Black Mirror Season 5: Shallow Reflection
Since its inception in 2011, Black Mirror has had long standing appeal in its bleak lens of the human condition through the pitfalls of technology. The BBC series was a portrayal of paranoia, anxiety and greed, hyperbolized by an extrapolation of social media and technological advancements. Topics have ranged from twisted plays on the capabilities of VR, to near Nostradamus-like predictions of social media’s weaponization of public opinion. Technology has advanced significantly in the short eight years since the show’s start, and it has in many ways illuminated darker shades of humanity than Charlie Booker could have ever imagined. From the rise of white nationalism via social media, to the gamification of amazon warehouses to placate labor, or the rise of pedophiles using youtube’s algorithm to find home videos of children, society’s current relationship with technology feels toxic in many ways. The current socio political landscape seems rife with opportunity for Black Mirror’s biting social commentary. However, Black Mirror’s fifth season, which premiered on Netflix in early June, is disappointingly toothless. Rather than pushing the boundaries of our dark relationship with tech, Season 5 seems content to fall back on relatively familiar ground. The production value remains consistently high, and there are some novel concepts explored here and there, but the majority of this short season is disappointingly stale.
Season 5 consists of three episodes of varying quality. By far the weakest of the bunch is “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” featured most prominently in the season’s marketing likely due to its casting of Miley Cyrus. “Ashley Too” is high in the running for Black Mirror’s worst episode to date, falling back on the well trod territory of “what if your brain was in the computer?” that recent seasons of the show seem completely infatuated with. Cyrus stars as Ashley O, an established pop star who’s career shares many similarities with her own real life story. Ashley’s career is surging, but her creativity is stifled by her greedy Aunt and Manager Catherine, (Susan Pourfar). Ashley’s very freedom eventually becomes jeopardized by her Aunt’s ambition, and her only hope for salvation comes from Rachel, one of her teenage fans (Angourie Rice). The episode has the potential to tell a tale of the music industry dehumanizing and draining a young creative in the pursuit of profit, (with a literal example of a person becoming a product) but instead, it almost completely squanders the opportunity in favor of a mostly cringey teen adventure. The episode seems more akin to a Disney channel original movie than a Black Mirror episode.
Cyrus, for what little she’s given, does a serviceable job of portraying a pop star subjugated by her management. However, the episode focuses the majority of its runtime on Rachel, a lonely teen who finds comfort and companionship in an AI version of Ashley Too. Rachel serves as a surrogate for Ashley O’s target audience, and is a potential lens for the realization of the heavy tolls our idols often pay in order to make it big in the music industry. However, this realization is never fully achieved, with Rachel neither growing nor learning very much over the course of the episode. Much of the runtime consists of aimless sideplots that add little to the overall story. The episode culminates in what may be the worst ending of a Black Mirror episode, including a painfully cringey cover and an embarrassing placement of an anarchy sticker.
The season’s second episode, “Smithereens,” fairs far better than “Ashley Too,” but still falls short of Black Mirror’s prior heights. Andrew Scott of Sherlock and Fleabag (which I highly, HIGHLY recommend) leads as Chris Gillheney, a rideshare driver clearly at his wit’s end. Chris takes an employee of a high profile tech company hostage in order to settle a vendetta with its CEO, leading to an episode long standoff with UK police. While this episode is inarguably well shot, well acted, and well produced by all accounts, it still feels a bit thin by Black Mirror’s standards. “Smithereens,” portrays a near omnipotent social media company, who’s all seeing eye is able to profile Chris’s emotional and social state, far faster than the combined efforts of the British police and the FBI. The limitless access this company has to Chris’s private information, and the tactical ruthlessness it wields in order to leverage this data against him, is right in line with Black Mirror’s brand of social satire. The episode’s ultimate twist and revelation for Chris’s motivation to take a hostage, falls back on relatively obvious and mild territory. At the risk of continuing to make reductive comparisons, the episode is more akin to a very expensive episode of Criminal Minds than the best of Black Mirror. It’s entertaining enough, and is carried largely by the charming yet disturbed performance of Scott. It also features a great cameo by Topher Grace, doing his best approximation of Jack Dorsey by way of Jared Leto. This makes the episode worth a watch, but far short of groundbreaking.
By far the season’s strongest offering is “Striking Vipers,” an episode that expands on the VR tech introduced in season 3’s “Playtest.” Anthony Mackie plays Danny, a married father who reconnects with an old friend, Karl, at his 40th birthday party. Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gifts Danny a copy of the newest iteration of a fighting game that the two played back in the day, as well as an accompanying VR headset. Danny and Karl, who have grown apart as they’ve gotten older, play the game online together as a way to reconnect in new and surprising ways.
What follows is a Black Mirror style exploration of identity, sexuality, and commitment. This episode introduces by far the freshest ideas found in Season 5. The VR tech, which allows for “the full range of human sensation,” explores sexual fluidity that blurs the lines of heteronormativity and homosexuality. “Striking Vipers” is by no means the most insightful or boundary pushing examination of masculinity and sexuality, but it explores ideas that are mostly foreign to mainstream media. By extrapolating the possibilities of virtual reality and its ability to exceed physical limitations, “Striking Vipers” poses questions of how we regard ourselves when the constraints of gender and orientation loosen. It also explores ideas of commitment, and how mental cheating within the digital space can be just as damaging to a relationship as a physical affair.
The strength of this episode rests largely on the strong chemistry between Danny, Karl, and Danny’s wife, Theo (Nikki Beharie). There is dynamic tension between the three old friends as their relationships collide and interrupt each other. Beharie especially shines in a scene where she confronts her husband about his recently distant behavior. This episode is on its surface, a rather absurd concept that is treated with a respectful amount of humor. The absurdity works, however, by the dramatic weight that the three actors lend to it. The characters acknowledge the inherent strangeness of the situation, while struggling with the dramatic ramifications of it. “Striking Vipers” may not reach the same heights of episodes such as “San Junipero,” but it presents a unique story that is well written and strongly acted. To its credit, “Striking Vipers” also features a completely passable render of a Street Fighter 5 clone, which breaks the mold of typically embarrassing onscreen representations of video games in television. It also shows a little of 2018’s “Tetris Effect,” which doesn’t really add anything to the episode, but is cool nonetheless.
Overall, Season 5 of Black Mirror is a relatively disappointing entry in the series. It’s not completely without merit, as “Striking Vipers” is certainly a memorable episode and “Smithereens” is entertaining enough, if not somewhat shallow. “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is pretty unforgivable in my opinion, but your own Mileyage may vary. The dark lens with which Black Mirror has previously portrayed the bleakest parts of culture, once so sharp and witty, may have become clouded. With the current social and political landscape as twisted as it is, this is especially disappointing. Perhaps when real life consistently outpaces parody, satire can no longer keep up.
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Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.