(This article contains major spoilers for both Black Mirror's Bandersnatch and The OA Season II.)
For a moment, the camera remains focused on the protagonist's bewildered face.
Then it pans out to reveal that the entire world of the show we've just been watching was nothing more than a TV set. Cameramen and directors scurry around; the actors fix their costumes. The main character stares, open-mouthed.
If you make a particular series of choices, you'll arrive at this scene in Black Mirror's Bandersnatch. You can also see it in Season II of The OA, when—extreme spoiler alert—detective Karim Washington finally peers out the mysterious Rose Window, and sees a dimension in which everyone he knows is only an actor in a movie set.
In Bandersnatch, this revelation occurs in a therapist's office, and in The OA it happens on the top floor of a San Francisco mansion, but despite these immediate differences, the two scenes are uncannily similar.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch -- Neflix Fight Scene www.youtube.com
The OA: Part II - 2x08 - Ending Scene (1080p) www.youtube.com
This is only one of the many major parallels between two of Netflix's most mysterious, mind-bending shows. Initially, they start with very different premises. Charlie Brooker's
Bandersnatch is a two-hour-long roller coaster, notable for its "choose your own adventure" feature, which allows viewers to design their own plot by making various decisions at different points. (Choices range from which kind of cereal to choose to whether the protagonist should kill his father). The protagonist in question is a young computer game coder named Stefan, and the show follows him as he descends into madness while designing an ever-more complex computer game.
The OA is Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's ambitious, fourteen-episode brainchild. Its first season follows Marling's character, Prairie, as she tells the story of her near-death experience and subsequent abduction by the show's villain, Hap, a scientist who has become obsessed with studying the brains of people who have brushed close with death. The first season ended on a major cliffhanger; the second begins in a new dimension, when Prairie awakens to find herself inside the body of Nina Azarova, a Russian socialite and medium living the life she would have if not for her NDE.
Objectively, the shows aren't that similar—after all, Bandersnatch takes place in the '80s and mostly focuses on an isolated Stefan as he descends into homicidal madness. On the other hand, the ultra-modern cast of The OA includes everyone from Zendaya to a massive, talking octopus named Old Night.
Image via Buzzfeed
Image via Buzzfeed
Still, upon closer inspection, the similarities are undeniable. Here are some of the most notable places where the two shows' universes meet.
A Computer Game as a Portal to Multiple Realities
In The OA's second season, children lose their minds as they attempt to win money by playing a computer game, which leads them into a mansion that's actually a portal to other universes. The mansion itself is designed to work as a continuation of the game, which allows winners to reach the Rose Window and its mind-bending, reality-altering view.
Similarly, in Bandersnatch, Stefan loses his mind while designing a game that leads him to question every aspect of his reality. While attempting to understand these games, both the kids in The OA and Stefan draw cryptic illustrations on their bedroom walls, isolate themselves, and wind up harming themselves and everyone around them. In each show, the central game lures characters in by promising greatness and wealth—but instead leads them towards either a state of enlightened understanding or paralyzing madness.
Ultimately, both shows use games and technology as vessels that can be used to leap between worlds. Both identify alternate realities that run alongside each other and that intersect at certain points; and both claim that—through deep science, communion with nature, or a few well-placed dance movements—it might be possible to cross from this world to the next.
A Charismatic Tech Guru with Dangerous Theories
One of the most memorable moments in Bandersnatch is the scene where Stefan drops acid with Colin, the Steve Jobs-esque brains behind the tech company Tuckersoft. As soon as the drug kicks in, Colin delivers one of the trippiest monologues in modern television history.
Black Mirror - Bandersnatch (Colin's speech about the PAC-man metaphore) www.youtube.com
Image via Reddit
Colin is a prophetic source of wisdom throughout the show—just like The OA's leading tech guru, Silicon Valley 'prophet' Pierre Ruskin, orchestrator of the game that leads children to the house. Ultimately, both gurus are firmly convinced that there is more than one reality, and both are dedicated to reaching it, no matter the cost.
