Strap yourselves in, kids, because Black Mirror is going to outer space in what is almost certainly my favorite episode of TV this entire year. “USS Callister” wraps a stunning premise around an equally stunning narrative – something not all Black Mirror episodes manage to achieve.
We begin aboard the USS Callister, a spaceship colored in a palette straight from the ‘70s. A crew wearing racy, Star Trek-esque costumes stares at an incoming enemy spaceship. From the looks of it, they’re doomed — that’s why Lieutenant Walton (Jimmi Simpson of Westworld) is urging the ship’s leader, Captain Daley (Jesse Plemons), to surrender. Luckily for the crew, Daley is a calm, resourceful genius and comes up with a last-ditch plan to destroy the enemy’s ship, thus ending this little saga the way most Star Trek episodes do: Happily. Before the mission is over, the enemy, Baldak (Billy Magnussen), a long-haired and semi-feral space David Hasselhoff, appears on the screen in the spaceship. Since Daley is a kind leader, he decides to spare Baldak.
The crew erupts in praise. “I should know by now never to doubt you,” Walton says, admiringly. Daley kisses the two women crew members — one played by Chewing Gum’s Michaela Cole, the other a blue-skinned alien (Milanka Brooks).
It’s all wonderful. And it’s all a lie. Next thing we know, the once-triumphant space captain is just a dude in an office elevator. He’s balding. He’s wearing a quintessential coder uniform of a grey hoodie and jeans. And he’s sulking through the entrance of a company called Callister Inc. In the office, people lay down like they’re sleeping, with little square devices pinned to their temples.
Many of the employees at Callister Inc. are identical to the crewmembers and villains we’ve just seen aboard the USS Callister. The indifferent receptionist, Elena, has the same face as the blue-skinned alien. When Daley enters the sleek office space, he sees Nate Packer (Osy Ikhile) and accidentally calls him by his USS Callister crewmember title. It causes some confusion — Nate clearly has no idea what Daley is talking about. He awkwardly demands Nate make him a vanilla latte. Later, he passes Shania (Micaela Cole) and Baldak flirting.
As he walks by, Daley draws glances from all the coworkers mentioned above. The only simile I can draw is that Daley is like the slightly smelly middle-school loner that classmates are unintentionally mean to, because he makes them uncomfortable. Eventually, Daley reaches his own office bearing the placard: Chief Technical Officer.
There’s one person who’s not weirded out by Daley like the rest of the company is — and she’s knocking on Daley’s door. She’s a brand new employee, and introduces herself as Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti). Nanette wanted to meet the person who designed Infinity, the immersive game that Callister Inc. is known for. She admires Daley’s visionary code. Daley, who clearly loves the attention, gives Nanette a tour of his office, especially focusing on his extensive collection of Space Fleet memorabilia, a show just like Star Trek. Years ago, Daley had proposed he and Walton, the CEO, name the company after Space Fleet’s main ship, the USS Callister. Walton didn’t get the reference, but he let him have his way.
Speak of the devil. Walton bursts into Daley’s office demanding the Infinity update be ready before Christmas. Given his confidence and bravado, this Walton is different than the sycophantic, trembling man we see aboard the USS Callister. When CEO Walton catches a glimpse of Nanette, he goes into jaguar-mode. He introduces himself as James Walton, and makes it clear that he runs the company, not Daley. Daley’s just “the hardware.” Then, he whisks Nanette away for the grand tour. Daley watches and simmers.
Keeping an eye on Nanette and Walton’s journey around the office, Daley goes to visit a programmer for an ETA on the update patch that Walton had been asking about. First, Daley calls the programmer Dudani — then, he switches to Abeer, a name that the programmer actually responds to. Abeer/Dudani explains that the update is running, but with some errors. A repair patch will take about ten days to install. Daley, clearly distracted by Nanette’s conversation across the office, absentmindedly signs off on the time-consuming patch.
