Can You “Win” Black Mirror: Bandersnatch?

 

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Disclaimer: Contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Author’s note: I’m going to be referring to Bandersnatch as a game in this article, because it makes more sense to use this word within this context.

Since its release, Black Mirror‘s interactive nightmare Bandersnatch has drawn people into its labyrinth in search of secrets. While it seems that all possible endings have, at this point, been discovered, it is still up for debate which ending is the “true” ending. While, cinematically, the “5-Star” ending might seem the most in-keeping with Black Mirror‘s usual vibe, there’s something about it that seems too obvious. It doesn’t subvert our expectations, it just plays into them. We expect Stefan to end up like Jerome F. Davies, descending into a rabbit hole of paranoia and violence. Nothing about this ending is surprising.

As a gamer, I went into Bandersnatch with the mindset that I needed to get the “true” ending, and I knew well that the “true” ending isn’t always the most obvious. Silent Hill 2 and Bloodborne are prime examples of the true endings being the more depressing and unsettling. In my mind, the true ending to this unconventional story wouldn’t be the easiest to get, it wouldn’t be found at the end of the most conspicuous path, and it wouldn’t be one of the copy-paste endings with a review at the end. Seeking the highest rating for Stefan’s game was only playing into expectations, and going for the easiest answers. Notice how the first REAL choice we are given in Bandersnatch is whether or not to work at Tuckersoft, and making the more obvious choice of accepting the offer leads us to an unsatisfying ending, for both Stefan and ourself, the player. It’s only when you make the risky choice that you can progress. This fact, to me, is very telling of what the true ending of Bandersnatch is meant to be.

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There are many ways to lose a game. There’s far fewer ways to win. You can finish the game, get a review, and be fooled into thinking that you’ve successfully gotten the high score, but you’ve only done what the game expected you to. Only what it wanted you to. You played into the programming, and were controlled just as much as Stefan was. Bandersnatch expects you to go mad, kill your father, and finish making the game. To really beat the game, you have to get Stefan away from the dark fate Bandersnatch has planned for him.

There is only one ending that has you diverge from the path of slavishly completing the game. Only one that fulfills the Stefan’s wants and needs, not those of the player. Only one that actually frees Stefan from the endlessly cycling maze.

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The “TOY” ending, where Stefan goes back in time, finds Rabbit, and embarks on the fateful train ride with his mother, resulting in his spontaneous death in the current time line.

Changing the events surrounding his mother’s death is the only way to truly break Stefan out of the endless cycle of madness, murder, and imprisonment. While the result of changing history is bleak, it is the only ending that does not result in Stefan’s imprisonment, and is (arguably) more merciful. In his death, he is actually freed from the maze. It is the only way he can escape the confines of Program and Control.

Think about it: Throughout the course of Bandersnatch, we’re told over and over again that we need to break free. We’re challenged to escape the limitations of the programming, as impossible as that seemingly is. While we are still controlling Stefan no matter what path we go down, it is possible for us to choose a path for him that gives him closure, and allows him to rest in peace rather than driving him down a path that destroys him and everyone around him. No matter how you slice it, the “TOY” ending is the one that causes Stefan to suffer the least. It also allows him to confront his personal demons, rather than him being driven mad by them.

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We are constantly being told, don’t give in. Don’t make the easy choices. Don’t go for the obvious paths. In a sense, we are playing against the game Bandersnatch itself. The premise of the game tricks us, suggesting that the only goal we have is to complete Stefan’s video game. But doing that only causes him suffering, and surrenders to the trappings of obvious and easy answers. It’s easy to give in. It’s easy to let Stefan become single-minded and only care about the game, letting his own life fall to shambles as a result. What’s harder to do is to look for the deeper, more obscure path, and release our Pac-Man from his programming.

 

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Netflix’s ‘Maniac’ Review (No Spoilers)

With such hit series as Stranger ThingsBlack Mirror, and Ozark to live up to, Netflix is under a lot of pressure to release the next great dark horse success. With Cary Fukunaga of True Detective and Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers as the director and creator respectively, you could expect great things from their latest effort, the limited series Maniac. The only problem is, you could expect a lot of bad things, too.

I could not have been more blown away by the first three episodes of Maniac. Stylistically and thematically, it heavily draws on the works of Philip K. Dick, the mind behind Total Recall and Minority Report. Like Dick’s stories, Maniac plays on themes of paranoia, isolation, and insanity. Our story follows two characters, Annie and Owen, who are both struggling with mental illness and family conflict. Their paths lead them both to a trial for a new pharmaceutical that promises to eventually do away with therapy, by resolving peoples’ psychological issues through induced dream-like experiences. During the course of the trial, we learn about the skeletons in Annie and Owen’s closets, and attempt to resolve these issues by going over them.

Again. And again. And again. And again.

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For at least five episodes, as the trial goes into the “B pill” testing phase, they go over the same information, and the plot goes nowhere. While the first three episodes do a good job of setting a tone, constructing a world, and getting us invested in our characters, all the episodes in the middle completely undo that. Rather than making good use of the world they’ve already done an excellent job in establishing, Maniac goes off in haphazard and pointless directions for no apparent reason other than to do something ‘wacky,’ because, apparently, going on inexplicable and self-indulgent tangents is a proper substitute for actual substance these days.

