Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’: A Meta-Fictional Tale of Free Will
The most recent addition in the Black Mirror universe, ‘Bandersnatch’ (2018), is one of the most innovative yet. The episode is an interactive experimental game-like episode where viewers control the episode by selecting options presented at the bottom of the screen. Set in 1984, the episode follows Stefan, a troubled young computer programmer who is creating an interactive game based on the interactive choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by Jerome F. Davies (not a real book). This meta-fictional interactive game featuring a story about an interactive game based on an interactive novel takes meta-fiction to new extremes. Stefan grows increasingly aware that he is making decisions that are not controlled by himself, thus, addressing us as watcher directly.
We are constantly invited to make decisions which Stefan grows increasingly distressed over has he is aware he is not in control.
It is at this point that we, the viewer, not only are an active player in this narrative, but we become an active character too. We are invited in what way we can reveal ourselves to Stefan. I managed to watch all the different ways we can reveal ourselves, through communicating through his computer with a symbol, a reference to his own dream or by communicating directly that we are watching him through Netflix.
We become a real character within the episode narrative, but the levels meta-fiction do not stop there. In an article covering the episode, The Independent point out that the episode itself is an experiment on the viewer:
‘Viewers are voting on more than who lives and dies on one program. If the response to “Bandersnatch” is enthusiastic, Netflix will take it as a strong signal that the public is ready for interactive movies and television shows, and a new age of storytelling will commence’.
Netflix is using viewers responses to evaluate whether to continue releasing interactive media. Not only are we watching and controlling Stefan, Netflix is equally watching the viewer.
What would this mean for the next generation of Netflix viewing? In some ways it will turn the ‘self-hypnotising’ and binge-watching culture into something more engaged and interactive. However, it would equally hinder creative possibility for new narratives as Netflix would constantly demand more interactive narratives that would require a specific formulaic narrative structure. What started off as ground breaking ‘quickly turns […] to “genre-defining,” as the elements of the show found to be successful become repackaged and recycled by other television shows, expanding rather than destroying the formulaic and predictable nature of television’ (Nolan Gertz Nihilism and Technology 2018). Netflix does this all the time, but this episode especially can be seen as an experiment in instant feedback, or as David Streitfeld has noted: ‘what Netflix is really building is a voting machine’.
Additionally, we must consider really how interactive this episode is:
‘Since Black Mirror is always full of tricks, it’s perhaps inevitable that “Bandersnatch” undermines the whole notion of interactivity. The viewer is asked whether a murder should be committed, and if the answer is yes, there is a further decision: Bury the body or chop it up? It’s not much of a choice, which is of course the joke’.
Quite a few times throughout the episode, we make decisions that end up being ignored or counteracted. There is a scene where Stefan goes to Colin’s (a co-worker and famous computer game programmer) house where Colin offers Stefan acid. I have played that scene twice, one where I accepted and one where I rejected. When I rejected, all that happened was Colin slipped the acid in Stefan’s tea, and the rest of the scene played out as in the scene where I accepted. I also watched to possible outcomes during a visit to the therapists office, where my options where “yeah” or “FUCK YEAH”. The latter sees a spoof action sequence between Stefan and the therapist and ends in a “do-over” option. The first begins the spoof battle, but ends in Stefan trying to escape which, apparently, goes against the script.
We watch Stefan being told off by a director and the whole scene is revealed as a literal scene. It ends ultimately in a “do-over” option. Thus, there is only a “correct” option, to fight, and either way we are sent back to the start to try again. The episode fools you into thinking you are in control, really it is Netflix that controls your possible “decisions” and what happens with those decisions. If Netflix does go ahead and adopts this “interactive” model of storytelling, they are duping audiences into believing that they control the narrative when really, they are in as little control of the narrative as Stefan is in control of his life.
However, the idea that we are in control of the narrative is explicitly brought up in the narrative dialogue. After Colin and Stefan are on acid, Colin states that one of them will jump out the window of the apartment to their death. Stefan states that one would die, but Colin firmly believes that it ‘wouldn’t matter because there are other timelines’. This turns out to be very true as when Stefan jumps, we get a “do-over”, and when Colin jumps, Stefan wakes up in his dad’s car back in time so he can “do-over”. Stefan is aware that this did not really happen, but is also aware that it also kind of did. He wakes up muttering that he couldn’t save Colin, and is both aware and unaware of this “do-over”.
Both Stefan and Colin are aware of alternate realities where things happen that the viewer has seen but that we know is just a “do-over”. For example, the office scene from the beginning of the episode where Colin and Stefan initially meet, if you watch it as a “do-over”, Colin will state that they have met before and Stefan is able to predict a conversation before it has happened. Thus, within the narrative, characters are aware that this is not the first time the viewer is watching this. They both explicitly refer to another dimension and invite the idea of time as circular, which Colin states his belief in during the acid trip scene.
Colin enjoys critiquing the concept of free will and determinism, the former concept being idea that humans are free to make choices and the latter meaning that every action has a ripple effect that informs all following actions, rendering free will impossible. He believes in alternate realities and believes that all human beings are controlled by a greater force. Whilst his ideas are seemingly far-fetched, in the context of the episode, all his ideas are correct. The viewer recognises that the decisions they make for Stefan, as the greater force, all compile up to one big consequence. In a way, the episode argues in favour of a deterministic world order, more so as the action goes on and our options come to be more and more limited. This argues that what has come before has led to this moment and no other option can be available.
One possible ending is that we see Colin’s daughter grown up and working as a computer game programmer, creating a new version of Bandersnatch. She discovers that Stefan has been trapped within the game, however, reliving the different realities that we as the viewer have chosen for him. One way is to choose the option to destroy the game to free Stefan from his torture. What interests me about this ending is that it brings the episode in full circle. It puts the game-like essence of the episode within a context, that we are actually watching him trapped within the game forever and are playing out the different game realities. This would also make sense as the episode visuals indicate a kind of glitching overused game as the picture constantly twitches and jumps as if malfunctioning. This also takes the theme of time as non-linear to a further extreme as we watch this happening both in the past, present and future. It would also argue against the possibility of free will as Stefan is trapped, and equally, we can only ever watch what has already happened.
To conclude, free will is questioned in the episode not only as Stefan has none, but our free will as a viewer is equally as limited. Free will is represented as an illusion for Stefan but also for the viewer. It is an episode about free will that questions your own free will. The only one in control is Netflix itself. Additionally, whilst it is recognised by Stefan that we are watching him, eerily enough, Netflix has been equally as transparent that they are watching us. Whether this form of story telling will be a success or not, what Black Mirror has achieved is meta-fiction in a postmodern extreme using narrative and medium to form a self-referential investigation into the nature of free will, choice, reality and time itself.