After the work day, Daley returns to his enormous apartment. It’s huge, full of old game memorabilia, and way too clean and cold for my liking. He’s the kind of guy who only keeps diet coke and strange bags of who knows what in his fridge. Our weird CTO heads straight for his huge computer system, and sits in his reclining desk chair. There, he puts the same rectangular device the other people in the office had onto his temple, and plugs into the game known as Infinity — a special version that he keeps on his computer.
Daley’s demeanor much different on this visit to the USS Callister. He’s furious that the crew hasn’t yet traced Baldek’s location. He strangles Walton until his admits he’s pathetic, and then forces him to be his personal Ottoman. He orders Packer to make him a vanilla latte, just as he’d done in the office. This time, Packer complies immediately. What’s happening here is obvious: Daley’s taking out his frustration with his real-world coworkers onto his game-world crewmembers. When he’s satisfied, Daley says “Exit,” and leaves the game.
The next day at work, Abeer/Dudani confirms that the roll-out date will officially be December 24, dangerously close to Walton’s Christmas Day deadline. Daley doesn’t seem to care. He’s too busy staring at Nanette. Nanette doesn’t seem to be concerned by Daley’s attention — she even volunteers to get Daley a coffee. As she tells Shania at the coffee machine, she’s so happy that this workplace isn’t toxic like her old job. Her old boss had been a “major league bully.” Micaela agrees that Callister is a great place to work — except that she shouldn’t be too friendly with Daley. In her opinion, Daley can get a bit “starey.”
Starey? More like stalkery. Daley had been listening to the entire conversation from behind the wall. When Nanette hands Daley his vanilla latte with a slightly cold demeanor, Daley knows that Shaniais to blame.
Daley takes action the only way he knows how. He takes the lid on Nanette’s disposable coffee cup home, and brings it to his desk. From there, he places a swab of her DNA, harvested from the lid, onto a petri dish, and then into a cube-like device on his desk. The uploading process begins, which is poised to take about a day. Daley keeps his eye on the upload tab, even at work the next day, when Walton bursts in angrily about the new release date.
The minute the upload process is complete, we switch perspective. We’re back on the Callister, where Nanette has just woken up. In this universe, she’s clan in a skimpy sky-blue suit, with matching knee-high boots. I kind of love this outfit. Space Nanette disorientedly walks through the futuristic white hallways. She stares out the window, and sees deep space. You can imagine her fright. Suddenly, she stumbles upon the entire crew, whom she recognizes from the office. They’re all terribly curious to know how their real-life selves are. Nate asks what year it is. Walton wants to know if he’s still fit.
After giving Nanette a shot of alcohol, Shania tells her the truth: They’re all stuck inside Daley’s sealed-off, offline, custom version of the Infinity game. Daley harvested each of their DNA after they had angered him for a variety of reasons — “insufficient smiling” and “caught him for staring” were two that were offered. Now, they’re all stuck in Daley’s playground, a bubble universe ruled by an angry god. Nanette is not having it. Nanette freaks out, and the crew members resolve to let her figure it out as they had to.
Before she can accustom herself to her new reality, the game boots up, and everything turns into that bright ‘70s-colored tone. Daley is back, back with his better hair. Nanette refuses to play along with his game. “The whole thing is much better if you let yourself get into it,” Daley tells her, breaking character. She tells him to go fuck himself. Then, we see just how angry of a god Daley is. He essentially removes her entire face, so that she feels as though she’s perpetually choking choking. She eventually submits.
Daley forces this trembling, newly docile Nanette onto his next mission, towards a red-hued alien planet to collect Baldak. On the mission, Nate tells Nanette that only Daley’s gun is real. Everything else is a complete sham. They can only die unless he kills them. In no time, Baldak and Daley are having a show-down. Baldak releases his weapon: A giant tarantula creature.
All of a sudden we hear a ringing coming from Daley’s console. Pizza. Daley pauses the game, and freezes in place. The crew relaxes a bit. When Daley comes back, he almost kills Baldak — you can see the delight in Baldak’s face! – but then chooses to spare him, along with his pet tarantula, who we find out was once Gillian from marketing.
