“What’s your choice? Inasmuch as you have any choice,” wunderkind programmer Colin Rittman (Will Poulter) asks the main character, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), when cornered in one of a handful of “endings” in Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch,” which takes its name from a horrifying creature found in Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel Through the Looking Glass, and later in “The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits).” Netflix and series creator Charlie Brooker’s experiment in interactive video entertainment gives you the illusion of choice, and the people behind it seem as aware as anyone of the limitations of that illusion. Playing around with “Bandersnatch” has mostly thin, semi-predictable returns, as well as a lot of thuddingly obvious dialogue about notions of choice, free will, and destiny as Stefan attempts to adapt a monstrous choose-your-own-adventure book called “Bandersnatch” into a possibly revolutionary video game circa 1984. As Stefan rushes, takes wrong turns, and commits acts of atrocity in order to complete the game—and thereby find glory in finishing an impossible task—the message is familiar: You don’t always get what you want, be careful what you wish for, other variations on the entrapment of a rabbit hole-like task. But what if the one exception—the one ending that mattered— made the entire experience worth it? What if “Bandersnatch”is not about nebulous notions of free will, not even a meta-rumination on Netflix’s own limitations (or their collection of data on subscribers’ viewing habits)? What if it’s about grief?
Black Mirror is easy to make fun of, perfectly summed up by Daniel Ortberg’s pithy quip, “what if phones, but too much.” Which is not to say that some of the observations Brooker has made haven’t been compelling—even, at times, profound—however on the nose they may be. Rather, Black Mirror frequently represents the problem of the dystopian satire in post-postmodern times: As the distance between the future they predict and the present in which they’re created shrinks exponentially, such stories are hard to land with seriousness and panache.
Black Mirror’s strength is not its predictions about our relationship to technology, then, but its examination of how technology shapes intimacy, love, and desire. The most lauded episodes of the series have always focused on what happens when love and intimacy are threatened, accentuated, or perverted by technology, from “Be Right Back,” in which the past comes back to imitate love via one couple’s data history, and “San Junipero,” in which love can live forever, but in the purgatory of the cloud. Notably, neither offers a broad assertion about “our relationship to technology.” Instead, they are investigations of specific relationships that already exist and the ways in which they evolve, or rot, in the presence of technology.
When you get there, “Bandersnatch” is no different. One of the episode’s central through lines, whether you “unlock” the ending or not, is the death of Stefan’s mother and the strained relationship he has with his father. As “Bandersnatch” begins, he’s deeply invested in the book, which we’re told came from his mother’s leftover possessions, and the anniversary of her death is around the corner. When he was five, we learn in Stefan’s reluctant conversation with a therapist, his love for his stuffed rabbit was met with disapproval from his father. He heard arguments between his parents about it, and Stefan goes so far as to speculate that his father thought he was a “sissy” for having it. On one fateful day, his inability to find his rabbit under his bed delayed his mother’s commute; we ultimately discover that the later train she was forced to take derailed, killing nearly everyone on it, including Stefan’s mother. His relationship with his father has been marred by that event ever since, and Stefan has lived with the guilt for 14 years, constantly blaming himself for her death—even though he suspects his father had his rabbit. The unresolved bereavement, the lack of closure, becomes a horrific maze.
Similarly, while playing through Bandersnatch, with its relatively small number of endings and game-overs, something else haunts the story: Running into dead ends and red herrings is less important than the repetitive nature of the experience itself, recreating Stefan’s masochistic relationship to grief and the distractions we find in such circumstances. It doesn’t matter how “complex” the experience is, nor how crazy it will make you. If it’s there to take your mind off death, why not plunge in?
Stefan’s outbursts at his father are no coincidence, either: The very first “choice” you can make in the episode, between breakfast cereals, is also one father gives son, trying (and failing) to connect with Stefan. These aren’t merely the overreactions of a sleep-deprived programmer turning his passion project into a product for the gaming company Tuckersoft, though; Stefan’s father’s facile attempts at engagement trace the dissolving relationship between parent and child, the weight of grief corroding what little they have together. Indeed, many of the “choices” that Stefan is given force him to “make decisions” about how to react, talk to, or deal with his father.
Arguably, the ending that matters most comes after you’ve picked up a family photo, when you can go into Stefan’s father’s room and enter a password for his safe. When you enter “TOY,” Stefan finds that his father had the rabbit all along. Stefan goes through the looking-glass into the past, when he was five, and, at his father’s behest, replaces the rabbit beneath his bed. Now in the body of his younger self, he finds the rabbit, and when his mother reaches out, asking if he wants to come with her, he accepts. He takes her hand, and we see the two of them on the train as Laurie Anderson sings, as if in a lullaby, “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.” We see a knowing look on the young boy’s face.
“Bandersnatch” then smash cuts back to the first therapy session, and after closing his eyes briefly, Stefan dies, the therapist, his father, and a medic beside him. We aren’t told of what. A broken heart? The pain of a parent’s death? The feeling of incompleteness? After the credits, Stefan loads a tape labeled “Bandersnatch Demo” into his player, and all we hear is static. Is that his solace? Abstraction? Oblivion?
What feels significant about this ending is that it makes the rest of the experience, a slog though it may be, make sense. Grief and trauma are a maze, an unending journey that feels like bumping into dead ends, a series of challenges without guidance, a feeling of complete displacement in a world where everyone else seems to know their path. When you get to this ending, possess a rawness it didn’t before, now recontextualized after a few playthroughs. Whitehead’s performance aches, trembles, feels more desperately sad, as if the only thing Stefan has to hold onto is completing this game. Maybe for his mother. If Stefan feels thin as a character, driven by little else but obsession, perhaps it’s because there’s nothing left to him.
In this, “Bandersnatch” is not only about grief, but also the exploitation and commodification of grief. If Stefan finishes the game, as he does in other endings, is that not his pain being sensationalized? Doesn’t it make the product of his grief something to be bought, completed, and forgotten about? Life after the death of a loved one is similarly surreal, and the world around you turns into an uncanny nightmare at times—no matter how long after the fact. Bereavement is lost-ness: We are congratulated when we’ve found their way out of it, or at least project so to other people. Might trying to find your way out of grief be a Carrollian journey in its own right, in which reality is no longer static and you may no longer recognize yourself? Is chasing the rabbit of closure, or comfort, ultimately fruitless? While the questions of free will in Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch” are frivolous on their own, in the context of grief, Brooker seems to argue, choice (or the lack thereof) becomes part of the frumious jaws of the Bandersnatch.