‘Black Mirror’ Episodes Ranked: Spoiler-Free Guide to Seasons 1-3

black mirror column
Design: Variety; Photos: Courtesy of BBC

When the new season of the futuristic drama series “Black Mirror” hits Netflix, uninitiated viewers may want to try a binge with a twist: why not watch the episodes out of order? The show’s anthology format means each episode tells a self-contained story, so starting with the very first hour isn’t even necessary.

Which may be a good thing because the series premiere is probably one of the more polarizing installments, generating as much hate as there is love. It’s just one example of what ardent fans of Charlie Brooker’s heavily hyped series may not tell you about “Black Mirror”: Brilliant as the show can be, some episodes are much better than others.

That’s why this spoiler-free ranking below could be a good guide before starting a binge of all 13 episodes. And if this highly subjective assessment is to be believed, don’t start with the new season either: none of these episodes even cracks my top five. Disagree? Make your opinion known in the comments section below the ranking.

13. The Waldo Moment (Season 2, Episode 3)
Strangely, the series’ weakest effort turns out to  be arguably the most prophetic “Black Mirror” episode, which tells an uninspired story vaguely reminiscent of the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump. But the premise — an irreverent cartoon character manages to make a viable run for higher office — proves too preposterous. Where this series typically succeeds is in making improbable stories believable, but the tone of the humor is so off here that “Waldo” collapses. Luckily, no other “Black Mirror” episode is quite as bad as this one.

12. Hated in the Nation (Season 3, Episode 6)
Injecting the “Black Mirror” sensibility into the traditional format of a crime-drama procedural may seem intriguing, but it doesn’t work this time around. Kelly Macdonald is wasted as a police detective leading an investigation into murders committed by an armada of insect drones. Give Brooker credit for taking on the very topical subject of how uncontrollable hatred spreads too easily on social media, but whatever interesting things he has to say gets confused by being interwoven with a seemingly disconnected critique of modern society’s surveillance state (courtesy of camera-equipped robo-bumble bees, no less). Episode is inexplicably near 90 minutes, about 20 minutes too long.

11. Shut Up and Dance (Season 3, Episode 3)
This episode is a classic example of “Black Mirror’s” ability to pull the rug out from under viewers with a plot twist that completely upends your sense of the story. “Dance” packs a doozy of a punch late in this tale of a mysterious software capable of blackmailing people by spying on their private moments. There’s some incredibly tense scenes in this hour of desperate individuals under enormous pressure, but that doesn’t quite paper over the fact that this is a rare episode that doesn’t seem to have anything particularly insightful to share about the world we live in. It’s OK to just deliver a good scare, but “Black Mirror” typically aims higher.

10. Nosedive (Season 3, Episode 1)
If “Black Mirror” were to ever license one of its episodes to broadcast television in a bid to broaden its appeal, “Nosedive” would be the one: It’s the most relatable, accessible episode Brooker has ever made. But that’s not really a compliment: “Nosedive” is way too on the nose in its attempt to take the conceit of how social media is just an endless popularity contest to the nth degree. Bryce Dallas Howard is wonderful as the pathetic protagonist constantly striving to win over her followers. But “Nosedive” commits one too many sins: It’s too predictable, and not disturbing enough.

9. San Junipero (Season 3, Episode 4)
“Black Mirror” opens its newest batch of episodes with perhaps the most satisfyingly daring tonal shift from the typical darkness permeating the rest of the series. “San Junipero” is practically Day-Glo bright thanks to a fun evocation of the 1980s era in which this romance between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis is set. Another daring move is that for most of the episode the story eludes comprehension, but rest assured it will have you thinking about the nature of identity in an era when the prospect of downloading your mind to a hard drive doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. Mbatha-Raw and Davis are big gets for this series, but their characters’ relationship doesn’t pack the emotional punch that this crowd-pleaser needs to truly shine. Profundity doesn’t have to be bleak, but this is barely middle-of-the-pack by the series’ high standards.

8. The National Anthem (Season 1, Episode 1)
It’s possible were it not for the audacious premise at the heart of “Black Mirror’s” very first episode, the show wouldn’t have caught on as big as it has. Seriously dramatizing the hilarious notion that the British prime minister could be forced to copulate with a pig on live TV to save the life of a kidnapped royal was a perfect calling card for a show that needs to clearly establish how radical it is. But here’s the thing: once you get past the premise, “Anthem” doesn’t really have as sharp a satirical hook as many of the other episodes in that first season had. No ensemble this sprawling has ever performed better than “Anthem” did in “Black Mirror’s” debut, but the show revealed greater depths elsewhere.

