Warning: contains spoilers for Black Mirror seasons one to five.
Black Mirror’s infamous first episode set a tone of comically absurd cruelty. In ‘The National Anthem’, the British prime minister is forced into an act of bestiality in order to save a kidnapped British princess. The cruel twist in the tale is that the princess was actually released before he carried out a sex act with a pig live on television, but because everyone was completely focused on watching his torture, nobody realised.
As the tech-focused anthology show has gone on, creator Charlie Brooker has leaned into Black Mirror’s reputation for downbeat, tragic or horrifying endings. On the whole, it’s been a successful approach. Some of its most memorable episodes have been those with dramatically cruel twists. The revelation that the protagonist we’ve been rooting for in ‘White Bear’ is a child murderer undergoing an extremely cruel and unusual punishment is a genuine shock that turns the episode’s story on its head. ‘Playtest’, in which a computer games tester is subjected to sustained psychological torture that turns out to be an invention of his dying brain is similarly cruel, but all part of the episode’s horror genre.
In ‘White Christmas’, an anthology within an anthology, three short stories all feature dark endings with a fourth thrown on the end to boot. A man is murdered by a one night stand; a sentient and intelligent digital copy of a person, called a “cookie”, is condemned to a life of slavery; a “cookie” is condemned to a thousand years of mental and emotional torture for the crimes committed by the biological original, and a pick-up artist guilty of broadcasting intimate videos without consent is sent out into the world unable to see or communicate with any other person, while everyone around him sees him labelled simply as a “sex offender” (he was indeed guilty of a pretty nasty sexual crime, but not the horrific crimes people might imagine when they see his image blocked out in red). Dark twist on top of dark twist piles up, but in a way that all comes together into a satisfying, if grim, story, and the concept of “cookies” and the moral implications of creating them would go on to be a major theme in several more episodes.
It’s notable, though, that some of the show’s least popular episodes are those that go too far to one extreme or the other when it comes to their ending – either a happy ending, which disappoints viewers who enjoy the show because of its dark twists, or a conclusion too bleak and dark to be satisfying.
Only one Black Mirror episode has an unambiguously happy ending; ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ (we’ll come to ‘San Junipero’, ‘USS Callister’ or ‘Hang the DJ’). It’s one of the series’ less popular episodes in its least well-received season to date, largely because the story is mostly fun and adventurous, with a completely cathartic happy ending. This makes it feel more like a teen adventure story than an episode of Black Mirror. Too much happiness, many fans feel, is just not what this show is about.
The Bleakest Stories
On the other end of the scale, some of the episodes with the least enthusiastic defenders are its most bleak. ‘The Waldo Moment’, a dystopian political satire in which a digitally animated bear runs for election and almost wins, ends with the protagonist homeless and being viciously attacked by police. It’s an extremely downbeat conclusion that could perhaps have made the same point without the extra-cynical stinger. ‘Crocodile’, a Scandi-noir story about a woman who kills multiple people including a young child while trying to conceal evidence of a previous murder, has an entirely unsympathetic protagonist and a deeply depressing ending that many find miserable and unpleasant. Soldier virtual reality story ‘Men Against Fire’ combines a predictable halfway-point twist with a bleak ending that makes it both unmemorable and a chore to re-watch.
Other episodes with very dark endings have proved extremely divisive. ‘Shut Up And Dance’, an online blackmailing saga that ends with two paedophiles being forced to fight to the death to protect their despicable secret, which gets revealed regardless, combines the gut punches of ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘White Bear’. Like ‘White Bear,’ the ending also reveals that the protagonist we have been following and rooting for has committed a despicable crime against children, turning our understanding of what we are watching upside down. But while this combination of two dark twists impresses some viewers, it leaves others feeling that the nihilism of the whole thing is too much.
‘Metalhead’ is another divisive episode which frequently appears low on ranking lists. Set in the future, it presents us with a miserable world full of desperate, unhappy people who are all killed in a life-or-death search for a little bit of comfort for a dying child (harm to children is a regular theme in the series’ darkest endings). There’s a lot to enjoy in this instalment, which has minimal dialogue, is filmed in black and white, and features a fantastic central performance from Maxine Peake, but for some it’s simply too bleak to enjoy.
Just How Happy Is That Happy Ending?
What about the Black Mirror episodes with happy endings? There are fewer than we might think. Take ‘Hang the DJ’, a dating app story in which protagonists Amy and Frank meet, fall in love, and break out of their heavily regulated world together and escape to freedom. Hooray! Until… they disappear. Frank and Amy are not biological humans, but digital clones, one couple out of 1000, 998 of whom have succeeded in escaping only to be destroyed, just to provide the biological Frank and Amy with a statistic stating they have a 99.8% chance of falling in love. These intelligent, sentient “cookies” like those seen in other episodes, get destroyed when they reach their objective. Thousands of them, all slaughtered to provide guidance on a dating app?
