awry and scrambling our brains is not an unlikely idea. For now, though, this falls into the realm of techno fantasy.
15. USS CALLISTER (Season 4, Episode 1)
A socially awkward and romantically challenged game designer creates his own personal, offline version of his popular galactic space game by re-making it in the image of his favorite '60s show Star Fleet (read: Star Trek). But all his crewmates are digital clones of office mates created from swiped DNA. He is god in this world, and can order and abuse them as he likes, and they feel pain when they defy him. We do not yet know if AI can register feelings and emotions the way that humans do, and the legal ramifications of robot personhood present us with another hurdle.
16. CROCODILE (Season 4, Episode 3)
In this episode, insurance claims are investigated through the use of a machine that can record witness memories of events through a digital device, and a woman who has killed her former lover near an accident scene is at risk of being exposed. Once again, technology that can tap into our thoughts seems like a long way off, unless we’re talking about contact lenses with recording capabilities. But if that tech does arrive, it will be both promising and ominous.
17. SAN JUNIPERO (Season 3, Episode 4)
Two college-aged women, one a closeted lesbian and the other a secure bisexual, begin a romance on the island of San Junipero that crosses over decades without either getting older. We ultimately learn (major spoiler) that the two women are both elderly ladies restricted by real-life health issues who have chosen to sample a virtual-reality environment where they could live beyond death in their youthful state. This is the only Black Mirror episode with a positive ending, although the implications are still staggering. Would you want to live eternally young in a singular setting?
18. BLACK MUSEUM (Season 4, Episode 6)
While her solar-powered car charges, a young woman visits an isolated museum of cyber crime whose proprietor tells her horrific tales of digital lives ruined by technology that allows us to transfer human consciousness into machines or even other bodies. "Black Museum” makes it look like a terrible idea. (As it deals with similar technology, this story references the “San Junipero” episode.)
19. WHITE CHRISTMAS (Season 2 special episode)
Two alienated men who have been secluded in a cabin for five years face the prospect of a chilly Christmas in more ways than one. When they finally start to open up about their past sins, we delve into stories that deal with nightmarish technology scenarios: the ability to coach someone through real-life situations; the possibility of blocking people from your life so that you appear scrambled to them; the ability to clone a person’s mind through an implanted chip to exploit them in an AI environment. While the first scenario is feasible (that could be achieved through Google Glass and a small earpiece), the question of sentient AI remains debatable. And if it does come to pass, Skynet is going to be a real bitch to take down.