Ever make a choice in life and wonder what things might have been like if you made a different one? I certainly have. It’s tempting and downright seductive to consider the many paths that could have been if only we took one step in another direction. But does that really matter?
Studies have shown that there’s anxiety in having choice. The more choice there is, the more stress one faces in making that choice. Though relevant and well-crafted, ‘Black Mirror’ is already a stressful enough experience without the added interactive feature of choosing your own adventure. With ‘Bandersnatch’, they’ve put the demonic cherry on top. Face it, people. The future is NOW!!!
Set in 1984, ‘Bandersnatch’ sees the character Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) programming a new video game adapted from the Jerome F. Davies novel of the same name (this isn’t a real novel). Like the book, the video game allows players to choose their own adventure, paralleling our own experience watching Stefan.
***Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead***
By now you’ve probably realized (or Google’d) that there are official credit endings and secret endings, prompting many to search for the one “true” ending. Secret endings are fun for any puzzle geek, but what’s most interesting about this film is its use of interactive programming to comment on free will – how we value it by how we experience it.
**Tip: Watch with a partner. Bingeing alone is just begging for an existential crisis.
It’s not hard to draw the parallel between our mutual feelings of deceit when it comes to the level of control we think we have: Netflix viewers having control over the narrative vs. Stefan having control over his actions and by extension, his life.
As he becomes more aware of our presence, he believes we’re in control (through a sign from White Bear or even Netflix itself), but we’re not. We didn’t write the show or program its alternative storylines the way Stefan programs his game. We can only choose what’s presented before us and those choices carry limitations. Our clicker rests on one side as our choices appear at the bottom of the screen – subtly suggesting how we ought to continue our adventure. There are inconsequential options such as “Yes” or “fuck yeah” or “throw them away” [pills] vs. “flush them” providing the illusion of a possible different path and yet it’s just a choice with the same result (at least that we’re aware of).
Then, there’s not having an option altogether in certain sequences, like the first time Stefan’s mother asks a young Stefan if he would like to go with her to the late train in lieu of searching for his toy bunny. The sole option is to say, “no” (this changes later on in different paths) and by doing so, saves his life. You’d think this an obvious decision as Stefan acts as our vessel, but we’re presented the same choice of saving Stefan’s life when asked which between he and Colin is going to jump off a balcony. Both choices ring true regardless of Stefan cutting that sequence short with his death. To add to the chaos, we must also navigate how the choices change as you go back to the same sequences and make another choice. Is this really a new detail? Or am I making it up? It makes for an unnerving experience, but in the end it’s nothing if not entertaining.
If we’re in control, yet unaware of the consequences or the implications of our choices, then what’s the point in having the choice? This begs the question, is ‘Black Mirror’ measuring our choices? We’re forced to acknowledge their responsibility to drive the story despite giving us some say, which means, despite temporary participation weaving between the roles of puppet and puppeteer, ultimately we’re the thrill-seeker on the ride – not the engineer. It seems an oversimplification to drop everything and allot to enjoy it, but ‘Bandersnatch’ commands just that. Once my brother and ‘Bandersnatch’ partner-in-binge decided he’d had enough after six endings, he left with a sigh of defeat saying, “I feel like a damn test subject.” It’s a telling statement to say the least and came to define this experience as a whole.
Visiting as many narratives as possible builds a kind of fatigue: sometimes you choose by omission (letting the 10-second clock run out). Mirroring real life, you can’t rewind once you’ve made a particular choice, and if you refuse, time is always there to make the choice for you, if not someone else.
COLIN RITMAN AND ‘ THE HOLE’
Speaking of “someone else”, one character worth paying attention to is Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), famous veteran programmer at TuckerSoft. As Stefan returns to the beginning of an early sequence, Colin changes his responses, aware of Stefan’s movement between parallel realities: “we’ve met before. I told you I’d see you around.” A phrase he said on the balcony before jumping to his death (if you chose that for him).
Colin introduces himself immediately as an ally, commenting on Stefan’s choice to utilize TuckerSoft’s team for the game or work alone. Colin eventually acts as a guide to get him out of “the hole” when Stefan’s reached a state of incertitude for the program’s next steps, but is he someone he should trust? The hole represents a feeling of being lost to which we all can relate. Instructing him to “grab a pew,” the sequence is something like a baptism and he’s the priest intent on enlightening Stefan – offering him drugs to aid his path toward freedom:
“People think there’s one reality, but there’s loads of them, all snaking off, like roots. And what we do on one path affects what happens on the other paths. Time is a construct. People think you can’t go back and change things, but you can, that’s what flashbacks are. They’re invitations to go back and make different choices…The whole thing’s a metaphor. He thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze in a system, all he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze what happens? He comes right back in the other side…There’s a cosmic flowchart that dictates where you can and where you can’t go. I’ve given you the knowledge. I’ve set you free.” – Colin
Still with me? Great. This speech traces multiple storylines – his words coming to fruition in different lines on the flowchart, but the most important note, however, is the symbol of the maze. In short, hindsight is 20/20 as we go about the maze, but to utilize this power does not necessarily yield a more satisfying result or evolution in character. You’re the same person – just on a different route.
Despite choices which reveal themselves as either instrumental or inconsequential, what matters is that in an atmosphere where the only constant is change, we made them. The film takes ample opportunity in referring to the “illusion” of free will. This is evidenced by one of the accounts in the Jerome F. Davies tape sent to Stefan by none other than Colin. In this tape, we’re shown an in-depth look as to how Davies drove himself mad fighting demons in his mind, eventually killing his wife. His therapist comes to the conclusion, “…which renders free will meaningless,” but that’s not true.
Stefan’s growing obsession with his lack of control only serves to distract him from his primary task of finishing his video game. When he does finish the game, he does so only to find out he’s still the one who loses: his respect (with a bad game rating), his freedom (prison for killing his father), his mind (while in prison), or even his life (the train). This means, it was never about conquering the game, it was about conquering yourself – your obsession and need for control.
“Stefan, you couldn’t have known.” Now that we’ve reached the end of our adventure – now that he takes his knowledge and makes the choice to go back and skip looking for his rabbit, it stands to reason that he prevented his mother’s death on that 8:45 train. But who’s to say she wouldn’t have had another accident? Who’s to say they both would have been killed in circumstances after the train crash? There are many questions and even more possibilities.
The point is whatever you choose, whatever forces you believe exist behind these choices, it isn’t up to us to dissect them. It’s up to us to live them and be present in them… Or don’t. After all, that’s your choice.