Warning: contains plot spoilers for every episode listed.
Never having lost his critic’s ability to skewer a TV show in one perfect line, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker does a recurring, self-deprecating bit about what audiences expect from his show. “A man frowning at a translucent phone and going ‘aaah, I’ve just deleted my own leg!’’’, he’ll say in a funny voice. In essence, that’s what people think Black Mirror is – sleek future technology meets lives falling apart.
Not always. Below are the Black Mirror episodes you can watch that won’t leave you with a pounding sense of doom or an unsettling image of the prime minister balls deep in your Sunday roast.
Believe it or not, here are Black Mirror’s feel-good installments. Spoilers!
USS Callister (season 4, episode 1)
Director: Toby Haynes
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel
Yes, a child suffocates in deep space, his father burns to a screaming death and a load of people are imprisoned and mutilated, but all that aside, “USS Callister” is a bouncing romp. It starts fun, goes dark, and then ends on a gleeful heel-kick moment. A feel-good Black Mirror episode? This is it.
Granted, the ending doesn’t feel good for the baddie of the piece, who’s left comatose and trapped inside a virtual world of his own creation, but that’s all the more fun for us. Seeing Jesse Plemons’ reprehensible tyrant jumping up and down in frustration because he can no longer play with his toys/the real-people consciousnesses he kidnapped and tortured is delightful stuff.
Daly is the programmer of hit massive multiplayer online roleplay game Infinity. He’s also a twisted megalomaniac who enacts grotesque revenge against petty real-life slights using a version of his virtual world modded to recreate his favorite retro TV show, Star Trek–clone “Space Fleet.” Into this world of swooning mini-skirted groupies and cartoony space creatures, he uploads and toys with stolen copies of his colleagues’ consciousnesses.
When clever newcomer Nanette (Cristin Milioti) devises an escape plan that involves an old-fashioned against-the-clock chase across space, it’s a joyful turnaround. Freed of Daly’s whims, the crew of the USS Callister emerge into a wonderful online world of possibilities – and genitals! The whiny, dangerous man-baby’s power is taken away, and he’s replaced in the captain’s seat by a kickass, capable woman. Aye aye Nanette!
San Junipero (season 3, episode 4)
Director: Owen Harris
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Roundly acknowledged as the episode Black Mirror swapped screaming nihilism for tender poignancy, “San Junipero” was a turning point. Like “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History Of You” or “Be Right Back,” it’s a love story; unlike them, it doesn’t end in bleak separation. The same consciousness-uploading technology used to imprison people in “White Christmas” instead offers a second chance. This is tech not as an instrument of torture, but as means of connection.
Mackenzie Davis plays Yorkie, an awkward twenty-something lesbian struggling to cut loose in the party town of San Junipero. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Kelly – outgoing, bisexual and sure of what she wants, or rather, what she doesn’t want. Kelly’s in town to have fun, no strings attached.
When Kelly and Yorkie fall in love, strings attach. They share the secret of who they really are – a decades-long coma patient and a terminally ill septuagenarian. We learn that San Junipero isn’t just a party town, but a virtual simulation with a choice of period settings where consciousnesses can go to relive their youth indefinitely.
It’s not paradise for everybody. For some residents, a nostalgic life without end quickly loses meaning. For Yorkie though, confined to a hospital bed since the age of 21 and cut off by her family because of her sexuality, it’s a first chance to really live. When Kelly proposes to Yorkie, and chooses a new start with a new love over the nothingness she’d condemned herself to, it’s romance itself, and Black Mirror’s first happy ending.
Striking Vipers (season 5, episode 1)
Director: Owen Harris
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Beharie
Not much is giddy about this sober, pensive episode. Its drama largely plays out in the mind of taciturn lead Danny (Anthony Mackie), whose ageing body lacks energy and agility, and whose loving marriage lacks the irresponsibility and excitement of youth. Director Owen Harris strikes a contemplative tone as we see Danny listless at work and at home.
When Danny enters a virtual reality fighting game with an old college roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) though, his life is all color and buzz. As avatar Lance, he feels fast, strong, ripped, and intensely attracted to his female opponent Roxie, the VR avatar controlled by his male best friend, Karl. The two start a passionate virtual affair that plays out against a series of videogame backdrops – mountain-top temples, paradisiacal beaches, city skyscrapers – they bonk each other’s brains out in all of them.
