Regardless of easter eggs, Bandersnatch is perhaps more thematically connected to other Black Mirror episodes – those that are more focused on control. Perhaps the first episode that comes to mind in terms of control, or rather the loss of it, is “Shut Up and Dance.” Looking at the episode beyond the implications of its plot twist at the end, it’s a blackmail story that uses Black Mirror’s signature blend of technology (in the anonymous and therefore archetypally abstract evil blackmailer) and moral pessimism (in how seemingly easy it is to make Kenny and Hector, well, “dance”). Kenny has one choice to make, over and over, throughout the episode, and in the end he proves to be able to go to every length, against his will, to keep his secret. But his goal is always clear and singular, and in that way, he’s in a situation with one degree of freedom taken away.
A better example of Black Mirror’s exploration of agency and control is season 4’s “Hang The DJ.” One of the few episodes to be almost devoid of pessimism, “Hang The DJ” imagines a world where a Tinder-like app has completely taken over the realm of dating, including matching control. Again, this is barring the twist at the end of the episode. Taken at face value, the setup introduces a world where people populate a vaguely-defined world seemingly serving the sole purpose of finding their ultimate romantic match. The system in place has taken away all their agency over choice, and sets them up with dates and decides over the longevity of each relationship. This time period is perceived as arbitrary, but the participants accept it based on the basic belief that the AI acts with their best interest in mind, and that every relationship is calculated to provide the system with the relevant information needed to find each participant their soulmate with mathematical precision. Whenever a participant expresses their doubts to the AI, the mantra is simple and telling: “Everything happens for a reason.” Closely resembling the Christian “God works in mysterious ways,” it adds to the theme of faith in the episode. The participants have chosen to hand over control over their romantic endeavours upon entering this environment based on the belief that this practice will yield much better results for them in the long run than if they were to engage with the trial-and-error process themselves (you know, as we do now). This system inherently means that they have no control over their narratives until the moment they are told they have been matched with their soulmate. The twist at the end, which is quite clever when looking at the episode from this angle, is that finding your soulmate depends on how willing you are to take back control from the AI and reject choices forced on you.
The theme of control over your narrative is looming over episodes like “Crocodile,” “The Entire History of You” and “Arkangel.” The technology featured of “Crocodile” and “The Entire History of You” removes total control of one’s memories from them. They can be accessed by other people under different circumstances. In an early scene in “The Entire History of You,” Liam is at the airport and the security guy asks him to rewind his memories of the last week for him so that he can clear him for the flight. Later on, replaying each other’s memories is established to be quite common, and of course this entire setup goes all Black Mirror-y with Liam using this technology to make his wife’s secret affair revelation and breakup fight as excruciating as possible. It is an invasion of privacy executed on an unwilling person, on the basis of marital honesty – Liam’s “right to know.”
In “Crocodile,” the aforementioned exchange of privacy for security that leads to Liam’s security check is made more central. Shazia, an insurance investigator, uses a device to access memories of people who were witnesses to an accident. While they aren’t legally required to be submitted to that procedure, refusing to cooperate will clearly raise red flags and it is implied that law enforcement has the power to compel people to make their memories accessible to them should there be enough reason to believe that they hold information relevant to investigations. While withholding such information from law enforcement is illegal in our world today, witnesses have the freedom to lie; they have the freedom to control the story they tell. The main character in “Crocodile,” Mia, has information about the accident that she is willing to share, but in doing so she also reveals through her memories that she committed murder just before the accident happens outside her hotel room.
In “Arkangel,” a mother agrees to have her daughter implanted with a transmitter that not only functions as a surveillance device for the mother to supervise her, but also features parental controls that, when enabled, blur out all unpleasant images and sounds in her surroundings. Sara grows up with these controls, and there is a telling scene where it is shown that keeping her “protected” from unpleasant stimuli resulted in an ignorance not only about cruel and aggressive tangible things around her, but also of emotions such as anger. Her mother stops controlling and surveilling her until Sara is 15, when she gets into the habit again, and witnesses her having sex for the first time, doing cocaine, and the implant lets her know that Sara is pregnant. This is all without Sara’s knowledge, and her mother gives her emergency contraception blended in her smoothie, completely taking over control of Sara’s life and narrative. The parental control obviously highlights a removed degree of freedom, but it is the surveillance that binds the episode thematically to “The Entire History of You” and “Crocodile” where privacy as we know it is infringed (even though for arguably sufficient reasons). In the world of “Arkangel,” the very knowledge that you might be monitored alters your behaviour much in the way Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon intends to do. Control over your story means not only making your own choices, but having the appropriate conditions for your choices to be true to your wishes. If you are the hero of your story, the villain is whoever is impeding your decision-making.
Do you want to read more about how you go from hero to villain, or do you want to let go of any choice?