Black Mirror: Bandersnatch [SPOILERS]

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All I wanted for Christmas, it turns out, was a new Black Mirror episode. And boy, did they deliver.

(Note: Spoilers ahead, obviously)

I normally don’t do reviews of movies or TV shows – I just watch and enjoy them. This one’s a special occasion though: between the compelling story and the sophisticated framework used to deliver it, I got sucked right in. It’s a proper work of art, really.

Bandersnatch follows a boy (Stefan) developing a game in time for Christmas, based on a choose-your-own-adventure book. The first bit of self-reference: As the viewer, you’re getting to choose your own adventure in this story about a boy building a choose-your-own-adventure game.

Depending on the choices you make, you can end up at a total of 11 endings (that I’ve found). Some of the choices are inconsequential, others are inflection points that you can keep coming back to. All told, it took me a good four hours to explore as much as I did.

Just one part of a massive flowchart

The story itself is something of a departure from Black Mirror’s last few seasons. The recurring theme has always been the dark side of technology, but in Bandersnatch the technology plays a limited role (making it easier to set in the 80’s).

Instead, this is a story about the limitations of choice and free will – a refreshing departure from the season 4 tropes, and a very compelling one at that. Considering the implications of free will vs predestination is a favorite philosophical past time, after all!

The story really contains everything: Nostalgia, callbacks, easter eggs, self-referential humor, man-vs-author, bringing the ARG into the real world, you name it. And then the references to other Black Mirror episodes:

White Bear: The symbol used in the original episode features prominently, as does the theme: The main character trapped in a script written by somebody else, forced to endure a horrible experience for the entertainment of others.

Nosedive, Metalhead: Referenced as games within the story itself.

Playtest: One of the endings is a callback to the entire horror-mansion experience Cooper went through, and the revelation at the end that he was still in the testing room the whole time.

There’s loads of other references and hidden easter eggs: Like the fact that Bandersnatch was an actual game, which failed when the studio went bankrupt in 1984. There’s an implied connection between Tuckersoft and TCKR Systems, the fictional company that ends up producing the crazy technologies in season 3 onwards. One of the endings features a news crawler that’s loaded with headlines from across other episodes.

Picture: Netflix

What fascinates me more than the story though, is the way the story was designed and delivered. Being able to explore multiple outcomes is already quite a feat in itself, especially since they all tie together in some way – so that’s some really good writing and planning.

And then there’s the technical aspect. Not only does the Netflix player need to cache multiple potential outcomes (so that you get a smooth streaming experience regardless of your choices), but I found out that it’s also remembering how many times you’ve been through each choice, which can affect the way the story turns out.

These are all the endings I’ve found. While I’ve taken the trouble to map out all the decisions that lead to them, that would just kill any exploration you might otherwise do on your own – so they’ll stay my secret 😉

Most of the endings are reviews – a TV show in which a presenter critiques the game. Possible outcomes:

  • Zero stars, with the game being “too short”
  • The presenter rattling off a litany of synonyms for how bad it is, with the scene ending abruptly
  • The presenter notes that the developer “gave up halfway through” and “went on autopilot” for the remainder
  • A successful, 5 stars out of 5 review, followed by a cut to a modern-day news broadcast about how the creator of the game was arrested for murder, and the game is being re-built by Colin Ritman’s daughter
  • A 2.5 star rating noting the “grisly backstory”
  • The first “team-based” game from Tuckersoft feels like it was designed by committee.

Then there’s an ending where the game company (Tuckersoft) collapses, with 3 variations:

  • Stefan’s father is dead
  • Stefan’s father and Colin Ritman are dead
  • Stefan’s father and Mohan Thakur are dead

Other endings:

  • Stefan dies without warning, and it turns out most of the story was just a vivid last-moments-before-death dream
  • It turns out Stefan is just an actor on a film set

My other favorite little detail: In all story branches you end up with a documentary about the book’s author. When the documentary starts, there’s a TV ad that plays right before – which ad it is depends on the cereal you choose at the start.

There might still be more endings and variations, but I feel like I’ve explored this one quite enough to be satisfied. If you dive into it, let me know what you think!

Review: The OA

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My god, what a letdown.

The OA follows the story of a blind girl that went missing for seven years, and mysteriously reappeared with her sight restored, weird scars on her body, and an obsession with trying to find one of her old friends.

(Spoiler alert, duh)

Firstly, I love the atmosphere of this story, or: stories. There’s the A story, which takes place in the real-world present-day, where The OA is trying to cope after being rescued, and is desperately trying to get back somewhere. Most of the A story involves her gathering a group of followers and telling them her story – the B story.

The B story is where the magic happens – literally. In the B story, she’s the unfortunate orphan of a Russian billionaire, sent to America under a new name, and who ends up living with her aunt in squalid conditions, before eventually being rescued by a kind American couple who adopt her.

If that sounds like a superhero origin story, it is. If it reminds you a lot of Jupiter Jones’ backstory in Jupiter Ascending, it should, since it’s cribbed more or less word-for-word, including the Russian heritage.

The B story does get better from there, though, and I really enjoyed the way they explored the afterlife. In the B story, she travels to New York, following her visions to reunite with her father, but nothing comes of it. She does meet a kind stranger, a scientist researching Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), and agrees to take part in his study.

This whole section of the B story feels like 10 Cloverfield Lane, with some mad science thrown in, and one NDE later, The OA starts down a path of uncovering a mystical power based entirely in a very Sadler Wells-esque dance routine. Watching it sort of reminded me of this abnormality, at first.

There are two parts of this show I thoroughly enjoyed. In the B story, I loved the merging of science and mysticism, the idea of an afterlife, parallel universes that could be navigated by harnessing natural energy. I loved that they had “common”, every-day medical professionals doing this research, totally in secret – a world behind the world.

And in the A story, I loved the disciple aspect, with The OA uniting five very disparate people, and through her story and convictions alone, fundamentally changing the nature of that group.

The A story alone is worth an exploration in and of itself. No magic happens here, no weirdness, no proof of anything she’s telling us in the B story, but it’s enough to get her five disciples hooked – and eventually to risk their lives in the finale, despite them finding compelling evidence that she simply made the whole B story up.

Could be a great allegory about man’s need to believe in something in the great beyond, even in the face of physical evidence to the contrary.

The finale was the best/worst I’ve ever seen in the show. It was the best in that, it executed a realistic, terrifying scenario with absolute precision. They re-created a scenario every bit as tense as the 9/11 attacks, and tapped into the latent nightmares of basically any parent or school child.

And then they crapped all over it, building to an inspiring final act that completely deflated, unraveling the entire A story. They had an opportunity to do something really awesome, to have the A and B stories overlap, bring some of that mysticism into the present-day, and poke at the fabric of reality as they did so.

Which they did not, and instead made the disciples out to look like complete idiots, with none of their actions contributing to resolving the issue they thought they might have resolved, and out of nowhere, The OA gets shot by a stray bullet.

I mean, what?

In the end, The OA left me feeling disappointed. It became a story less about the afterlife, and more about what a group of people are willing to do based solely on the words of one damaged, but compelling, individual.