Warning: spoilers ahead for some of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s final endings.
Almost as soon as Netflix’s interactive Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch hit the streaming service on December 28th, internet detectives were racing through the story, trying to map the branches and discover all the available endings to the choose-your-own-adventure narrative. And shortly after that, viewers began taking to social media with mostly joking complaints about the resolutions they didn’t get, from a Colin / Stefan romance to a “surgery on a grape” meme ending someone was gaslighted into expecting. Above all, viewers have repeatedly wished for a purely happy ending to the story — something series creator Charlie Brooker has only rarely provided with his other Black Mirror episodes.
“This didn’t end the way I wanted it to” is a common enough complaint for any story in any medium, but audiences may feel particularly jilted at not getting their way in a story that provides them with so many different options. A movie, TV show, or play that leads all its characters to ruin may make that tragic ending feel inevitable, but Bandersnatch’s many-endings syndrome suggests that no particular ending is definitive or necessary, and that audiences have some control — no matter how much the Bandersnatch characters or narrative remind us that free will is an illusion. So we took a little time to talk about what we expected from Bandersnatch, what we actually got, and what we most wanted out of this story.
Tasha: Back in October, when we got the first hints that Bandersnatch was coming, I semi-joked that Netflix might use the choose-your-own-adventure format to definitively prove whether the majority of Black Mirror viewers preferred the gutting endings of episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits” or “White Bear,” or comparatively upbeat, hope-filled endings like the ones in “San Junipero” or “USS Callister.” Fans have, inevitably, complained about both kinds of endings — some people find the dark ones too cynical, some find the uplifting ones a little cloying. That’s fine, no story can please everyone. But I thought Bandersnatch might come close, since it gives everyone the option to find their own level, and decide for themselves which is the “right” ending.
Let’s start with that — did any of the Bandersnatch endings feel particularly right or definitive or powerful to you? Did the structure of this story devalue the different endings by turning them into game achievements you’re working to uncover, or did this end up feeling like a meaningful story?
Adi: “Bandersnatch gets five stars, it’s pulped because Stefan murdered his dad, but Colin’s daughter remakes it in the future” felt definitive to me. It had a satisfying payoff, and it reinforced Bandersnatch’s fourth-wall-breaking weirdness. I liked the encouragement to rewind and uncover other endings, though, and the “looping multiple realities” framing that acknowledged you’d seen parts of the story before.
I just wish some of the options — like the minor variations of Stefan going to jail and Bandersnatch being either mediocre or unreleased — hadn’t felt so repetitive, because it dulled the fun of hunting down different paths. I’d rather have seen either fewer, more unique endings, or endings that built toward some larger conclusion.
Tasha: For me, the time-travel train ending felt a little more definitive, because it wraps Stefan’s guilt and sense of failure up into such a neat package, and makes sense of a backstory that might otherwise feel pretty irrelevant and random. That said, it appears to owe a little too much to the weird director’s-cut ending of The Butterfly Effect, another movie about time travel, dark choices, and ugly inevitabilities built out of childhood. At least it’s startling and daring, more so than the initial abortive endings Stefan rejects and rewinds past. While I really liked the mechanic of Stefan rejecting his early endings and learning from them, I can see why the narrative could only push that idea so far while building on the rewinds.
But I’m the kind of person who always used to cheat on Choose Your Own Adventure book, playing it straight the first few run-throughs, then finally just flipping through the books to see all the endings I missed. Given that approach (I did something similar with Bandersnatch, using the online guides to get to every ending I could, eventually by starting over and fast-forwarding a lot), in a way I feel like the whole project is the “definitive ending,” that Bandersnatch as a holistic many-threaded story about choice and paths not taken is a much more interesting project than any one conclusion. That said, did you end up wanting any particular directions or conclusions that just aren’t options?
Adi: I wish they’d taken “the whole project is the definitive ending” more literally, so finding enough endings would somehow break the experience — like a meta-ending for people who methodically approach Bandersnatch like a game. Our colleague TC Sottek suggested the film should force people to endlessly cycle through choices about their Netflix viewing preferences, which is implicitly the real goal of the episode anyway.