Back aboard the ship, Nanette finds out that she and the rest of the crew are missing one crucial part of their humanity: Their genitalia. There is no sensation at all. Nanette, seized by a determined fury, utters the best line of TV ever: “Stealing my pussy is a red line.” At that moment, we know she’s going to find a way out.
Unlike anyone who had come before her (including Abeer, expert coder), she’s able to hack the system to reach the front end. She actually sends a message to real-world Nanette with a code to join Daley’s verison of the Infinity game. But unfortunately, Nanette asks Daley if he’d sent the code. Daley realizes what had happened aboard the Callister.
Daley goes into the game in the middle of the day, furious. He’s ranting about the principles of his game. Nanette takes the blame entirely. Shania begs Daley to spare Nanette. He agrees – and then turns Shania into a giant tarantula. He exits and goes back to work.
Instead of scaring her, this incident has made Nanette more determined. She notices on the navigation map a wormhole developing in the top left quadrant. The wormhole a physical manifestation of the Christmas update patch. She realizes that if the Callister crew flies the ship into the wormhole, they can destroy the ship, and end this torment.
Nanette is already thinking of a way she can blackmail her real-world self using nude photos she keeps on her iCloud drive, and get the plan in place. First, though, she needs all of their help. Only Walton is hesitant. In the beginning, when the Callister was just Walton and Daley, Daley had brought in a copy of Walton’s young son with DNA stolen from a lollipop. He made Walton watch his son, Tommy, go into the airlock and shoot into deep space. His body compressed and cracked. Walton knows that if he rebels, then DAly will just bring Tommy and Walton back into the game for even more gruesome punishment, using the DNA still kept in the fridge.
Nanette manages to convince Walton that they are going to get that lollipop. And they do! The scheme goes pretty seamlessly. When Daley returns, Nanette proposes she and Daley take an intimate trip to scope out a crashed shuttle on a nearby planet. While there, she lures him into the water. They splash around. Dudani transports Daley’s phone-controller thing back to the ship (he can do that!), and hacks Nanette’s iCloud account. They manage to call her, and say that unless she wants all of those photos distributed, she has to follow their oddly specific instructions. She must order a pizza to Daley’s apartment.
When the pizza arrives, Daley has to get out of the water and pause the game. Then, Nanette has Dudani transport her back onto the ship. They start flying towards the wormhole.
Meanwhile, real-Nanette has snuck into Daley’s apartment and taken the contents of his small mini fridge. She’s also replaced his game-rectangle with a dud. When Daley tries to resume the game, nothing happens. He has a spare on hand, though. He’s shocked to find that Nanette has abandoned him, and he’s stranded in the middle of nowhere. Packard crawls aboard the abandoned shuttle and starts flying.
There’s not enough time for the Callister to take the planned route to the wormhole. Packer has to fly straight through an asteroid belt. Daley, shouting expletives and promising Biblical curses, is hot on their trail toward the wormhole. Elena turns him off. Go Elena.
The Callister manages to make it through the asteroid belt, and then the ship experiences a terrible thud at the very end of the journey. The engines shut off. They’re floating. THey can only begin if someone kick-starts the engines manually, thus incinerating himself. Walton has already volunteered. He gives a speech about not pitying Daley because he threw his son into an airlock, and kickstarts the engine. The ship is working! They’re going through the wormhole! GO TEAM!
When the crew wakes up, they’re dressed in modern space clothes. They’ve been incorporated into the normal game, and can go anywhere. Daley, on the other hand, is stuck in the wormhole. He’s unable to exit the game. His mind is trapped. Since he lives alone, no one can wake him up. He will face almost a certain death.
At the end of the episode, Captain Nanette guides the ship past the domain of some boastful Infinity player’s territory, and into the great beyond. It’s a triumphant close.