Netflix’s Black Mirror has never been one for subtly. Its massive, time & tech bending stories have always taken the issues to the absolute extreme, often ending with the worst outcome for the protagonists. Season 4 opted for a bit brighter of an outlook, but the show’s prevailing theme of the dangers of technology and the human psyche still formed the base from which the episodes stemmed.
Season 5, however, takes a slightly different path, veering from the show’s dark MO and instead going with something a little more subtle. Only, subtle isn’t exactly the right term here, because the 3 new stories are far from subtle. In fact, they are probably the most thematically straightforward of all Black Mirror episodes, with complicated exception of “Striking Vipers,” but we’ll get to that in a second.
Perhaps the issue here is that these 3 stories try to take long, winding roads to a conclusion that pretty obviously presents itself. The result are episodes that seem to run in place, taking a lot of steps but not getting very far.
What I mean by “straightforward” is that in comparison to the series’ strongest episodes, which present futuristic technology as human’s creation of human’s own destruction (the viewer always gets the feeling that good people were brought to bad decisions, thus making for a nuanced discussion about whether the technology itself was ‘good’ or ‘bad’), 2 of the 3 episodes in season 5 include a villain and leave little room for further discussion. And yet they feel like the most subtle of episodes, likely because rather than leaving with the feeling of utmost dread for the future that we often feel at the end of a Black Mirror episode, viewers leave with more of a feeling that the whole mess could have been avoided.
What this season lacks is the biting, vicious edge that made Black Mirror so popular. Depressing though the stories were, they were impossible to look away from, and often they stayed with you for long after they were over. Season 5 may linger, but it’s unlikely to stick in the collective consciousness.
Let’s take a deep dive into each of the 3 new episodes and look at what makes them feel so different from other Black Mirror stories (in order from worst to best):
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (S5E03)
Miley Cyrus plays a Black Mirror version of herself in the fame-centered first episode. Source: Netflix.
The season’s most-talked about trailer was, ironically, its worst episode. I can’t say I’m surprised about this, but I was disappointed because I did genuinely want to see Miley Cyrus in a successful acting role. Alas, this was not it. Cyrus’ performance (and indeed, all the others in this episode) was weak at best, made worse by a weak script.
Cyrus’ poor performance in this episode was confusing, though, because she was essentially playing herself. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” begins with the overdone trope of the New Girl in School (Rachel), struggling to make friends or find her place. To combat her loneliness, she indulges in a robot companion called Ashley Too — a miniature “synaptic snapshot” of the mega pop star Rachel idolizes, Ashely O (played by Cyrus). At first, I thought this story would be about the dangers of obsessive fan culture & the ways in which technology & media create the false impression of “knowing” that celebrity, and I thought that the episode might result in Rachel being dissatisfied with the doll version of Ashley O and deciding she needed the real thing. Now that would have been a Black Mirror episode.
But no. The episode switches about halfway through from being about Rachel’s unhealthy obsession with Ashley O and her misguided belief that the doll’s company was more valuable than other humans’, to being about Ashley O herself & how the bubbly, pop persona she inhabited all these years was nothing but a front for her darker, edgier self. It’s a bit on the nose, especially considering Cyrus’ own public displays of rambunctious behavior in an attempt to separate herself from her squeaky clean Disney character. And unfortunately, it’s the much less interesting angle. The problem is that the episode sets up one issue and ends on another. The two may be loosely related (Rachel was idolizing a false version of an already false person), but the episode is ultimately unsatisfying because neither issue was explored in any depth. Additionally, this episode features a Big Bad Villain — something quite uncommon for Black Mirror, and not a great addition. It turns out that Ashley’s aunt/manager has been forcing her to take subduing drugs to conform to the image that the public wants, and she ends up going so far as to put her niece in an irreversible coma when she starts defying the system.
Besides the ridiculousness of the aunt’s grand scheme, the inclusion of this clearly unstable villain character goes against the ethos of Black Mirror, which began as a thought experiment exploring how ordinary people could be driven to the worst versions of themselves if given the right opportunity. Ashley O’s already boring arc was watered down even further by this character, because we never got to see how Ashley’s own decisions impacted her life.
Overall, this episode was a mess from start to finish, and while it was entertaining enough to keep me watching to the end, I think this episode falls into the bottom third of all Black Mirror episodes.
This episode was not a bad one on the whole, but it still suffers from the overarching issue of too much time and too little to say.