I never expected a happy ending, because the overall tone felt fairly downbeat. But the episode might have played more with Stefan and his viewers having different definitions of a “good” result. I could see a path where Stefan is very happy, for instance, but in a way that’s deliberately boring and unsatisfying for us. Or maybe I’m interpreting Bandersnatch as darker than it really is?
Tasha: I mean, Black Mirror has always been so grim that it’s sometimes a little laughable. I’d argue that the best episodes (like “Fifteen Million Merits”) earn that grimness thematically and narratively, and the worst (like “Arkangel”) shoehorn it in. Sometimes the writers seem to think misery connotes respectability and narrative power, no matter how they get to that misery. In an episode this self-examining and reflexive, this preoccupied with directly asking the audience what makes a good story (more mindless, irrational action? Click on “Fuck yeah” to continue), I think there would have been room for a purely happily-ever-after ending, if only so Brooker and his team could examine the idea, and comment on whether it even fits into their worldview.
I wouldn’t have minded an ending where Stefan gets everything he wants, and comments on that, the way he comments on other story twists — maybe where he considers whether a flawless victory really feels as satisfying. It’d feel like the ultimate Black Mirror knife-in-the-back twist if he had an easy perfect ending early on and just couldn’t buy into the reality of it, and he ended up rejecting it and going back to an earlier branch, looking for something that challenged him or that felt real. (Like the theoretical people in The Matrix who couldn’t buy into a utopia, and kept rejecting it until their AI overlords gave them a flawed, nightmare world.)
Adi: That would also have been great commentary on Bandersnatch’s straightforward use of the “only miserable and insane people can make good art” trope.
Tasha: Yeah, that is just such a weird thing for any film or TV show to claim. It feels like a self-own. Are Black Mirror’s creators implying that they also are emotionally shattered people battling mental illness, or alternately that Black Mirror is facile, unsatisfying 0/5 art because it was created by sane people? It’s certainly not my favorite overused trope. Were there any other endings or branches you really felt like you were missing?
Adi: To be fair, ambiguous self-loathing is a pretty normal theme for the show, right up there with technology making us emotionally stunted narcissists.
At one point I imagined making a “historical Black Mirror” with hyperbolic cautionary tales around old tech, like an Edison-era episode where light bulbs illuminate people’s flaws so they can’t stand seeing each other. I would have enjoyed a whole Bandersnatch setup in that vein, about ‘80s computing technology driving society into madness. The interactive media format would funnel all your innocuous life choices into elaborate nightmare conclusions where Walkmen or ZX Spectrum computers ruined your life.
Instead, I guess Bandersnatch is about how the literal concept of interactive media will ruin your life, which is at least an appropriately sweeping critique for a Black Mirror episode.
Tasha: That sounds like the meta, self-reflective version of Black Mirror talking, but I also think a straight, non-meta twist on the same idea, where Stefan releases his own madness into the world in the form of a game, and it drives everyone who plays it insane, would be pretty interesting — and very Black Mirror 1984, given that it would be yet another “technology gonna kill us all” story. But now I’m just spitballing. That ending sounds potentially fun, but I don’t think Bandersnatch feels incomplete because it didn’t take that path.
Adi: I was fine sticking to Stefan’s personal story, and interactive full-motion video is tough, so adding lots of off-the-wall endings would be a big request. But I do think Bandersnatch could have pushed existing paths like the conspiracy scenario further. I’d hoped the branch where you basically pull a phone number from Stefan’s subconscious would result in something weirder than just calling his therapist, for instance.
Tasha: Personally, I’m fine with the amount of weird we got. This is a science fiction horror story, and the surreal and speculative elements worked into the story fit just fine for me — but Bandersnatch lost a little of its narrative credibility for me with endings like the “fight the therapist” branch, which just felt like goofy meta-narrative for humor’s sake, rather than a viable Black Mirror story ending.
If anything, I might have been interested in more mundane, believable, down-to-earth branches that made us work a little harder to get to the really outré stuff. That might have implied a completely different theme, about the possibilities that are out there for all of us. Acknowledging the grimly realistic idea that a lot of our real-life paths lead to pretty mundane and predictable ends — and then torquing that to imply that if we just make the exact right choices, any of our lives could fly off the handle and lead to murder, madness, and magic — might not be as bleak and dour as Brooker likes to go. But it’d make for an interesting promise to the audience, and an invitation to consider their own life choices very, very carefully.