While there is some tongue-in-cheek humor established early on, by the middle, the series has gone off the deep end into over-the-top goofiness. It’s a true shame, because Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are better in this series than I have ever seen them before, and really proved that they have grown as performers since they appeared together in 2007’s Superbad and can deliver grown-up, mature, and compelling performances. While they still give good performances in the episodes after, it loses much of its impact in the flood of irredeemably lame gimmicks. By the ending, the series has regained some of its form, but, overall, it’s just a completely different show by then, and I hardly care what happens to the characters.

 

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Besides the terrible excuse for humor, the episodes in the B-pill phase have another inexcusable flaw: They essentially present us with a mystery to which we already know the answer, rendering the investigation next to pointless. And, in case we somehow didn’t get the “metaphors,” we’re given a lengthy exposition scene, explaining to us in unnecessary detail exactly what it represented. For clarification, but without spoilers, here’s what we sit through: First, we witness the back story of our characters. Then, we sit through a “dream sequence” full of metaphors for the back story that we just witnessed. Finally, the character explains their back story again, and how the metaphors tied in with it. This recycling of information over the course of multiple episodes is mind-numbingly boring, and absolutely killed my interest in the characters, their struggles, their development, their resolutions, etc. As much as I had empathized with them previously, I now just wanted to get to the end of the series so I could be done with it.

It’s a tragedy to see something as amazing as Maniac‘s first three episodes lead into something as trite, dull, and uninspired as its remaining episodes. What could have been a masterpiece ended up just a lot of failed potential. I wish I could whole-heartedly recommend this series to you. As it is, I’m left warning you ahead of time, you’ll never get to see the ending to the amazing story you’re presented with. Instead, you get to watch a so-stupid-it’s-offensive sketch show with some sci-fi wraparound.

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‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ Review (No Spoilers)

On a very off chance, two or three years ago, I happened to come across a photo online that was taken of Nicole Kidman on the set of a new film. The name of the film? How to Talk to Girls at Parties. I was taken aback. Wait, what? Like that little story by Neil Gaiman that nobody’s really heard of? Curious, I looked into it, and proceeded to keep tabs on it. After a couple years passed, I figured, something must have happened, they never finished it, or they finished it but couldn’t get it distributed, or something. I was disappointed.

But earlier this year, a trailer for the film popped up, reigniting my excitement. Not only was this a take on a story from my favorite Gaiman collection (Fragile Things), but they’d merged it with the 1977 punk scene, a subject close to my heart. The trailer didn’t completely sell me on it, I was very skeptical. How do you stretch out an 18-page story and make a feature length film out of it? Did they just make up a bunch of nonsense to fill in the run time?

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a charming movie that, while it massively embellishes on a very short story, stays true to the spirit of Gaiman’s works: Fairy tales for grown-ups, that can still capture wonder and imagination no matter what your age or walk of life. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun, and fits in very well with Gaiman’s world. I would even put it above Stardust (2007), which I thought was too exaggerated, too Hollywood, and didn’t do the source material’s endearing whimsical nature justice. How to Talk to Girls is an indie film through and through, and the creative enthusiasm of the team behind it shows. This isn’t a movie made to make money, to feed to the masses in convenient servings of banality; it is something either you like or you don’t, and it is unapologetic about its personality.

The plot goes as such: Enn, a teenage punk in 1977 Croydon, goes to the wrong party, and ends up meeting some very strange girls, including Zan, an outsider. She, like Enn, is frustrated with the status quo and restrictions of her society, and wishes to break outside of it. He takes her to explore the world of punk rock, in which she promptly flourishes. However, the true nature behind Zan, her people, and her purpose, slowly comes to light, until Enn realizes he and his friends must take action or risk losing her forever.

The film could certainly be accused of being built around the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, but I would argue that Zan shows too much agency, and that the story is truly about her journey to self-realization, while Enn is more there as an aid and witness to her development, and learns about himself along the way. At first blush, Enn does appear to be the protagonist, and he does have his own arc, of course, but Zan is the real hero of the story, who grows beyond her limitations into something greater. It’s a nice change of pace from so many films of this kind, that are about an awkward boy gaining confidence through his supportive girlfriend to achieve his dreams. This movie does service to all of its characters, Zan and Enn in particular, of course. They both have times to shine, arcs to fulfill, and greater things to become.

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That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its low points. It is very obviously the victim of poor editing, as Nicole Kidman’s Bodicea character is under-developed, with scenes fleshing her out further seemingly missing, causing some of the dialogue between her and protagonist Enn make little sense. The special effects are also spotty, details of Zan’s collective are somewhat confusing, and some concepts are undercooked. There is a vaguely environmental theme that crops up from time to time, but it is inconsistent and never fully realized.

One thing I’m not sure if I should criticize or not is Vic’s arc. Vic attends the party with Enn at the beginning, and has an experience he doesn’t quite understand. Throughout the film, we see moments of discomfort from him, which, eventually, he is required to face up to. However, exactly what that is that he is facing is unclear. I could extrapolate plenty of answers, and just because something requires you to think and come to your own conclusions doesn’t make it bad, but I feel like the movie might have benefited from clarifying this particular plot point.

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Overall, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is not a perfect film, but it does its source material justice and is an enjoyable ride, and in this age of multi-million dollar blockbuster trash heaps, supporting indie films is important. While the special effects are low-budget, it remains visually striking, from the set design, to the costumes, and the group performances with the punks and Zan’s people. While the very basic concept behind the story is one of the oldest tropes — forbidden love between two teenagers — it manages to give it a fresh twist and subvert your expectations.

The movie is available for free with an Amazon Prime subscription, and you can stream it on YouTube and Google Play.

 

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