Netflix’s Black Mirror is a show pegged as a sci-fi imagining of what the future might look like. It theorizes about technology’s impact on our lives, it predicts patterns of human behavior, it entertains the possibility of horrors inflicted by artificial intelligence.
We watch it because it’s interesting, it’s clever, it takes the familiar and weaponizes it through bizarre storylines we comfort ourselves are just imaginary. This is what the future “could be,” we say when something seems frighteningly eerie. But what if we were closer to that imagined reality than we cared to admit?
Sure, plenty of Black Mirror episodes are completely outlandish, too insane to ever actually happen, but what about the ones that aren’t? What about the ones that feel nightmarishly close to fruition?
These are the seven Black Mirror episodes that feel so plausible they keep us up at night.
Nosedive (Season 3, Episode 1)
Technology, both the joys and terrors it can bring, is a recurring theme in Black Mirror but no episode feels as viscerally, spine-chillingly real as Season 3’s "Nosedive." That’s because, unlike other episodes on this list that trade in futuristic tech and hypothetical dystopias, "Nosedive" is just grounded in reality enough to make us all completely uncomfortable. The episode follows Bryce Dallas Howard, a woman trying to elevate her status through Instagram likes. The pastel dream of a glamorous apartment, celebrity friends, the picture-perfect life hinges on her likability. You see, in this world, people are rated on every interaction they have and those ratings are your currency, they determine everything from where you’ll live to how you’ll be treated by strangers, to whether or not you’ll end up in jail. Forget to tip your barista, bail on a co-worker’s birthday party, give a stranger an accidental side-eye, and your rating goes down. It’s eerily similar to how we interact with people now, especially given the power of social media channels like Instagram and Twitter.
The Entire History of You (Season 1, Episode 3)
Memory is a tricky thing. It’s inherently biased and often influenced by the dreaded “unreliable narrator.” The way one person remembers an event is singular to their experience, and almost always differs from how someone else catalogs that same event in their mind. It’s a universal failing of humanity we’ve just come to accept, but what if technology could fix that? What if, when you interrogated your boyfriend about who he’s been texting late at night or questioned your wife about her relationship with a co-worker, instead of relying on their playback of events, you could literally watch those interactions in real-time? That’s what "The Entire History of You" proposes, a way to tap into the “grain” — a chip implant that allows you to record your daily life at will — to watch someone else’s life unfold. It takes the idea that, in this golden age of the internet, everyone has a paper trail and bumps it up to uncomfortable levels, revealing an affair for one couple that ends up destroying their relationship. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Hated In The Nation (Season 3, Episode 6)
Black Mirror is the master of taking a zany concept and turning it into a literal nightmare, which is exactly what happens in Season 3's "Hated in the Nation." The episode centers on a pair of detectives trying to suss out who’s responsible for unleashing killer robotic bees on the population. Bizarre? You bet. But the underlying problem, one that unfortunately does seem possible, is why these bees are unleashed. They’re not just targeting random citizens, instead, they’re directed to murder the most-hated people on social media. If your name pops up in the designated hashtag enough times, you’ll be their next victim. A swarm of outrage on Twitter that’s galvanized by a hashtag and utilized to destroy someone’s life? Can that really count as sci-fi in 2019?
Playtest (Season 3, Episode 2)
Virtual reality is all the rage in the gaming community and it’s beginning to stretch its tentacles into other areas of our lives as well. People use it to catch up with friends halfway across the world, to experience travel without ever leaving the comfort of their couch, to have adventures, to explore, to interact, with an unstated guarantee of safety. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if virtual reality could hurt you? What if your worst nightmares played on a loop? What if those nightmares had the ability to physically cause you harm? "Playtest" is every doubt, every suspicion gone unvoiced about VR and how the brain perceives reality. It follows the story of a man who volunteers for a study, one that asks him to confront his darkest fears as if they were real. Ultimately, he loses track of what’s imagined and what’s not but the point of the episode — that we as humans are drifting towards a life that feels more and more like a videogame than anything else — is a bit too on the nose.
Hang The DJ (Season 4, Episode 4)
In a world where human interaction is increasingly reliant upon a technological interface, the idea of dating feels especially terrifying. Sure, humans are vain and shallow creatures so using apps that allow you to swipe right or left, determining someone’s value and attractiveness with just your thumb seems like an unsurprising evolution in the game of love. But "Hang The DJ" takes the idea that algorithms can predict happiness to a whole new level. Amy and Frank are two young adults who’ve signed up to participate in the “System,” an environment guaranteed to help you find your soulmate based on carefully cultivated data and computed calculations. The catch? You may have to bed a bunch of frogs before the A.I. can match you with your prince. Look, dating is scary enough as it is and the idea of testing out dozens and dozens of potential matches just because a computer told you to, suffering in bad relationships for an amount of time determined by some all-knowing piece of tech, that just sounds exhausting. We'd rather romance be dead.
The Waldo Moment (Season 2, Episode 3)
"The Waldo Moment" isn’t a particularly good episode of Black Mirror, at least, not in the grand scheme of a show that boasts gems like "Black Museum" and "San Junipero," but it’s on this list because it doesn’t just feel terrifyingly possible, it is, unfortunately, our horrific reality. In 2013 when the episode first aired, none of us could’ve predicted the rise of Trump, the derelict state of politics that would result, the animosity, the increase in racism and nationalism, the social and cultural divide his campaign and election would bring. That inability to accept and anticipate the worst in humanity is why initially, "The Waldo Moment," an episode about an animated, foul-mouthed bear who becomes so popular for his insensitive jokes and divisive propaganda that he runs for political office and wins, seemed comically impossible. People wouldn’t really give a vote of confidence to an ignorant, strangely-colored puppet controlled by powerful people intent on causing destruction and filling their own pockets, would they? (Narrator: They would.)
Arkangel (Season 4, Episode 2)
Preying on a parent’s worst fears, "Arkangel" is a quintessential Black Mirror episode, one that promises a technology-based solution to an age-old problem only for that technology to become an even greater threat. Marie is a single mother spurred to implant a monitoring device in her young daughter’s brain after she briefly goes missing. The implant allows Marie to track her daughter’s location, blur out upsetting language and imagery, and literally see the world through her child’s eyes. It proves useful for a time before severely limiting the girl’s interactions with her peers and her ability to assess dangerous situations, so Marie disables the device and chooses to trust her daughter instead of monitoring her every move through a tablet screen. Years later, as a teenager, Marie’s daughter exhibits some concerning behavior — she’s partying and having sex and doing normal teenage things — so Marie reactivates the implant and plays peeping Tom to her daughter’s sexual interactions and drug abuse, something her daughter eventually discovers and nearly beats her to death for. Things get out of control quickly, and Marie makes the kind of cringe-worthy mistakes every parent is guilty of, but what’s truly terrifying about this episode is the knowledge of how many parents would choose to inflict this kind of technology on their child just for the sake of their own peace of mind.