Black Mirror is back. From an 80s lesbian romance to a murderous choose-your-own adventure, here are the essential dystopian stories you must watch before the new season drops next week

Belinda Carlisle

Be Right Back

Season 2, Episode 1

Starring the wickedly talented duo of Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, Be Right Back was the first Black Mirror episode to tackle death and grief, topics that would pop up again in later instalments, and which are ripe for the kind of existential, brain-scrambling tales that Brooker and co do best. Atwell plays Martha, who resurrects her late boyfriend Ash (Gleeson) as a chatbot and then later as a seemingly realistic AI robot who shares Ashs appearance but sadly not the subtle details of his personality. Dealing with issues as varied as cloning, what happens to our online profiles when we die and whether one should purchase a placid, fingerprint-less replica of a dead partner, Be Right Back is Black Mirror at its best: creative, melancholy and just a little bit twisted. Youre just a few ripples of you. Theres no history to you, Martha tells Ash, invoking not accidentally, you imagine the title of another Black Mirror episode, series ones The Entire History of You. Whereas, there, a history represented something to be pored over by an obsessive husband convinced his wife had something to hide, here it meant something more profound: the memories treasured by a partner aiming to recreate the past, no matter the financial or emotional cost.

White Christmas

Season 2, Episode 4

In
In White Christmas, Jon Hamm plays a sleazy life coach. Photograph: Hal Shinnie/Channel 4

Similar to the grain the tiny, all-seeing eye seen in The Entire History of You the series two closer White Christmas introduced us to the Z-Eye, a creepy little implant that, among other things, lets a user see a situation through someone elses perspective, and block other people from their field of view. The Z-Eye isnt the friendliest bit of tech and, of course, this being Black Mirror, it is quickly misused. Matt (Jon Hamm, showing a sleazier side than even his Mad Men anti-hero Don Draper had) uses it to coach hopeless men in how to pick up women, and stream their dates to other hopeless men online with fatal consequences. As in Be Right Back, there is a cloning subplot here, as Matt creates subservient cookie copies of his clients to in the words of Mr Muscle do the jobs they hate. Meanwhile, Joe (Rafe Spall) is hunting down his ex, who blocked him through the Z-Eye, reducing him to little more than a fuzzy shape, to find out what became of the child with which she was pregnant when they broke up. As Matt and Joe share their past misdeeds in a log cabin at Christmastime, the most wonderful time of the year becomes an increasingly disturbing Groundhog Day of obsession (yes, that recurring theme), heartbreak, ethical minefields and a certain Wizzard song youll never hear in quite the same way again.

Nosedive

Season 3, Episode 1

Bryce
Bryce Dallas Howard in Nosedive, about the dark side of social media. Photograph: Netflix

As we are increasingly asked to rate everything from restaurants to taxi journeys, series three opener Nosedive set, as per, in a familiar but also unnerving near-future-slash-alternate-reality felt particularly prescient. In it we meet Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has to rate every single social interaction in her world and expects a rating in return. Social media initially functions as the grease in the wheels of her pastel-hued society, but soon its just a huge oil slick on the road, and Lacie skids right into it. From the small (buying a coffee she doesnt want so she can post a picture of it online), to the medium (sucking up to her influencer contacts) to the big (agreeing to be a bridesmaid for hateful frenemy Naomi), Lacies every decision is dictated by social media and the value judgments it creates. Naturally, her need to be seen as a better and more popular person takes her to some very dark places, with the episode tackling what it really means to communicate and connect with others when so many of our interactions prove superficial. Plus, Michaela Coel later seen in series four opener USS Callister pops up as a brilliantly provocative airline worker, and theres an awkward wedding scene to end all awkward wedding scenes.

San Junipero

Season 3, Episode 4

Mackenzie
Mackenzie Davis in San Junipero. Photograph: David Dettmann/Netflix

Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth, coos Belinda Carlisle in the song that soundtracks this highlight of series three, directed by Be Right Back director Owen Harris. But can you really create a paradise down here in the real world, and can Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) stay together in the mysterious, glorious, 80s-themed escape of San Junipero? Although euthanasia, queer isolation and ethical issues bubble under the surface, San Junipero is for the most part a positive piece that celebrates romance throughout time, and challenges our perceptions of what is real and whats not. Here, Brooker had a go at and succeeded in [upending] the notion of what a Black Mirror episode was, while also creating a neon-tinted period piece that transfixed its viewers. An excellent, moving coda to Be Right Back, and then some. Plus, its worth checking out the accompanying Spotify playlist, which features the Bangles, Simple Minds and INXS, among others.

Bandersnatch

2018 special

Fionn
Fionn Whitehead in interactive episode Bandersnatch. Photograph: Netflix / Black Mirror

In a deliciously meta twist, a show about the ills of technology offered an interactive edition to top off 2018. Like San Junipero, Bandersnatch has a retro 80s setting, in which young programmer Stefan (Ffion Whitehead) becomes steadily obsessed with creating a game based on the works of a homicidal writer, Jerome F Davies. Viewers get to decide everything from what cereal Stefan eats to whether he finds out what Netflix is (another nice meta touch) and how he interacts with enigmatic Tuckersoft colleague Colin (Will Poulter) and pushy boss Mohan (Asim Chaudhry), who is desperate to get the game out in time for Christmas. But spoiler alert no matter which path the viewer chooses, Stefan ends up deeply embroiled in the world of the game, confronting his mothers death, childhood trauma, the possible suicide of a co-worker, a deeply disappointed father and much more. One for fans of video games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and really anyone who has become slightly too fixated on something they shouldnt have. While it doesnt have the shock twists of White Christmas nor Nosedives prescience, this must-see experiment pushed the boundaries of both the programme and current technology.

Black Mirror season 5 launches on Netflix on 5 June.

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