"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!/Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun/ The frumious Bandersnatch!"
Lewis Carroll knew what the hell he was talking about. That frumious Bandersnatch is gonna get you. I know, having spent four hours choosing and clicking, clicking and choosing, when a light bulb of my own clicked on: Netflix is screwing with us.
Bandersnatch, the latest, twisty innovation from the twisty and innovative minds behind Black Mirror, absorbs the choose-your-own-adventure approach of '80s entertainment and reimagines it as a rumored five hours of different paths and premises. The loose storyline is that Stefan Butler, a young man with a tragic past, has invented a video game, Bandersnatch, based on a CYOA book with the same title. Stefan has some issues, though: He's blocked creatively, his mom died in an accident, his dad pisses him off and might be part of a government conspiracy — you know how it goes.
I launched into the movie with copious note-taking, determined to "win." There are rules to the game, though: Netflix only sometimes lets you jump back or ahead, which impacts your decision-making. And some decisions seem far more influential than others. For example, I tried choosing options A) for Stefan's breakfast cereal and morning commute soundtrack (Sugar Puffs and the Thompson Twins), then going with B) instead (Frosties and a music compilation). The only difference I noticed was the billboard the train passed and the mention of what was playing on his Walkman when Stefan met his hero, video game creator Colin Ritman.
Colin is the platinum blond guide Stefan follows down the rabbit hole of "What is reality?" Stefan pitches his game to Colin's company, but when he accepts the initial offer, Colin is disappointed, and the game is a bust. My original strategy while watching/playing Bandersnatch the first time was to go with the improv motto of always saying yes, but that didn't work out well. So the offer is instrumental.
Stefan is coming up on the anniversary of his mother's death. He's on meds and he's seeing a therapist — good choices. But when he starts to crack under the pressure of getting his game ready for market, his dad brings him back to the doctor and he must choose between talking it out and chasing the White Rabbit. Hint: The copious Wonderland allusions are not a coincidence and generally indicate a big "choose this option" nudge. Also, Colin's significant other, Kitty, bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter in the most recent film version.
Stefan is still having trouble with his game, so you need to help him decide whether to trash his computer. This is where we really get meta, because he senses that he's not in control of his choices. So, who is manipulating him? Could it be, oh, I don't know... Netflix?
Around this point, I began to get suspicious. I told Stefan that, yes, Netflix was the voice in his head. I also told him that it was a government conspiracy (more on that later) and that it was the lion demon from his game's source material. While the outcomes were slightly different, we inevitably came back around to the same events. Let's say that I had many occasions where I had to decide whether to bury or dismember a body. It was a lot to take before I'd even finished my morning coffee.
The Netflix variant here leads Stefan back to his therapist, who reassures him that his life isn't interesting enough to be entertainment. This leads you to either the pleasure of a fight sequence or a further extension of the meta-movie structure that might call to mind The Truman Show (1998).
You direct Stefan through choosing passwords (spoiler: PAX is the wrong choice, but the other two options seem to move the action forward), you kill or avoid killing, you confront trauma or avoid confrontation. Sometimes you end up with a successful game; sometimes the company goes bankrupt; sometimes it's mediocre because Stefan lost it and wound up in jail for his bloodthirsty rage. Oops.
But here's what you've got to remember: The underlying message is that we lack autonomy. Stefan feels it, even if what he senses is the imposition of your choices on his will. Colin spouts about it while the two of them trip to resolve Stefan's creative blockage—Pac-Man gets involved. Netflix is leading us in a roundabout, having a laugh at our perception of our own choice and agency. "Ha," they are saying. "Dance, little monkeys, dance!" And we obediently click and click and click — even if we keep ending up back in the same place.
It's pretty crafty, when you think about it. The Bandersnatch isn't a monster or even a devious conspiracy plot. It's our own silly perception that we get to call the shots. "Ha," says Netflix. "Ha ha ha. You're right: The joke's on us."
If, however, you're still determined to wend your way through, my hours in the labyrinth suggest that the following decisions are most critical:
acceptance/refusal of the offer
following Colin/talking to the doctor
choosing the photo/book
And, finally, I couldn't bring myself to go back and do this one more damn time, but it seems that you're better off with a kick to the balls over a karate chop. If you get there, you'll know.