Netflix debuted the much-anticipated fifth season of its sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror last week, and while the show remains inventive and thought provoking, it’s possible that, five seasons in, it might just be running out of fresh ideas.
(Some spoilers below.)
Black Mirror is the creation of Charlie Brooker, co-showrunner with Annabel Jones, and he writes almost every episode. The series explores the darker side of technology, and it’s very much in the spirit of classic anthology series like The Twilight Zone. Brooker developed Black Mirror to highlight topics related to humanity’s relationship with technology, creating stories that feature “the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” The series debuted on the British Channel 4 in December 2011, followed by a second season. Noting its popularity, Netflix took over production for seasons 3 and 4 in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Season 5’s release was delayed by the experimental “choose your own adventure” standalone one-off Black Mirror “event,” dubbed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Set in 1984, Bandersnatch follows the travails of a young programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), intent on making an interactive video game based on a fictional choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) novel, Bandersnatch, from a tragic writer named Jerome F. Davies. (Check out our spoiler-y Choose-Your-Own-Opinion review from earlier this year. Or you could check out our CYOA “Tentacular, tentacular!” from 2011.)
Now season 5 is finally here, boasting an impressive cast that includes Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Andrew Scott, Nichole Beharie, Damson Idris, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, among others. It’s just three episodes, a return to its British roots (the first two seasons only had three episodes each). Personally, I’m in favor of fewer, better episodes on TV in general if that’s what the storytelling requires. Unfortunately, in this case, only one of the three new episodes fully succeeds in capturing that old Black Mirror magic.
The weakest of the three is “Smithereens,” in which a ride-share driver named Chris (Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock series) takes Jaden (Damson Idris), an employee of a social media company called Smithereen, hostage at gunpoint. As police surround the car, Chris demands to speak to Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace); tensions predictably mount from there. Both Scott and Idris are terrific, particularly as we get a better understanding of what’s behind Chris’s actions. It’s a shame the episode as a whole feels muddled and unfocused as to what its central theme is meant to be. Is it that we all spend too much time glued to our smartphones? Or that our unprecedented connectivity via social media makes us especially vulnerable to privacy breaches? The episode briefly touches on both, but it doesn’t really have anything novel or meaningful to say about either.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” has a bit more interesting premise. Pop star Ashley O. (Miley Cyrus) puts on a perky public face for the sake of her many adoring fans, but privately she seems to be struggling with depression. The latest marketing gimmick from her aunt/manager, Catherine (Susan Pourfar), is Ashley Too, an Alexa-like doll spouting positive affirmations, whose AI is supposedly imbued with Ashley O.’s actual personality. One of the dolls end up with a lonely teen named Rachel (Agourie Rice), an uber-fan despite her goth older sister Jack’s (Madison Davenport) relentless side-eye.
When the real Ashley falls into a coma, purportedly from an allergic reaction, Catherine uses all the neuro-data collected to make the Ashley Too dolls to create a perfect hologram version of Ashley O.—one that is never tired, sick, depressed, or possesses none of the all-too-human failings of the real Ashley. That’s a technological future that’s already here: one of Japan’s biggest pop stars is Hatsune Miku, who is part hologram (technically, a visual effect based on the 19th century “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion), part avatar, but at heart a vocaloid software program allowing fans to create their own “songs” for the pop star to “perform.”
Forcing viewers to ponder uncomfortably disturbing truths is what Black Mirror does at its best.
There’s a whole entertaining narrative thread involving Rachel and Jack teaming up with a suddenly sentient Ashley II doll on a gaffe-prone quest to find the pop star—yes, sometimes Black Mirror can have a bit of fun. But ultimately Rachel’s teenaged angst is pretty garden variety. What really drives the episode is the struggle between Ashley O. and Catherine over who gets to control the former’s artistic future. Catherine wants the Ashley O. machine to keep pumping out the bubbly synth-pop hits; Ashley is itching to write music with a darker sensibility, more in line with her true self. Catherine frankly prefers the malleable, uncomplicated hologram version, and she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to preserve her vision for her niece’s musical legacy. No matter how advanced our future technology gets, that’s a struggle that is timeless.
And that brings us to the third, and strongest, of the three episodes, “Striking Vipers,” which focuses on a married couple, Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Theo (Nicole Beharie), whose lives have settled into monotonous predictability after 11 years and a three-year-old child. On Danny’s birthday, his still-single best friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gives him a fully immersive VR version of their favorite game, Striking Vipers (think shades of Mortal Kombat and Tekken 3). Let’s just say Danny finds some extramarital satisfaction in the VR confines of the game that has a negative impact on his already troubled marriage.
It would have been easy for Brooker to tell yet another story questioning whether sex in a virtual realm is “real” and thus technically “cheating”; we’ve seen it so many times before. Instead, the story’s primary twist forces some much more unsettling questions to the forefront, about the nature of sexuality—how much is purely physical and how much is in the mind?—sexual orientation, male friendship, how much (if at all) one’s avatar reflects the actual player, and so forth. Forcing viewers to ponder uncomfortably disturbing truths about our relationship to technology and to each other is what Black Mirror does at its best, and it’s too bad the other two episodes don’t quite reach that level.
Black Mirror S5 is currently streaming on Netflix.