Warning: this article contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Read a spoiler-free review here
Charlie Brooker's new Black Mirror special, Bandersnatch, is a future-shock ghost ride in which a recurring nightmare splinters into a multitude of equally horrific endings.
But technophobic disquiet is only the start of the fun. Arriving amid a storm of hype, Netflix's first foray into grown-up interactive viewing (kids have been enjoying a choose-your-own Minecraft adventure for weeks) has prompted much delight, bafflement and internet deep diving.
With more than five hours of footage and dozens of possible pathways, a definitive disentangling of the many threads is about as plausible as proving, with diagrams and calculus, how Santa makes his sleigh fly. But what's clear is that several distinct stories are spring-loaded into an interactive episode which, if you're watching properly, should take about 90 minutes.
Yet to be confirmed are claims, widely reported online, of just five "true" conclusions. Nonetheless thorough viewers will have already reached the closing credits via a variety of circuitous routes.
Stefan Butler, our deranged hero, is banged up for killing his father in one wrenching storyline. In another he is dragged away giggling insanely after a karate fight with his therapist. Brooker elsewhere smashes to smithereens the fourth wall and has the actor playing Stefan struggling to distinguish reality from fever dream.
It is also possible to send Stefan plunging to his death from the top of an apartment block (bad for him, worse for the video game he's toiling over). Most heartbreaking of all is the sequence in which Stefan dies with his mother in a train crash. It will leave you with a lump in your throat and a madly twitching frontal lobe. Here's what you need to know about Bandersnatch's many twists and turns.
Whatever you choose, you always lose
Which ending did you arrive at on first viewing? The one in which, as outlined above, five year-old Stefan gets on the train with his mother, while back in "present day" 1984 the grown-up version suddenly slumps over dead in his therapist's office?
Or did you make it to the meta reveal where "Michael", the actor playing Stefan (in turn played by Fionn Whitehead), tries to escape through a window only for the camera to pull back, revealing a TV studio and a confused Netflix director?
Perhaps you reached what felt like a more "successful" payoff – such as when Stefan brains his dad with an ash-tray, chops him up in the bath and then puts the finishing touches to Bandersnatch, the video game he has gone mad creating. But whether any of them really feels like winning is up for debate.
Sometimes bad decisions might be the best decisions
One important point is that Bandersnatch isn't a video game. Or at least if it is, it's one that fails horribly.
Just five minutes in, as Stefan visits the offices of shady software supremo Mohan Tucker (Asim Chaudhry), he is presented with the choice of bringing Bandersnatch into the Tuckersoft fold or writing it semi-independently at home.
Sensibly opting for the former hurries proceedings to a swiftish fade-out (the reviewer from the Tomorrow's World-type TV show critiques Bandersnatch as "way too short… over before it's even begun") – though you have the option of rewinding and trying over.
Similarly, if you chose not to follow genius programmer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) and instead accompany Stefan's father (Craig Parkinson) to the therapist, you are hastened along to an conclusion in which Bandersnatch is completed but the television reviewer dismisses it as bland and half-hearted.
What it all means is that Bandersnatch is best approached as a meditation on free choice – and homage to the gung-ho video game industry of the Eighties – rather than the equivalent of something you might enjoy on your Playstation; try to "win", and you'll end up with a less satisfying story.
Should you encourage Colin to jump or take the plunge yourself?
Colin cajoles Stefan into taking acid to help dig his way out of his Bandersnatch rut. After philosophising about the nature of reality and explaining how we're all like Pac-Man trapped in his maze, the ace coder challenges Stefan with a dare.
Given that we exist across multiple-dimensions, there is no such thing as a true death, he declares. So one of them might as well jump over the side of Colin's apartment block.
If you choose Colin, then he plunges to his seeming demise and Stefan is chased out of the building by Pax – the nightmarish monster dreamt up by the deranged creator of the original Bandersnatch chose-your-own adventure book. However, if you leap then Stefan dies and the game is finished half-heartedly by Colin and receives a duff review. Either way, there is no right answer.
Is Stefan's dad an innocent victim or villain?
Fleeing Colin's apartment, Stefan continues to go batty working on Bandersnatch. For his next trick he sneaks into his dad's locked office and tries to access the safe. Depending on your earlier choices, two of a possible four passwords are presented. Pac, Toy, Pax or JFD.
