If you’ve never seen an episode of Black Mirror, it’s hard to explain what it’s about, but I’m gonna try. Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology show (with every episode currently streaming on Netflix) in which each episode focuses on a different set of characters and is set in a different world (although, the latter is up for debate), so there is no plot line or protagonist to tie the series together. Rather, the only through line in Black Mirror is the relationship between humans and technology, which the show often uses as a magnifying glass to emphasize the worst parts of human nature. It’s a dark, thought-provoking, frequently disturbing show, a sort of twisted near-future technological Twilight Zone that thrills in asking tough questions and subverting expectations.
There are three seasons of Black Mirror, totaling 13 episodes altogether (thanks, British television, for your tiny, tiny seasons). However, due to its nature of each episode being entirely self-contained, you can watch Black Mirror in literally any order you like.
While there is no wrong order in which to watch Black Mirror (although I would argue until my dying breath that the first episode of season one, “The National Anthem,” is a terrible introduction to the series), below is my recommended order, along with my spoiler-free reasons for why I put each episode where I did.
1. The Entire History of You (episode 1.3)
I’ve tried to kick off your Black Mirror experience with one of its quintessential episodes. While “The Entire History of You” is not, in my opinion, the best episode of Black Mirror, it ranks pretty high up there in terms of quality. But perhaps more importantly, it gives you a really solid introduction to the feel of the series. “The Entire History of You” follows a man living in a world where everyone possesses the technology to rewind and replay their memories like movies, who grows increasingly suspicious that his wife is cheating on him. This episode is perhaps one of the best examples of Black Mirror‘s mission statement to use its near-future light-sci-fi settings as a means to explore human nature, as the real problem in this episode is not with the technology, but with the relationship. It’s dark and unsettling, as most episodes of Black Mirror are, but if you find yourself drawn in by this episode, chances are you’ll be pleased with the series as a whole.
2. Nosedive (episode 3.1)
Coming off of the darkness of “The Entire History of You,” I thought it would be nice to follow it up with one of Black Mirror’s lighter episodes, the pastel-saturated “Nosedive.” This episode follows Lacie (played to perfection by Bryce Dallas Howard), a woman who has deeply bought into a society in which everything, from the jobs you can get to the apartments you can rent to the parties you get invited to, revolves around people upping their star ratings on an app that is eerily similar to the “Yelp for People” app that caused such an uproar last year. Lacie’s mission throughout the episode is to bring her rating up from a respectable, if unremarkable, 4.2, to an elite 4.5, but, as you can probably guess from the episode’s title, things don’t go entirely as planned. While this one is not as hard-hitting as other Black Mirror episodes, “Nosedive” is a humorous — yet at times, disturbingly familiar — examination of our society’s obsession with how we are perceived on social media, and the consequences of judging someone based on a tweet or a photo without considering the whole person.
3. Fifteen Million Merits (episode 1.2)
One of the reasons Black Mirror works so well — and can be so unsettling — is because so often its “15 minutes in the future” scenarios feel like things that could, realistically, happen, and that is terrifying. Such is the case with “Fifteen Million Merits,” which imagines a world in which most citizens spend each day pedaling stationary bikes in order to generate electricity, for which they earn “merits,” which can be exchanged for food, lodging, and the ability to skip commercials on the reality TV programming they are required to watch all day, every day. Those with the most merits can buy a chance to compete on one of these reality shows, but those fifteen minutes of fame are — as one would expect — not all they’re cracked up to be.
Now that you’re three episodes in (the equivalent of a full season) and you’ve acclimated to the unsettling world(s) of Black Mirror, this episode begins our true descent into the dark depths of this show. Either buckle up or bail out, folks, because the light fades quickly.
4. White Bear (episode 2.2)
I’ve tried to ease you in as best I can, but the kid gloves are fully off now. “White Bear” follows Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), a woman with no memory of her past or her identity, as she wakes up in a mysterious house, wanders outside, and finds herself surrounded by people recording her on their phones but refusing to help her, no matter how dire her situation becomes (and believe me, it becomes quite dire). This episode is tautly paced, with edge-of-your-seat thrills and twists that will leave you gasping, but while “White Bear” is pretty unanimously considered to be one of the strongest Black Mirror episodes, it’s also one of the most disturbing. Have a pet or stuffed animal ready to hug during the last act of this one, because you’re gonna need it.
