Bandersnatch cleverly lulls you into identifying with Stefan while working with the author. You are made to believe in Stefan’s inherent emptiness which is to be filled through a authorial responsibility shared by the writer and the individual viewer, albeit in a lopsided fashion. But this arrangement works fine only because of Stefan’s assumed innocence – what does he know? We (author+viewer) know what’s best for him.
But as the narrative progresses (or degenerates), Stefan starts to make it clear that he is not going to take this lying down, as his interiority begins to press against the black mirror and that makes choices harder to make. As your agency becomes more and more apparent to Stefan, you begin to feel just a little discomfort while making choices, as being held accountable adds pressure to make the right choice, which is further heightened by the winding time limit to make the choice. In fact, the time limit to make a choice is perhaps the worst way to go about life. Denied the chance to think things through, you are left with your trigger-happy self, indulging one knee-jerk reaction over another. You start wondering if you’ve made the right choice, not because it affects you in any way, but in the fashion of a benevolent overlord who has a moral responsibility of doing the right thing, being the person in control. This realisation is the brief moment of heroism as you tell yourself, “You see, I was thrust with this responsibility but I’m doing the best I can.” But as the narrative starts to loop over itself, you start to doubt your degree of control, even as you think Stefan’s life hangs in the balance. Am I the stick-up guy here?
According to Sartre, making the claim “That’s just the way I am” is a form of self-deceptive bad faith, as you are denying the ontological responsibility for “choosing to be that way.” Stefan did not choose to be that way and thus, cut off from agency, he can make that claim without being insincere. You come to the slow realisation that you may be in control but that does not make you the hero of the story as the two functions have been decoupled. As it is not your story, it is irrelevant whether you make the right choice or not, as any choice you make for someone else where the outcomes affect them and not you, is inherently the wrong choice. There is no such thing as making the right choice for someone else. Even though Stefan has no control, he counterintuitively emerges as the rightful hero because he also has no responsibility.
So what does that make me? I immediately got reminded of Breaking Bad which helped me get to the answer. You see, Breaking Bad does something similar by starting out in a way that you are left with no choice but to root for Walter White, the underdog’s underdog. As the seasons progress, you are left with a moral dilemma: Am I still supposed to support Walter? Watching that show is a journey of coming face to face with your own moral compass, and who you are depends on when exactly do you stop rooting for Walter. For me the moment came rather late in the fifth season where Walter kills Mike. I saw him going from being the hero of the story to the villain and I continued to stand by him, support him and perhaps enable him to undergo that transformation. I wanted him to be badass; I wanted him to break bad. Even though I had no direct control, I felt I allowed this to happen, just by participating in the narrative or even being a bystander. Stefan’s predicament has to be understood similarly. I wanted control; I wanted to do the right thing, but just by participating in the story I have undergone a fall. It was I who pulled the trigger and Sartre will rightly hold me responsible. I may be a hero in your story and there may be merit in hearing my side of it (which is this article) but when it comes to Stefan’s story, Bandersnatch, I am the villain.