The dynamics of the RNA polymerase II (Pol II) backtracking process is poorly understood. We built a Markov State Model from extensive molecular dynamics simulations to identify metastable intermediate states and the dynamics of backtracking at atomistic detail. Our results reveal that Pol II backtracking occurs in a stepwise mode where two intermediate states are involved. We find that the continuous bending motion of the Bridge helix (BH) serves as a critical checkpoint, using the highly conserved BH residue T831 as a sensing probe for the 3′-terminal base paring of RNA:DNA hybrid. If the base pair is mismatched, BH bending can promote the RNA 3′-end nucleotide into a frayed state that further leads to the backtracked state. These computational observations are validated by site-directed mutagenesis and transcript cleavage assays, and provide insights into the key factors that regulate the preferences of the backward translocation.