7. Playtest (Season 3, Episode 2)
If ever there was a “Black Mirror” episode that played like a straight horror film, “Playtest” is surely the one; it’s even partly set in a haunted house. It’s an unlikely location for a young backpacker (a terrific Wyatt Russell) spending his final days abroad earning some money testing a videogame that blows his mind, both literally and figuratively. The technology that powers the “Playtest” videogame is nowhere near on the horizon in real life but this episode will make you think hard about whether virtual reality and neurology may ever intersect. If they ever do, run in the other direction. “Playtest” will get your adrenaline pumping in the moment but won’t linger in your mind too long afterward.

6. Men Against Fire (Season 3, Episode 5)
The best episode of the third season works well enough because once you fully understand the technology powering its vision of futuristic warfare, you’ll be convinced some version of it is going to occur a few decades from now. But the simple pleasure of “Men Against Fire” is slowly figuring out why the depicted battalion operates the way it does. While it may be the weakest cast assembled  for a third season otherwise packed with good performances, Netflix brings in “House of Cards” veteran Michael Kelly who plays a slick military psychiatrist in just a few scenes, but they are the most memorable the episode has to offer, save the final minute, which is ambiguous but powerful.

5. White Christmas (Season 2, Episode 4)
By blending three episodes’ worth of interconnected stories into one installment, the ambitiousness of “White Christmas” is both its biggest asset and drawback. In taking on so much, the episode is bound to get some things wrong. Let’s start with what’s right: The format is an audacious triumph in how the three stories are loosely related and bookended by scenes that only make clear what the episode is all about at the very end. And Jon Hamm is dazzling beginning to end. But the second segment of the story falls spectacularly flat and a recurring bit regarding time compression in a story otherwise too complicated to explain coherently feels forced, which is really saying something by “Black Mirror’s” outlandish standards.

4. Be Right Back (Season 2, Episode 1)
Certainly the most touching “Black Mirror” episode, this meditation on technology’s ability to transcend mortality by bringing a loved one back to life will strum the heart strings. What’s impressive about “Be Right Back” is what an intimate story it tells in such close quarters, and yet great performances by Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleason beautifully render a story that could have played claustrophobic in the wrong hands. Social media is an issue that many “Black Mirror” episodes touch on, but “Be Right Back” is the one that best captures the skewed reflection given off by the Facebook accounts that define us all.

3. The Entire History of You (Season 1, Episode 3)
What if you could record your experience of life like a DVR, playing back in your mind everything you see? The tiny implant that enables this technology, known as the “grain,” may seem too slender a thread on which to hang an entire episode, but that’s why “The Entire History of You” is such a delight. You’ll find yourself at different points in the episode either wanting a “grain” or wishing you never heard of it. Strictly in terms of traditional story construction, this is far and away the best “Black Mirror” (no wonder Robert Downey Jr. optioned a film adaptation of the episode). “The Entire History of You” doesn’t boast a particularly compelling cast but the plot is such a well-built machine it doesn’t really matter.

2. White Bear (Season 2, Episode 2)
This psychological thriller may be the most terrifying original programming shown on U.S. TV in many, many years. A woman (Lenora Chrichlow) wakes up in a daze with no clue of who or where she is, bewildered by the fact that onlookers inexplicably record her wanderings from a distance with their smartphones. The sense of dread and confusion that gets expertly ratcheted up as the story progresses will not prepare you for the double twist that hits viewers like a pair of uppercuts before the ending. “White Bear” isn’t a perfect episode, and most other episodes in the series have more interesting things to say about the future, but the intensity of this story is unbearable in the best sense of the word.

1. Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1, Episode 2)
It’s the quintessential “Black Mirror” for a simple reason: It’s somehow both the craziest and most grounded episode at the same time. The bizarro world of “Fifteen Million Merits,” which might be best explained as what life would be like if you were forced to live inside a hybrid of a smartphone game and an “American Idol”-style singing competition, is a dystopian fever dream that makes “Idiocracy” look somber by comparison. And yet somehow the loony love story (featuring “Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Findlay Brown) that plays out in “Fifteen Million Merits” feels utterly believable, though were it explained here it would make no sense. Not everyone is going to love this episode, probably because it paints almost too grim a picture of the future to stomach. If ever there was a a “Black Mirror” episode that would compel you to take every technological device out of your house and bury them in a hole in the backyard, this would be the one.

Disagree? Vent in the comments section below; share your own “Black Mirror” episode ranking, too.

For more discussion of the new “Black Mirror” episodes, tune in below.