The sexual identity and marriage crisis Danny experiences as a result of his VR woman on the side isn’t the uplifting part in “Striking Vipers,” that comes right at the end with the pragmatic solution reached. As grown-ups who love each other, Danny, his wife Theo, and Karl land upon a solution: a once-a-year night off from the binds of marriage, in which Theo (Nicole Beharie) can indulge her desire for anonymous one night-stands, and Danny and Karl can virtually go at it hammer and tong, and everybody gets a happy ending.
Nosedive (season 3, episode 1)
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Alice Eve, Cherry Jones, James Norton
One of the lighter and funnier eps of Black Mirror is this nightmarish vision of a world where individuals can rate each other, and see each other’s rating through an eye implant. Bryce Dallas Howard’s social climber Lacie is the focus, who’s trying to bag a 4.5 rating to secure a luxury apartment. Her mission is to deliver the perfect maid of honor speech at the wedding of her highly rated childhood friend, but after a planes, trains, and automobiles style series of unfortunate events she ends up crashing the wedding, weilding a knife, getting downgraded to a one star rating and ending up in jail.
Doesn’t sound all that uplifting? Actually it really is. Satirizing social media’s obsession with likes and follows (as well apps like Peeple and China’s impending Social Credit System), “Nosedive” is played for laughs and comes with the message: stop worrying about what strangers think of you and life will be so much better all round. The episode closer is positively joyful as Lacie, now stripped of the rating system all together, euphorically exchanges insults with the bloke in the cell opposite. It’s a celebration of the freedom that comes with not giving a crap.
Hang The DJ (season 4, episode 4)
Director: Timothy Van Patten
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Gwyneth Keyworth, George Blagden
Ok maybe not quite as lovely as “San Junipero,” “Hang The DJ” was still season four’s sweetest most romantic episode with a double hit ending that was uncharacteristically positive about the future tech it imagined. Centred around a terrifying dating colony, where a voice called ‘Coach’ tells users who to date and for exactly how long ‘the system’ claims to be a fool proof way of eventually matching people with their soul mates. Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) meet and find they have a real connection but Coach insists their relationship last just 12 hours. Both move on to other lovers but eventually find their way back to each other and break out of “the system” only to discover they were part of a simulation, run by an online dating app to determine users’ compatibility in the real world. The Frank and Amy simulations rebel and break out of the system to be together 998 out of 1000 times, we learn, meaning they’re 99.8 percent matched.
Not only is this a bright, romantic outlook on love and humanity, but it’s also a super positive vision of what a dating app could look like. Not the scary dystopian tech of some episode, but a sweet way to facilitate meaningful relationships.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (season 5, episode 3)
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Starring: Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport
Not particularly uplifting if you work in the music industry perhaps, but this episode from the most recent season starring Miley Cyrus as a pop star (don’t worry, she’s very good in it) has a great message and a rocking happy ending. Cyrus is Ashley O, a somewhat cookie cutter starlet who releases a doll called Ashley Too who delivers glib motivational soundbites to her young fans, including Angourie Rice’s lonely teenager Rachel. Rachel’s alt-rock fan sister Jack isn’t convinced though and hides the doll until it’s announced the real Ashley is in a coma, reportedly because of a shellfish allergy. But it was no allergy… instead Ashley’s evil aunt and manager has poisoned her after she discovers Ashley’s desire to move into darker territory and refusal to be controlled. It’s up to Rachel, Jack, and newly sentient Ashley Too to save the day.
Satirizing and condemning the harmful effects of a cynical pop industry, both to the talent and the fans, by the end “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” turns into a joyful romp as the girls (and newly cheeky, gobby talking doll) rush to rescue Ashley. Out of the coma and she’s finally able to make the music she wants. As opposed to the cheesily re-written version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” she sings earlier in the ep (‘So full of energy and verve, I’m going to get what I deserve’ trills Ashley O perkily) she can rock out to the real lyrics with Jack on bass and Rachel and Ashley Too watching happily, the sisters now reunited and able to be who they truly are, too.