If you find yourself lost in Bandersnatch's digital labyrinth of pixels and paranoia, take heart that you aren't the first — this is really Alice's wonderland.
Netflix’s newest episode of Black Mirror is a choose-your-own-adventure saga in which you, the viewer, can control the decisions made by a video game programmer named Stefan. Invariably, he will question reality to the point of a breakdown that Lewis Carrol could have scripted, and depending on your fortitude and level of patience, he may pull you down that rabbit hole with him. There's so much to consider; just choosing what cereal Stefan eats for breakfast may or may not have an impact on whether he goes homicidal that day.
Bandersnatch is named after a fearsome creature that rears its ugly head in a poem called "Jabberwocky," which Alice randomly finds — written backward — in a book in the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was titled Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. All we know about this Wonderlandian predator is that it must be shunned.
While the creature has been left to imagination and has been the subject of much fascination, inspiring at least two eponymous rock bands and even an unreleased ‘80s video game, its fury tears through Bandersnatch. The absurdism of Wonderland is reflected through a looking-glass that shows Stefan’s gradual breakdown as his obsession with creating a video game eats him alive.
Follow the White Rabbit
Just by programming a choose-your-own adventure game based on a book by an author who ended up drugging himself to oblivion, Stefan is already chasing a metaphorical white rabbit into a realm where everything makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time. The stuffed rabbit that his father is so vehemently against is a sort of mascot for the whole twisted adventure. As a child, he was always chasing that rabbit, whether under the bed or in a keyword-protected safe, and he seems to not realize that he is falling into a more perilous chase as he obsesses over the completion of his video game.
Following the rabbit with a ticking pocket watch leads Alice to a land where things keep growing stranger and stranger by the minute. Chasing an impossible deadline as he develops an increasingly complex game leads Stefan into such a place mentally, and as his sanity degenerates, even the viewer beings to wonder what is real.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Turning back is not an option once Alice begins her descent down the rabbit hole. While Stefan might not have literally tumbled through a magical tunnel in the earth, and there are no caterpillars talking and smoking hookah, his obsession has him tumbling into a darkness from which there is no escape. It doesn’t help that the project supervisor is hanging over his head about the deadline, like the White Rabbit moaning he’s late to the tune of a ticking second hand.
Stefan’s obsession flares like the temper of the bandersnatch, and he falls further and further down this rabbit hole into places even Alice’s curiosity wouldn’t lead her to venture. It all depends which direction the viewer leads him with their choices, but something tells me that whatever you click, he’s going to lose it eventually. That happens when you go 36 hours without sleep or drop LSD or ditch your psychiatrist appointment because you just have to follow someone potentially dangerous.
Eat Me or Drink Me?
Bandersnatch is an Eat Me or Drink Me game unto itself. If Alice consumes one, it will make her grow impossibly tall, and if she takes a bite of the other, she will shrink to another impossible size (at least for a human). Click one option in the episode and you throw Stefan into a storm of frustration and anguish as frumious as the Bandersnatch itself. At the points where you can click Go Back, you have a chance to change direction, but that might suck him into a black hole from which there is no surfacing. Is it Eat Me or Drink Me? Plunging deeper or trying to breathe? Self-destruction or homicide?
Whether Stefan decides to take the LSD that Colin tempts him with is another callback to Alice’s cookie and vial of unknown liquid.
Mad as a Hatter
There are several Mad Hatters in Bandersnatch, and none of them are wearing a top hat with its 10/6 price tag still attached. The author of the book that inspired Stefan is obviously a Mad Hatter who collapsed into tripping on LSD and sketching glyphs on his walls towards the end of his life. Video game wunderkind Colin has an offbeat streak, smoking roll-ups when he can afford a Lamborghini and believing that LSD is the ultimate mind-opener. Stefan’s father might seem too painfully normal to be a Hatter in disguise, but you will start seriously questioning whether the underground conspiracy Mr. Butler obviously was involved in is getting to Stefan’s head. The viewer has to decide which password to type in to unlock that secret.
You could argue that Stefan himself is a mad hatter of sorts. He seems to morph into one more and more as he programs Bandersnatch and sanity slips from his fingers to the point that he probably would have a perfectly human conversation with a dormouse and think nothing of it.
Who’s been painting my roses red?
Whatever the endgame of PACS really is, it knows everything about Stefan and everyone else, just like the Red Queen knows Alice has been painting her roses red. There is an eerie parallel between the queen threatening everyone with imminent decapitation and how Stefan, while he isn’t sentenced to having his head roll, does lose his head in a totally different way. He is fighting the digital beast that is Bandersnatch while trying to make sense of what PACS intends to do with his personal data. Maybe the ultimate blow to the head is when he realizes they are actually trying to communicate with him through symbols he has no way of understanding.
Even scarier is that you have the level of Stefan’s madness in your hands. Of course, you won’t actually know how much your click will have gotten to his head until you watch the scene play out. Some end up in a momentary outburst that sputters into tears while others unleash a Bandersnatch of their own.
We’re all mad here
The one question that will linger in the back of your mind and possibly give you insomnia for the next couple days after your first experience with Bandersnatch is whether it was really only Stefan who was freefalling down a psychological rabbit hole into the nightmare version of Wonderland. Not every invisible thing that attacks him is spawning from his own imagination. Colin’s influence on the impressionable young programmer can be poisonous, questions still hang in the air as to whether Stefan’s psychiatrist has both feet on the ground, and The PACS conspiracy is only something he discovers (if you let him—though he probably will anyway).
Stefan is a 20th century Alice we are peering at through 21st century technology. Nowhere else is that more apparent than when he is screaming for a sign and Netflix talks to him through his computer screen from 34 years in the future. If that doesn’t send him reeling into Wonderland, nothing will.