In this episode, Andrew Scott brings a brilliant performance (as usual, I would expect nothing less) as an empathetic yet terribly misguided Uber (? Lyft? It’s not specific) driver who kidnaps an intern at the media mega-corp Smithereens — which is just a bizarre name for a media company, what does that even mean? The company Smithereens is a stand-in for the likes of Facebook & Twitter, which run the world and occupy everyone in it, including our crazy cabbie.
The episode is tense as Scott’s character continually threatens the life of his hostage, but we get the sense that he has no real intention to hurt the kid. And that’s in fact the truth, as really all that the captor wants is a phone call with the CEO of Smithereens — an elusive man by the name of Billy Bauer (played by Topher Grace), who unfortunately isn’t the easiest man to reach as he’s currently 6 days into a 10 day solitary retreat.
The hour and 7 minute long episode keeps you more-or-less on the edge of your seat as you try to guess what this man might want with Bauer (as you know it’s not money or fame or anything like that), but the ending doesn’t seem to justify the wait time. Ultimately, the madman is just feeling really guilty about the fact that he was responsible for the death of his girlfriend because he was browsing the Smithereens app while driving. He does eventually get his chat with Bauer, who seems to share the same sentiment the audience has when he says “I don’t really know what to say to you. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
The ending is bleak, but not haunting. The episode itself even seems to realize that its point is a mute one. Yes, the world could do with a little less scrolling through social media, but that’s the result of humanity’s general unhappiness, not the cause of it. The audience is supposed to recognize that this man has gone to an extreme, and even he knows that Bauer couldn’t stop the app obsession even if he wanted to, so the episode results in what feels like an empty scream into the void — “This is bad! What we’re doing is bad!” — but no one paying much attention. We’ve heard it all before.
“Striking Vipers” (S5E01)
By far the most emotionally complicated of the 3 episodes in season 5, “Striking Vipers” takes audiences by surprise with a discussion about identity, fidelity, and sexuality in the digital age. Well… actually it’s more like a comment on fidelity and a passing thought on sexuality. Unlike director Owen Harris’s previous Black Mirror episode, the Emmy-winning “San Junipero,” “Striking Vipers” doesn’t fully commit to the ideas at play.
“Striking Vipers” follows longtime best friends Danny (Mackie) & Karl (Aquaman’s Black Manta, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as their friendship is complicated by an extremely life-like virtual reality video game, Striking Vipers, played on the same technology seen in previous Black Mirror episodes like “USS Calister” and “San Junipero”. In the 11 years since Danny’s marriage to his wife Theo, the friends had grown apart as Danny continued down the path of domestic bliss while Karl lived a lavish life of binge drinking and serial dating. For his birthday, Karl gifts Danny the fancy new console and the Striking Vipers fighting game, where Danny plays as the lean, muscular character Lance (the lean, muscular Ludi Lin) and Karl plays as the sexy Roxette (Marvel’s Mantis beauty Pom Klementieff). But the fighting game takes a swift turn when the two kiss in a moment of passion, sending them down a long-winded path of emotional & sexual confusion.
It’s an extremely interesting premise, and it grows ever more complicated from the very first interaction. The episode asks all sorts of questions about what gender is in a virtual reality environment, what defines sexuality when the circumstances are unconventional, and what infidelity means when the affair in question only occurs in the digital realm.
Unfortunately, the episode never goes into the depth necessary to answer these questions. It’s likely by design, to make the viewers feel as confused as the characters, but it leaves the episode feeling strangely hollow where it should feel emotionally rich. For all the conflict this story presents, the episode feels quiet. A little bit more time and care with this script and it could have been one of the best Black Mirror episodes yet, but as it stands it hits about mid-range.
Additionally, unlike “San Junipero’s” happy ending, this episode ends on the bleaker side. It’s not unhappy, per-say, nor is it an illogical conclusion to this messy love story, but it’s a bit unsatisfying. Again, maybe this is due to the characters feeling inherently unsatisfied with the ending they must have, but more discussion within the episode’s text may have alleviated some of the frustration.
“Striking Vipers” was a really compelling episode, but it needed to crank up the conflict to an 11 to really stand out.
Overall, this season had more bark than it did bite, and therefore falls short of Black Mirror’s usual marks. That being said, these 3 episodes were still entertaining, and still great pieces of science fiction. I hope that in the next installment Black Mirror will go back to the edgy fear that drove the first 3 seasons. The show works better when the stakes are ramped all the way up and the consequences are unforgiving.
Maybe they’ll do an episode about online reviews sometime. Now that would be terrifying.
Tell Us: Which was your favorite season 5 episode? How does this season rank for you?