The Frumious Gallimaufry
5 January 2019
Of course I was excited to watch the Netflix Bandersnatch interactive television special. It’s not enough that it acts as a full-length Black Mirror episode: it premiered the new viewer choice experience. We became, as protagonist Stefan understands it, co-agents in his own fate, compelling his choices even while he resists us.
Not more than five or six hours after its premiere, streaming addicts were posting maps of all the possible endings, having triggered one plot string after another through the night. At first, I was bemused by the posts, the desperate calls to be “First!” on some Reddit thread. But I wonder, too, if our desire to map all of the possibilities of the program is also one to re-acquire the illusion of control, of knowledge.
New Yorker magazine’s Simon Parkin worries that Bandersnatch offers viewers “an antidote to regret.” By mapping out its multiple plots, viewers go on a kind of “treasure hunt,” and so we can discover all of the work’s narrative choices. But Parkin rightly worries that lightening the burden of choice removes the import of narrative consequence. That is, the pleasure of narrative is weakened if we receive all the do-overs of a video game.
The mastery of gaming does rely upon repetitive iterations of play, where story takes a virtually non-existent backseat to the patterned punches of a few keys. While Bandersnatch technology has only two choices (so far), perhaps it is wrong to categorize this form of entertainment as filmic or literary at all. How many keys must be added before it becomes the streaming equivalent of 1983’s Dragon’s Lair? That the Black Mirror folks were able to cleverly break a fourth wall/screen in a layered Inception-style reality redeems the game for a new angle on plot twists: but how many future interactive exploits can play that trick again?
If we, on the other hand, insist that this Lewis Carroll-inspired critter is a work of narration, I share Parkin’s concern. The exaltation of success, the regret from misstep, the resolve from a decision irreversible, all are essential to humanity. Dogs, crows, and mice all learn patterns of behavior through forced repetition: humans existentially resolve and bear responsibility. What the import of Abraham’s knife over Isaac if he knew he could guess again?
Robert Frost says plainly that two choices are more than enough to give life pause:
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence…
And the power of Frost’s idea is not that he is proud of his choice, but that whatever choice he made, it is likely insurmountable. In this sense, it is no wonder that Bandersnatch’s Stefan resists so much the simple choice (ear lobe or nail-biting?) when he understands it is not only his survival but his humanity at stake.
We, as viewers, in this first of Netflix’s experiments, take his choices away. It is not, however, a case of the reader usurping the author. We may delude ourselves in believing that the future of literature is an open world of exploratory Choose-Your-Own-Adventure television, but this cannot be true while the Author determines what these choices are or under what circumstances they may be made. With thousands of streaming choices already before us, this media porridge–this gallimaufry of pseudo-narrative–all emerges from the same corporate pot and for the same motivation: to entertain and distract us, but not to ever (please, never) make a choice of true consequence.
In this way the horror of the Bandersnatch is not its many-layered cleverness or even its techno-spiritual wizardry spouted by the hallucinogenic guru Colin. Bandersnatch sells back to us the critical importance of choice (perhaps to the sound of bubble gum chewing) even while distracting us into believing we make any while watching it. And if the ratings are any sign, this monster will spawn hundreds or thousands just like it.
What the import of Abraham’s knife over Isaac if he knew he could guess again?
Already we are overwhelmed by a world of too many choices, and again Frost might remind us of our weakness before it:
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
His “The Armful” is an exercise in desperation before the onslaught of our gluttony for choices. No wonder the Reddit crowd similarly fought to map every morsel of the puzzle. And no wonder the Black Mirror crowd stood more than ready to feed that obsession. As I write this, more mappers have discovered a Bandersnatch post-credit scene sound byte that–I kid you not–when rendered on a ZX Spectrum computer (circa 1984) offers a QR Code that leads to a fictional retro gaming website.
We want thousands of choices yet to bear the consequences for none. We want no choices if those choices may work to define us. We build anxiety over this paradox that leaves us both paralyzed and dissatisfied. Happiness, argues Barry Schwartz, comes only from decisions with consequence.
And so we return to Lewis Carroll, who set us on this snarky quest in the first place. His “Jabberwocky” poem delights not only for its clever portmanteaus, but for the short and satisfying adventure of its boy adventurer. We know this absolutely: the Jabberwock, the Jub-Jub bird, and the Bandersnatch are all hugely dangerous, and his hunt will result only in one of two outcomes, his success or his death. Though carrying the archetypal wise advice of the old man and a vorpal sword, he is out-matched. And we, as readers, can do little but walk with him:
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
If the heroes of our literature so inspire this true human risk, to what does Bandersnatch inspire us?