"Toy" reveals the lockbox to contain the metaphorical bunny Stefan's father took from him as a child. As we see in flashback, this caused Stefan to protest the following morning and lead his mother to miss her train. That in turn sent her to her death in the subsequent rail accident.
Now, Stefan rewinds again to that fateful moment. Five year-old Stefan is caught by his father retrieving the confiscated bunny. But dad relents, letting him keep the toy. The next day Stefan has the option of joining his mother on the doomed 8.45 am service, where both will die together to the strains of Laurie Anderson's 1981 single O Superman. Back in the "present", Stefan slumps over in the office of Doctor Haynes (Alice Lowe) – suddenly, definitively dead.
Answering “Pac” on the other hand reveals that Stefan is a glorified guinea pig. His father – at any rate someone posing as his father – has been recording Stefan's entire life, from childhood to the present day.
Worse yet, the bunny trauma was an experiment. Stefan's mother was portrayed by an actress and the incident took place in a mocked-up bedroom. "Pac" stands for "Programme and Control" – meaning Stefan's whole world is a delusion. Little wonder he slams dad over the noggin with an ash-tray shortly afterwards.
“Pax”, for its part, summons Bandersnatch's demon monster while “JFD” conjures the murderous writer Jerome F Davies himself – played by none other than revolutionary early video game designer Jeff Minter. He "kills" Stefan, who then awakens from his bad dream and continues towards the confrontation with his father.
Is the 'Netflix' ending the most entertaining conclusion?
Slaving over his ZX Spectrum, Stefan receives a visitation. Again, depending on what's already happened, the viewer must decide whether Stefan is contacted by Pac, by an embodiment of Davies's paranoia or by Netflix. "What's Netflix?" he wonders if you pick the final option.
He's quickly back at Haynes's office spilling the contents of his head. If this really is all unfolding for the entertainment of those in the future then surely the drama would be more exciting, she posits. "Wouldn't you like more excitement?".
Therapist and client are soon going at it action movie style, regardless of whether you answer "yeah" or "F--- yeah" (the latter obviously being the correct response). Stay and fight and the episode ends with the crazed Stefan dragged off by his dad.
Attempt to climb out the window, though, and it's time for a bonus infusion of meta. Suddenly we're on a sound-stage where the actor portraying Stefan has become confused and believes that he is living the episode. The director calls for a medic and it's a slow fade to black.
Is chopping up dad the only way to 'win' Bandersnatch?
If you uncover the father's role in the shady Pac experiment and then crack him with the ashtray, you will have the option of either burying or dismembering the body.
A tip-off against the first choice has been kindly provided by an earlier shot of a neighbour's dog digging up the yard. If you nevertheless decide to bury him then Stefan is arrested and Bandersnatch reviewed as a flawed failure, memorable only for the grisly circumstances surrounding its release.
Slicing up the remains, by contrast, gives Stefan the peace of mind to complete the game in his own good time. It is heralded as a masterpiece, though he is still subsequently apprehended for the death of his father. Nonetheless, his madness has bequeathed to the world a work of genius. In the present, meanwhile, Colin Ritman's daughter Pearl announces her plan to remake Bandersnatch for a new generation – and then starts to go mad as she, too, plunges down the rabbit hole.
Did you bring down Tuckersoft with you?
Then there is the ending in which Colin's wife Kitty calls to Stefan in search of the missing programming ace, last seen jumping over the side of his balcony. She claims to have never previously met Stefan – raising once again the possibility that Stefan is an unreliable narrator and that much of the drama is unfolding inside his head.
With all of these distractions, Stefan never finishes Bandersnatch and Tuckersoft goes down. Tucker acknowledges that Stefan's murdered dad drew the short straw while making it clear that he's a victim too.
Is the episode's ultimate Easter egg a real video game?
There are references to past Black Mirror episodes Metalhead and Nosedive in games written by Ritman for Tuckersoft. The symbol Davies daubs on the wall after beheading his wife, for its part, is identical to the fan favourite "white bear" logo. However the ultimate hidden treasure might be contained in a post-credits sequence some viewers have discovered.
We rejoin Stefan on the bus, just like at the start, only now he is listening to the screech of a ZX Spectrum loading screen. One theory swirling about is that if that those sounds are converted into code they might translate into a playable version of Bandersnatch. That squelching sound is your brain about to implode.