So what’s it going to be, folks: Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes?
That’s the first choice you have to make in Bandersnatch, the Black Mirror stand-alone “event” — basically a movie, possibly the show’s fifth season en toto — that dropped 11th-hour–ishly into Netflix queues at the beginning of the weekend. It’s an innocuous decision, really: A British video-game nut named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) wakes up one July morning in 1984, pads down the stairs and joins his dad (Craig Parkinson) at the breakfast table. The young man is going to pitch Tuckersoft, the company where his hero, the boy-wonder designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) works, a new idea for a game. It’s based on his favorite sci-fi novel Bandersnatch; like the source material, his game allows for multiple storylines and resolutions. And like the man behind this epic tome, the late writer Jerome F. Davies — who bears no resemblance to any real-life authors with a fondness for complex narratives and hallucinogens, no siree — Stefan may be courting madness by going down this particular rabbit hole.
First, however, our hero has to pick what he’s going to eat. His father gives him two options: Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes (called Frosties here, because England). And at the bottom of your screen, each of these names show up. That’s right, viewer: You have to make the call on what Stefan eats. You have 10 seconds. Does the protagonist go with the Honey Monster or Tony the Tiger? Come on, click on one. Quit stalling.
(This is a review, so unless you’re completely new to how all of this usually works, spoilers are about to follow. Choose wisely. In the spirit of the episode: If you’d like to read a version of this review without spoilers and an alternate, far more upbeat ending, you can click here.)
What Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, his partner-in-crime Annabel Jones, director David Slade and, by extension, Netflix — who overhauled their technology to accommodate this experiment — have given us is a breakthrough of sorts in interactive entertainment. This is not the first Choose-Your-Own-Adventure narrative to jump from the pages of vintage kid’s lit onto screens; it’s not even the first TV-related project in the past year to hand the audience the storytelling wheel and let them drive. But it’s arguably the most ambitious attempt to date to sell this concept, on such a grand platform and with such a prominent corporate name attached. In a way, it makes perfect sense that it was the popular U.K. anthology show, the same one that’s warned of how that bright, shiny new piece of “breakthrough” tech may not be the answer to your problems (and may, in fact, be the harbinger of something much more nightmarish), that made it happen. With the possible exception of The Good Place, no other currently running TV series is so well-suited to guide fans down so many different decisive paths, parallel timelines and frustrating dead ends.
What breakfast cereal Stefan gulps down is just the tip of the interactive-viewing iceberg. The choice of Walkman soundtrack — Thompson Twins or a NOW compilation — comes next, and like the inaugural X-or-Y? call, the results are negligible. (It affects what TV commercial he sees and what answer he gives Colin regarding his musical preferences, respectively.) But almost every other decision he, or rather you/we, make has serious consequences. Some of the results involve coming to terms with a deep-seated trauma from the lad’s past. Others involve acid trips, government conspiracies, stuffed bunnies, extreme paranoia, prog-rock, success, failure, suicide, homicide, decapitated heads and the answer as to why a hungry yellow orb is named “Pac-Man.” There are five “endings.” One is bittersweet. One involves an intriguing fast-forward to the present day. And one turns a meta-conclusion that’s drowned out by the sound of its own brand-extension backpatting.
How you get to any of those climaxes involves an endless number of tangents, detours, alternate routes and cluttered side streets. If you exceed the 10-second limit, or suffer from the paralysis of indecision, Netflix picks for you. Occasionally, the narrative allows for course-correction and either steers viewers around to the “right” answer or offers a “Go back” option. And after strolling down each pathway and negotiating all of the roughly five hours of footage, you may find yourself impressed by the two years of effort it took to construct this replication of video-game storytelling, Borges-lite trickery, chin-stroking musings about audience complicity and formal innovation.
Or you may be like us and find yourself circling back to a single word: Why?
Because at the end(s) of Bandersnatch, after all of the in-jokes and Easter Eggs and peeked-into corners and deeply explored crannies, you discover that it’s really all about the journey and not the destination. The medium is genuinely the message here, and for those that would like a message beyond “we now have the capability to do this!”, you have to make the decision between “um, ok, then” and “you’re shit outta luck, son.” Whether you consider Black Mirror the second coming of The Twilight Zone or nothing but technophobe onanism — we fall on the side on wide-eyed fandom — Brooker & Co.’s series has often predicated itself on diving into the flipsides of Pentium-fueled Progress 2.0. You want to record your memories? Or preserve your loved one via android replicas? Or have your social ranking determined by social media? Or elect a trash-talking computerized cartoon character as your leader, because what a protest-vote goof that would be? The cost may be a worst-case scenario. Even the stand-out installments without Aesop-esque “morals” have left you questioning your own relation to dark, reflective surfaces you stare into on a daily basis.
Good, bad or ugly, the best Black Mirror episodes had takeaways — they left marks, sometimes scabs, other times scars. The only thought going through your head after finishing Bandersnatch is “Cool … [checks to see what else is streaming]”. The notion of a fine line between madness and genius, or that viewers feel actions more when they play puppetmaster (which is debatable — raise your hand if you’ve cried during a movie or TV show), or that you can tell a story a thousand different ways and sometimes fate deals you the same hand … you don’t need a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format for that. You don’t even need a cautionary tale involving human nature making tech run amuck to tell that tale.
But you do need a tale to tell, and Bandersnatch begins and ends at the telling. The Mirrors we return to again and again — “San Junipero,” “Black Museum,” “U.S.S. Callister,” the brilliantly bleak series-best entry “White Bear” — keep giving us new layers every time we look into them. This “event” gives us an admittedly unique experience but little to hold onto after the fact. It doesn’t even measure up to the bar the show itself has set. What’s the point of an interactive narrative if the story doesn’t matter? Once upon a time, we wished for the death of the author and decided we wanted the option of deciding on different beginnings, middles and endings on a whim. This particular Black Mirror does leave us with one very on-brand sentiment: Be careful what you wish for.