5. The Waldo Moment (episode 2.3)
Coming off “White Bear,” your brain will need some time to decompress, so I’m sticking a filler episode (or as close as Black Mirror comes to a filler episode) in the next spot. “The Waldo Moment” is about the voice actor behind an off-putting cartoon bear that interviews politicians for a late-night comedy show, who, in a desperate bid for relevancy, decides to run for public office. While this episode is more or less forgettable based on its own merits, its themes — about the public’s willingness to flock to an empty candidate for frivolous reasons, and the dangerous muddling of politics and entertainment — may carry an uncomfortable bite in today’s current political climate.
6. Playtest (episode 3.2)
Now that you feel thoroughly squicky from the last three episodes, let’s change it up a bit with Black Mirror‘s version of a horror story. “Playtest” follows Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an affable traveler who, in an effort to earn the funds to get home, volunteers to try out a new virtual reality technology for a local video game company. The trial starts with an NDA and a “minor medical procedure” (red flags everywhere), before Cooper is introduced to a virtual reality gaming experience that is both unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and disturbingly easy to imagine will one day be our reality. The pacing on this episode is a little slow to start, some of the imagery is super creepy, and the twists are fairly predictable, but as Black Mirror episodes go, it’s still pretty fun.
7. White Christmas (episode 2.4)
We’re exactly halfway through our Black Mirror binge, which means it’s the perfect time for the first of the series’ two 90-minute episodes. “White Christmas” stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as Matt and Joe, two men snowed into their jobs at a remote outpost on Christmas morning, who decide to kill the time by opening up to each other about what they each did before taking their current jobs. Their stories are told in a series of three 30-minute vignettes, the first focusing on Matt’s personal life, the second on his professional one, and the third on a secret Joe has been keeping. While the tone of “White Christmas” is darkly witty, its exploration of truth, consequences, and humanity make it an expertly executed but deeply unsettling hour and a half of television.
Fair warning: despite this being Black Mirror‘s “Christmas episode,” I really do not recommend watching this on Christmas.
8. The National Anthem (episode 1.1)
I’m sorry, but I had to put this episode somewhere. “The National Anthem” is the first episode of the first season of Black Mirror, and to this day, I have no idea why. This is one of the few Black Mirror episodes that has nothing to do with technology, and instead deals entirely with the human obsession with sensationalism and depravity in entertainment. The premise is simple: a princess is kidnapped, and instead of a ransom, the kidnappers demand that she will only be released if the prime minister has sex with a pig on national television. There are some interesting moral and philosophical questions to be asked in this episode, for sure, but it’s hard to focus on those when you’re so thoroughly grossed out by the actual plot.
To be honest, I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped this one. But if you’re determined to watch them all, hopefully the momentum coming off of the masterful “White Christmas” will be enough to send you coasting through “The National Anthem,” and once you come out the other side, there is an excellent episode waiting for you as a reward.
9. Be Right Back (episode 2.1)
In my opinion, “Be Right Back” is the single best episode in the whole of Black Mirror, and thus is an excellent reward for making it through the stunning bleakness of “White Christmas” and the skin-crawling grossness of “The National Anthem.” “Be Right Back” follows Martha (Hayley Atwell), a young widow mourning the sudden death of her husband, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), and explores her dealing with her grief and the surprising consequences of Ash’s death — but, of course, with a technological twist. Domhnall Gleeson and Hayley Atwell are mesmerizingly perfect in a story that is beautiful yet haunting in its implications. This episode perfectly balances raw human emotion with Black Mirror’s characteristic “what if” scenario, and is a shining example of the show’s unique format being used to prime effect.
