Bandersnatch: the illusion of free will

Bandersnatch loading screen Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

*Spoilers throughout*

I’ve been intrigued by Black Mirror and its themes since it began. Through the topics discussed within the show it invites us (or somewhat forces us) to look inward at ourselves, our morals and our behaviour. Each episode is a stand-alone story, reflecting on the society humanity has created and the dangers that lie ahead if we utilise technology in a perilous way.

Choice screen when Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) is offered a job at Tuckersoft Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

Their first ever interactive film, Bandersnatch, has caught a large amount of attention from the public due to this new concept that allows you to choose your own fate. Every few minutes you get given two choices (e.g. Frosties or Sugar Puffs) and ten seconds to click a choice – the path your storyline goes down is solely up to the choices made by the viewer, some choices having larger significance than others. There are over five main endings and at every dead end there is the chance to revisit the last important choice or to restart completely. The variety of these choices makes us question how much free will is given regarding the viewer and the protagonist’s actions – we’ll be looking more at that later.

The film follows Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young video game programmer in 1984, who is undergoing the creation of a choose-your-own-adventure game ‘Bandersnatch’, based off a book of the same name. The book is written by Jerome F. Davies whose detoreation of sanity results in him cutting his wife’s head off. Something is telling me this isn’t going to end well…

Stefan visits Tuckersoft, a successful video game company to pitch his idea where he meets Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), his favourite programmer. At face value we are presented with an oddball video game programmer but he seems to become a mentor of Stefan’s from the second he meets him. He seeks to understand Stefan and give him advice – if the viewer declines the offer to work at Tuckersoft Colin agrees that working alone is more beneficial.

Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) showing Stefan and Moham Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) his new video game Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

He also has this all-knowing presence as well – if Stefan chooses to accept the offer straight away, Colin says “wrong path” and the story loops back to the previous decision again. He appears to be aware of the parallel realities and existing within the loop – every time the story restarts the clip of Stefan meeting Colin now shows him saying “we’ve met before” which is untrue other than through the looping of the story.

Stefan is presented as a rather passive character and seems to hate feeling watched and reviewed. His uncertainty and lack of sense of self is evident from the start, as he mentions talking to his therapist (Alice Lowe) that he feels ‘monitored’ and out of control of his choices (I wonder why). This portrayal of anxiety and low self esteem makes us sympathise with Stefan, and his self aware nature begins to change the tone of the film, making the viewer feel more uncomfortable and concerned as to whether he will discover the audience.

In Stefan’s first session with his therapist is where we discover (if you choose to talk about it) what happened to his mother and this leads to the only opportunity where you don’t get given a choice – (possibly due to it being a flashback) this immediately takes away this idea of free will and choice. Stefan’s five year old self’s stubborn decision has dire consequences – is this why he can’t trust his own judgement? This loss has led to a life of uncertainty over his choices and actions – perhaps this is why he is so intrigued by Bandersnatch and being able to have control over other people’s choices and storylines (ironically, but hey, that’s Black Mirror for you). His mother ends up getting on a later train than originally planned (that derails) because Stefan can’t find his beloved rabbit toy that his father (Craig Parkinson) has hidden – his whole life he blames his dad due to his own overwhelming guilt.

After deciding to work from home to create Bandersnatch, Stefan slowly becomes overwhelmed with programming. This, of course being a Black Mirror piece, acts as a warning of technology and its capabilities – the new innovative software causes Stefan’s mental health to deteriorate. He begins to disconnect from the real world and focuses on nothing but completing the Bandersnatch game. He becomes so consumed in the story and the structure that he starts to believe that he too is on a set path. He begins to lose all sense of control and self.

Stefan’s medication Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

There is the choice to go back to Colin’s house to seek support and advice where he offers Stefan a tab of acid – if the viewer decides against taking the tab Colin slips it into his cup of tea anyway and remarks that he ‘chose for him’. During their trip Colin discusses a ‘spirit’ controlling us and how PAC man is a reflection of society – he is ‘programmed and controlled’ and can only consume looping round and round in small circuits, pursued by demons. Stefan is living his life in the format of a video game, a never-ending loop that he is trapped in.

Jerome F. Davies’ office after deterioration of sanity Credit: Netflix / Bandersnatch

Colin gifts Stefan a taped documentary to watch on Jerome F. Davies’ life and his spiral into insanity – Stefan becomes paranoid, as Davies did, that he is being controlled and drugged and begins to question his own free will. The documentary explains how Davies believed he had no control over his fate therefore suggesting his actions were guilt-free if his fate was dictated for him. Stefan, having always been haunted by guilt since he was five ends up (if the viewer chooses to) killing his father – the choice is perceived as not his to choose. He obeys but appears to do so with restraint, yelling that he’s “not in control”.

One of the endings shows Stefan talking about the finished result of Bandersnatch, discussing the stripping back of loads of choice giving the illusion of free will and stresses how he gets to decide the ending – does this suggest a switch around in power play? We, the viewer, have been perceived as the more authoritative part of the game, however the illusion of free will is being reflected onto us, giving the whole experience and story a deeper level to it. Did Stefan always have the intention to kill? Is the whole film a piece of video game software that he has created?

Whether Stefan decided his fate or not, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch is available to stream on Netflix now