I have a love-hate relationship with Black Mirror. When it’s good, it uses technology as an accessory to tell stories about every aspect of humanity, positive and negative. Episodes like “Be Right Back,” “Crocodile,” and “San Junipero” seamlessly integrate the technology they explore into the story, so the viewer can focus on the actual ideas presented. When it’s bad, it’s a Luddite-esque fable about the dangers of scary, spooky technology. Episodes like “Men Against Fire” and “Arkangel” are less about humanity and more about how it would be really bad if we had certain kinds of technology. Or, as it has been put online, “what if phones, but too much.”
I wanted to like Netflix’s newest addition to Black Mirror, the film-length choose-your-own-adventure Bandersnatch. It was advertised as a brand-new experience of watching television, allowing the viewer to make the decisions for the characters and push the story toward their own desires. Of course, as someone who has played video games before, this is not 100 per cent novel, but nonetheless I decided to watch. Spoilers ahead.
What I wanted, and expected, was a story about choices, about creation, and about ’80s video games. What I got instead was a regurgitation of one of the most damaging tropes about mental illness in pop culture: that mental illness causes creativity, and that treating mental illness causes one to lose creativity. When Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) chooses to take his medication, his video game is rated poorly, with the suggestion that he was on “autopilot.”
Medication doesn’t stunt your creativity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. For most people with a mental illness, creativity is stunted when they experience symptoms without access to treatment. You can’t work on a piece of art or a game if you are consumed by anxiety, paranoia, or depression. In fact, sometimes you can barely function enough to eat and sleep.
This idea also goes hand in hand with the belief that sacrificing health, especially mental health, is not only necessary for artistic creation, but also that it is a reasonable sacrifice. Nobody with a mental illness should have to sacrifice their own health for the sake of a project, but that isn’t the case in Bandersnatch. Colin (Will Poulter), Stefan’s mentor and idol, even says that he needs “a bit of madness” to create his project. And the only way that Stefan’s video game can be given five stars is if Stefan — by the hand of the viewer — plunges deeper into his own psychosis and paranoia.
Another damaging trope Bandersnatch uses is the tired idea that people with mental illnesses are inherently violent. In the path that leads Stefan to getting five stars, he ends up brutally murdering his father. The vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses are no more violent than anyone else. In fact, sadly, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence.
There were things I genuinely enjoyed about Bandersnatch, from the phenomenal acting to the tongue-in-cheek fourth wall breaks. But if the lesson Black Mirror wants to give me is the same tired, damaging portrayal of mental illness, I’d rather settle for the Luddite stories.
— Adina Heisler
My scriptwriting professor used to say that characters are the soul of every play. A successful character — who could be as distant a serial killer, or as close as the neighbour’s daughter — needs to be authentic, keeping a safe distance from a humdrum life, but still sharing traits of humanity that resonate and tug at our heartstrings.
It is the characters we root for or resent who decide their own fate, which is also the direction of the plot, and only when we are drawn to the characters do we keep watching. But such an existentialist view on the role of the character is about to change as Netflix released its first interactive movie, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Unlike previous Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch is a standalone, non-linear film that involves viewers in characters’ decision-making. With each choice made by a simple click on A or B, the film resembles an ideal game for uncoordinated players.
The idea that we are watching ourselves, rather than the character, might sound new under the guise of interaction, but it really isn’t. We empathize with fictional characters in order to understand them, and we seek our reflection in fictions all the time. We project our memories on fictional characters and take it as their truth, and our acceptance of their truth hinges on how well it agrees with our experiences.
Meanwhile, Stefan is losing his mind knowing that he is not in control of his actions. He is convinced that the invisible hand pulling him like a puppet is also watching him. But why is the thought that he has no autonomy so unbearable? According to Lauren Bialystok, a professor in U of T’s Department of Social Justice Education, Western tradition does not define the purpose of life by a shared “human-ness” as a species. “Rather, to lead a human life—at least a fulfilling one—is usually thought to require honoring what it means to be human for me, as a once-occurring person,” Bialystok wrote in a 2014 paper.
This explains our need for characters to be different, to lead a hell of a life, or hold a secret that demarcates them from the pedestrian life they keep. Being different verifies their authenticity as a character.
Personal authenticity hinges on the truthfulness of the relationship to self. Autonomy, in other words, conditions authenticity. Yet with or without surveillance, do we have as much autonomy as we’d like to hope? Stefan believes that he is controlled by those who are watching him, but aren’t we always aware of our audience and controlled by their perception of us? How many of our so-called authentic acts are conducted by being true to ourselves, rather than to be perceived as such?
Bandersnatch is revolutionary for having engaged viewers in the development of the plot from the perspective of scriptwriting. But from the perspective of the movie industry, there hasn’t been a single film that succeeds by disregarding viewers’ experiences. While interactive films engage viewers in a creative process, they also deprive them of the chance to apply their empathy. It is worth considering whether Bandersnatch suggests a more narcissistic or creative society.
— April Yan Jin