10. Men Against Fire (episode 3.5)
I wrestled with where to put the aggressively average “Men Against Fire” in this order, since it’s not bad enough to need to sandwich between two stellar episodes but not good enough to warrant any sort of power position. “Men Against Fire” follows soldiers fighting formerly-human creatures known as “roaches” that apparently mutated during a past war. With the aid of implants that allow them to better coordinate their strategy, the soldiers systematically clear villages of roaches and have their successes rewarded with good dreams. While this episode has some good and timely things to say about warfare and dehumanization, its twists are predictable, its pacing clunky, and its resolution unfocused. The best episodes of Black Mirror leave me thinking long after they end, but after “Men Against Fire,” I merely shrugged and moved on, which is why, for the purposes of this guide, I felt that using it as a sort of palate cleanser to bridge the strong emotions of “Be Right Back” and the pulse-pounding tension of “Hated in the Nation” was where it worked best.
11. Hated in the Nation (episode 3.6)
We’ve now come to the second of Black Mirror‘s 90-minute episodes, but where “White Christmas” was blackly comedic and structurally complex, “Hated in the Nation” is serious and straightforward. Black Mirror’s version of a police procedural, “Hated in the Nation” follows a pair of female detectives investigating a series of mysterious deaths where the only connection seems to be that the deceased individuals had been recently shamed on social media for their public transgressions. As far as Black Mirror episodes go, “Hated in the Nation” is solidly good, but not great. This episode flirts with asking some really tough questions about hashtag activism, public shaming, and accountability, but ultimately doesn’t ever scratch deep enough at any of those topics to draw blood. Still, it’s an exciting 90 minutes, spent with characters who are actually likable, so it’s not a burden to watch by any means. Plus there are killer robot bees, which is always a major selling point in my book.
12. Shut Up and Dance (episode 3.3)
We’re almost done! Which means it’s time for another emotional wallop, Black Mirror style. After two episodes that probably didn’t make you feel all that much, brace yourself, because this episode will send you through the wringer. Much like (the far inferior) “The National Anthem,” “Shut Up and Dance” doesn’t rely on any imagined technology (save a piece of malware that is so feasible, it doesn’t qualify as futuristic) and instead focuses on shame and coercion as its central themes. This episode follows Kenny (Alex Lawther), a shy teenager who becomes the victim of a blackmailing scheme executed via malware on his laptop. Throughout the episode, the hackers blackmailing Kenny send him on a series of increasingly baffling and upsetting errands, accompanied by another unfortunate fellow (Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn) who is also being blackmailed. I can’t say much more about this episode without being spoilery, so I’ll just say that “Shut Up and Dance” is a slow burn of mounting mystery and dread balanced with pulse-pounding tension, which — in true Black Mirror fashion — will leave you exhausted and needing to stare at a blank wall for a while when you’re done.
However, once you’ve recovered, please keep going, because there’s a treat waiting for you on the other side.
13. San Junipero (episode 3.4)
Are you still reeling from “Shut Up and Dance?” Well, I’ve got the perfect remedy for you. “San Junipero” is perhaps the least Black Mirror-esque episode of the bunch, which is why it’s going last. Much like a dish of berries and whipped cream after a heavy multi-course meal, “San Junipero” is sweet, refreshing, and a perfect way to end the dining (er, viewing) experience. This episode varies from the rest of the series in a few key ways. It opens in the 1980s, as opposed to the near- or far-future, it is a love story, and — most notably — it is completely free of the burden of bleakness that every other episode in the series carries. While Black Mirror revels in its dark twists, the most surprising thing about “San Junipero” is its optimism. And although “San Junipero” is not a perfect episode, with somewhat murky motivations and a plot that resolves a tad too conveniently, after the unrelenting darkness of the rest of the series, the kind of disbelief we are asked to suspend here is more than welcome. Coming off of those twelve episodes, you may have felt a little like you were staring straight into the dead eyes of humanity’s inevitable self-destruction, but closing your Black Mirror binge here will hopefully leave you feeling like perhaps we are not all doomed by technology and our own terribleness.
And there you have it, folks, all thirteen episodes of Black Mirror. Have you watched any or all of this show? Do you agree with my order, or would you shuffle the episodes around? What’s your favorite episode? And if you’ve never watched before and decide to give this order a try, please let me know how it goes!
I’d wish you all a happy binge-watch, but this is Black Mirror, so instead I’ll just give you this gif of a puppy stuck in a bowl for whenever you need to be reminded that there is still good in the world.