The core concept and recurring theme of creator Charlie Brooker‘s anthology series Black Mirror is a straightforward one — technology is both unavoidable and usually damaging to the human experience. There are exceptions including (and quite possibly limited to) season three’s San Junipero, but for the most part, technology does more to isolate and hurt the characters in these stories than help them. While previous seasons offered up to six episodes, season five clocks in at the low end with just three new tales. Surprisingly, though, two actually celebrate the softer, more helpful aspects of the ongoing tech revolution. That said, it’s the cautionary tale nestled between them that delivers the strongest blow.
First up is Striking Vipers which sees two college friends re-enter each other’s lives after a brief estrangement. Danny (Anthony Mackie) is a married father feeling slightly disconnected from his day to day experience. His sex life with his wife has gone flaccid, and it may or may not be related to his suspicion that she’s cheating on him. Things perk up slightly when Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a confirmed bachelor with a string of young girlfriends, arrives at his birthday party and gifts him a new video game in a series they both previously loved. It’s a fighter — think Mortal Kombat or Star Gladiator — and this being Black Mirror, it’s a virtual reality experience via small discs applied to the temple. When they enter the game, Danny as a muscular and shirtless Asian man named Lance (Ludi Lin) and Karl as a sexy, scantily clad woman named Roxette (Pom Klementieff), their fights quickly and repeatedly devolve into vigorous sexual activity. Is it an aberration based strictly in the avatars, or is there something more between these two old friends?
On the surface at least, this episode seems to be aiming for a similar vibe to 2016’s San Junipero by finding some tender and romantic moments between a same-sex pairing in a virtual world, but what feels like a fascinating and intriguing setup never really amounts to much and instead raises questions of what could have been. The use of hetero avatars occludes the sight of two men canoodling as it instead goes hot and heavy with Klementieff and Lin, but while their use of the characters is a conversation starter — are the two friends actually gay/bisexual or is it just a curiosity in the virtual realm, do they share a physical attraction, is their shared love so intimate that physical presence is secondary, or is it so lacking that they can only rise to the occasion while in the familiar male and female coupling — the episode has no interest in answering these questions. It instead punts to a safe conclusion maintaining the status quo. Technology is a gateway of sorts, but it’s unclear to what. Still, while the idea feels shortchanged the performances and tenderness remain powerful enough to make for an affecting watch.
Smithereens introduces a ride-share driver named Chris (Andrew Scott) whose daily routine involves waiting for fares outside the downtown headquarters of a popular social media company called Smithereen. Trial and error eventually land an employee named Jaden (Damson Idris) in his car, and rather than take the young man to his destination Chris takes him hostage at gunpoint, drives to a remote field and calls the man’s employer with a simple demand — he wants to talk to Smithereen’s CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). As police surround the car and the company dodges the request while debating legal issues and what this might do to their reputation, the motivation for Chris’ actions come tragically clear.
The core focus here is Chris’ controlled breakdown and the slow reveal of his intentions, and Scott is utterly captivating as the wild card. It’s a suspenseful journey that sees him move from madman to tragic figure (who’s admittedly still a little mad), and the resulting hostage situation is crafted and executed with real tension and splashes of gallows humor. Working against him are corporate bigwigs and human stopgaps, and it’s their valuation of metrics over human lives that draws Chris’ — and viewers’ — ire. This isn’t the first time the show has targeted social media and probably won’t be the last, but the clear target here is the likes of Twitter and Facebook with their artificially addictive and controlled feeds designed to captivate and hold hostage our attention. There’s finger-pointing, but refreshingly, the show leaves users on the hook too for willfully signing on to this deal with the digital devil. The criticism and condemnation may be familiar, but it’s freshened up in the form of a thrilling and occasionally heart-breaking hostage drama.
Season five closes out with Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too which sees teenage sisters cross paths with a pop star by way of an A.I. toy with a mind of its own. Rachel (Angourie Rice) is a lonely girl starting a new school while still suffering from the sadness of her mother’s recent death. She has no friends and is too shy to try, and while her father is distracted by work her older sister Jack (Madison Davenport) is lost in her own world guitar playing and petty cruelties. The single joy in Rachel’s life is pop sensation Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), who despite the fame, success, and popularity, is equally depressed and disheartened with life. Rachel finds comfort in Ashley Too, a Teddy Ruxpin-meets-Alexa-like toy that talks in Ashley’s voice and resounding positivity, but when the pop star finds herself in trouble the sisters and the doll are forced into action.
While Black Mirror‘s more optimistic episodes are typically still subdued affairs, this entry takes the unexpected route of becoming a crowd-pleaser with mass appeal. The front half focuses on the girls’ loneliness — Rachel’s with her artificial distraction, Jack’s with her headphones and attitude, and Ashley’s in her controlled existence as a manufactured commodity under the thumb of her aunt turned manager — and it offers up a slight commentary on the plastic nature of celebrity (Ashley Too is literally made of plastic) and the general public’s insatiable desire for connection to it. When Rachel hears Ashley’s voice coming out of the toy her first response is to say she’s her biggest fan. More time here would have benefited the characters, but the sadness is soon enveloped in a plot involving Ashley’s warped guardian, a nefarious doctor, and a plan they would have gotten away with if it hadn’t been for these meddling kids. The technology on display becomes a way to move things forward rather than an object or obstacle unto itself, and it’s ultimately viewed strictly as a tool with neither good nor bad natures. The three young female leads are equally engaging, and the script offers up some laughs amid the back half hijinks. To be clear, it’s a fun and mildly exciting turn of events, but it feels far removed from Black Mirror. That’s not a criticism.
All three episodes of Black Mirror’s fifth season is now streaming on Netflix.