Childhood Trauma as a Point of Divergence
At the heart of The OA and Bandersnatch—amidst all their static and science—are specific instances of childhood trauma, which are identified as the points where the characters' lives began to diverge into multiple pathways. In The OA, that moment is Nina/Prairie's NDE, an experience she's forced to revisit when trying to re-access Nina Azarova's memories. In Bandersnatch, that moment is when the young Stefan spent too long searching for his toy, causing his mother to miss her train and catch a later one, which derailed.
Prairie lost her father and her vision in her traumatic event, and Stefan lost his mother, but both shows give their protagonists the ability to revisit these traumas and, effectively, to undo them, to experience lives in which these moments had never happened. Prairie's moment of recollection and reversal is in a bathtub, where she relives her own drowning; Stefan's is in the reality in which he has the choice to accompany his mother on the fatal train ride.
Black Mirror Bandersnatch (2018) | Train Ending Scene www.youtube.com
An Extremely Meta Ending
Bandersnatch not only breaks the fourth wall—it shatters it. In one scene, viewers are literally able to choose whether or not to tell Stefan that his actions are being controlled by something from the future called Netflix.
Then, of course, there's that television set-scene, the moment where the whole illusion collapses and we're faced with the reality of what's happening: all that we're seeing has been filmed in some Hollywood studio. Stefan's therapist is an actor. Stefan himself is an actor. Nothing is real. That same exact idea is at the crux of The OA's finale; in its final scene, Brit Marling and Jason Isaacs call themselves by their real names, effectively annihilating the line between our reality and the one(s) onscreen.
Image via PopBuzz
So, Is Netflix Using the Same Algorithmic Plot for Many Shows On Purpose?
Though The OA and Bandersnatch might be particularly alike, they aren't the only shows on Netflix that revolve around the concept of other realities and alternate, interconnected universes.
Recently, Netflix's Russian Doll made use of a nonlinear view of time, giving its protagonist the ability to transcend death in order to correct her mistakes and—you guessed it—make peace with a childhood trauma, which had to do with blaming herself for her mother's death. The show also uses concepts based on quantum physics to explain its multiple timelines.
The portal from Stranger Things, via Hollywood Reporter
The portal from Russian Doll, via Vulture
Another hit —
Stranger Things—also relies on quantum physics-based ideas to explain its Upside Down, a parallel universe that operates similarly to the alternate dimensions in The OA.
The flea and acrobat metaphor from Stranger Things. Image via weheartit
Millie Bobby Brown's character Eleven is also a startlingly similar figure to Brit Marling's Prairie/Nina; both were trapped by scientists for many years, and both emerged from their imprisonment endowed with the ability to create portals between dimensions (and sometimes, to levitate). The list goes on.
It's not that these shows are copies of each other. They all seem to utilize similar plotlines, ones that revolve around suppressed childhood traumas and a quantum-physics-inspired tangle of dimensions. In a way, the shows themselves seem to be parallel universes to each other. In each, the traumas and the multiple realities both unveil themselves about three-quarters of the way through, sparking climactic endings that, ultimately, imply that the bonds between humans are strong enough to transcend time and death.
So what's the draw to the multiverse idea? Is our era of catfishing, fake news, and mediated simulacra making us feel like we're living in many realities once? Are we all just seeking ways to escape our linear lives, to escape the passage of time, or to change the past? Can we all sense that this isn't the only world, that we're not the only ones here (after all, what's religion other than a poetic promise that other worlds and greater forces exist)? Does this subject just make for great television?
Regardless, people are into it. YouTube just announced that it will be creating interactive content like Bandersnatch; Season 3 of Stranger Things will officially drop on July 4, 2019; and Black Mirror's fifth season will also be released this year. It seems like TV's journey through interconnected parallel universes has just begun. (Though of course, it's probably already finished in the universes next to this one).
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Tweet your best conspiracy theories to her @edenarielmusic.
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