Black Mirror’s Bittersweet Endings Are More Powerful Than Its Cruel Twists

The emotional complexity of San Junipero, Be Right Back and more outstrips the shock value of Black Mirror’s bleakest twist endings.

Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson in Black Mirror Be Right Back
Photo: Channel 4/Netflix

Warning: contains spoilers for Black Mirror seasons one to five.

Black Mirror’s infamous first episode set a tone of comically absurd cruelty. In ‘The National Anthem’, the British prime minister is forced into an act of bestiality in order to save a kidnapped British princess. The cruel twist in the tale is that the princess was actually released before he carried out a sex act with a pig live on television, but because everyone was completely focused on watching his torture, nobody realised.

As the tech-focused anthology show has gone on, creator Charlie Brooker has leaned into Black Mirror’s reputation for downbeat, tragic or horrifying endings. On the whole, it’s been a successful approach. Some of its most memorable episodes have been those with dramatically cruel twists. The revelation that the protagonist we’ve been rooting for in ‘White Bear’ is a child murderer undergoing an extremely cruel and unusual punishment is a genuine shock that turns the episode’s story on its head. ‘Playtest’, in which a computer games tester is subjected to sustained psychological torture that turns out to be an invention of his dying brain is similarly cruel, but all part of the episode’s horror genre.

In ‘White Christmas’, an anthology within an anthology, three short stories all feature dark endings with a fourth thrown on the end to boot. A man is murdered by a one night stand; a sentient and intelligent digital copy of a person, called a “cookie”, is condemned to a life of slavery; a “cookie” is condemned to a thousand years of mental and emotional torture for the crimes committed by the biological original, and a pick-up artist guilty of broadcasting intimate videos without consent is sent out into the world unable to see or communicate with any other person, while everyone around him sees him labelled simply as a “sex offender” (he was indeed guilty of a pretty nasty sexual crime, but not the horrific crimes people might imagine when they see his image blocked out in red). Dark twist on top of dark twist piles up, but in a way that all comes together into a satisfying, if grim, story, and the concept of “cookies” and the moral implications of creating them would go on to be a major theme in several more episodes.


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