‘USS Callister’ is closer to a completely happy ending. Our protagonists are the digital copies (they seem to be “cookies” again) who are trapped inside a video game, while the biological human player Daly is clearly the bad guy. In this case, our heroes escape into digital freedom and fly away, abandoning an unmoving Daly to a grim fate. It’s a more or less happy ending – but whereas the evil Aunt Catherine in ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ is left to face the criminal justice system (however horrific that may be in Black Mirror’s world), Daly is left to die, and whether he deserves that is questionable at best. Even worse, the entirely innocent biological Nanette Cole has been blackmailed into committing several crimes and may even come under investigation for Daly’s death. So yes, it is very nearly a happy ending – but not quite unquestionably so.
The most emotionally powerful episodes of Black Mirror, those which move the audience the most, aren’t the grimdark ones. Some of its least divisive, near universally acclaimed episodes are two beautifully bittersweet stories – ‘Be Right Back’ and ‘San Junipero’.
‘Be Right Back’ is one of Black Mirror’s best early episodes. It’s the story of Martha, a widow who orders a robotic version of her late husband Ash. The thematically-named Ash has not been recreated, nor has his consciousness been uploaded; he is not a digital copy or clone of the original. His personality has been created from Ash’s online activity and social media posts. The robot is not Ash – he is ChatGPT’s version of Ash.
This is exactly why Martha eventually consigns him to the attic in the episode’s bittersweet conclusion. Whereas the “cookies” behave exactly like their originals would in any situation, to the point that the criminal justice system uses them to extract confessions, Ash really is just computer code and he cannot replicate the real thing. We see Martha desperately trying to work through her grief, as well as wanting her daughter to know something about her late father, and compromising by shoving the problem into the attic. It’s not a happy ending – Ash is gone, but neither Martha nor her daughter can entirely move on, thanks to this ghost they are keeping upstairs to visit on weekends. But we do see Martha come to the realisation that she cannot replace, replicate or otherwise hang on to Ash, and this is the beginning of her moving on with her life and, hopefully, finding happiness.
Black Mirror’s masterpiece is ‘San Junipero’, which ironically deals with death, grief and technology in a quite different way. It’s the story of the love between Kelly and Yorkie, two elderly women who meet as their younger selves in a virtual reality. Much of the story is a beautiful, bittersweet love story; Yorkie has been paralysed since age 21 and never got to experience a normal life at all, including a love life, and is finally given the chance to experience a loving relationship in the virtual world.
And then we get to the ending, which Brooker himself describes as “upbeat” and which is clearly intended to be happy. Kelly and Yorkie argue because Yorkie wants them both to be euthanised so they can be together all the time in the virtual world of San Junipero (the living are limited in how much time they can spend there, but those whose consciousness is uploaded after death “live” there all the time). Kelly is reluctant because she had a daughter who died before San Junipero existed, and a husband who refused to be uploaded to it after death because their daughter would not be there. She still loves them, and is reluctant to enter into an eternal afterlife without them.
The story dances around, but does not quite address, the issue of what it means to be ‘uploaded to the cloud’ after death. Kelly does not believe in an afterlife of the soul, and the use of the song ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ clearly indicates how we are encouraged to interpret the episode. San Junipero is Heaven, or the only version of it available, and if it’s that or oblivion, why not “live” there for ever?
Numerous science fiction and fantasy stories have explored the idea that living forever might not be quite as appealing after a few centuries, especially in an environment as “unreal” as San Junipero. (So far, most characters on Black Mirror share the writer’s atheism and lack of afterlife belief, but we did see Angelica in ‘Black Museum’ refer to a “cookie” consciousness as her husband’s “soul”.) For anyone who believes in an afterlife for the soul, the idea that Kelly might abandon her husband and daughter to be uploaded to San Junipero is understandable but bittersweet.
The tone of the final scene, as Kelly is euthanised and uploaded and joins Yorkie, is triumphant, and rightly so. Kelly has found new love after tragedy, and Yorkie finally has a chance at love that was denied to her before. It is a happy ending – mostly. But even if you don’t believe in an afterlife of the soul, even if Kelly’s husband and daughter are gone, she is still choosing to live without them for an unspecified period of time, “forever”, if Yorkie gets her wish. Both women are still, biologically speaking, dead, and although their love is very real and their life in San Junipero might be beautiful, it is still taking place in a virtual and unchanging world. This is not a simple happy ending, it’s a bittersweet ending full of loss and grief behind the love and joy, and that is exactly what makes it so powerful.
Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix.