Black Mirror is one of the jewels in Netflix’s crown, attaching big name actors and directors to the anthology. Due to the complex production of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch the fifth season had a shorter run of three episodes instead of the usual six for Netflix. Sadly the fifth season is the most forgettable out of the seasons of the show.
“Striking Vipers” opens the season, following an illicit relationship in the virtual world. Anthony Mackie stars as Danny, a middle-aged man trying to have a baby with his wife (Nicole Beharie). Danny is given a new VR video game from his old roommate, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and their play time quickly turns from fighting to fucking.
Charlie Brooker is an enthusiastic gamer and with “Striking Vipers” he is taping into the past and future of video games. Brooker stated that this episode was influenced by his experience playing Tekken with his flatmates in the ’90s, the character designs and move set in “Striking Vipers” were similar to Street Fighter, and even the title of the game is similar to Fighting Vipers. As someone who grew up on ’90s fighting games these references were appreciated. Although I find it hard to believe that a VR fighting game could be turned into a sex simulation, at least not without some hacking of the software.
“Striking Vipers” is really a story about two male friends who enter into an affair. The game world allows for characters to meet up without even leaving their home. They could fulfill their wildest fantasies but it was underdeveloped. The relationships were also underdeveloped – there was no great exploration as what drives people to be closeted or why they can act differently online. The episode even missed a trick because it focused on Danny when it would have been more interesting to look at Karl who was a woman in the virtual world.
“Striking Vipers” is a disappointment, wasting its ideas. The episode had little to say about technology or the human condition.
It will be amusing for superhero fans to see Falcon, Mantis, and Black Mantra in the same episode.
“Smithereens” is the first contemporary set episode since “Shut Up and Down.” Brooker felt that Black Mirror moved too far into the sci-fi genre and wanted to make at least one episode that looks at the impact of social media.
Chris (Andrew Scott) is an Uber driver in London whose fiancé died 18 months prior. After a one night stand with another grief sufferer he decides to take action against the social media giant Smithereen (basically Twitter.) He plans to kidnap an employee and threatens to kill him if Chris doesn’t get to speak to the company’s CEO.
“Smithereens” is a standard plot for a thriller which has added social commentary about the tech age we live in. Most of the episode takes place in a field where Chris is surrounded by armed police, leading to a tense standoff between Chris and the police whilst Smithereen employees in California try to find out what Chris really wants. Smithereen ends up being the ones who find out about Chris because they have access to all his social media posts and are able to hack into Chris’ phone. It shows how easily personal information can be accessed and uses revelations by Edward Snowden as a part of the plot (i.e. hacking into phones so they can be used as bugging devices.)
“Smithereens” is one of the more human Black Mirror stories. Chris is a man of the edge and Brooker avoids the typical route of making out Smithereens to be a heartless corporation who only care about their profits. The people at the company are human beings who don’t want someone to get hurt, not even a lowly intern.
The episode needed to have great performances. “Smithereens” was lucky to have Andrew Scott who gives a strong, tortured performance as a smart man but quick to anger due to his delicate mental state. Scott has proven himself to be a talented actor in previous roles and he’s allowed to use his natural Irish accent.
It is a refreshing change of pace to have an episode that’s more grounded.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” will easily be one of the most divisive Black Mirror episodes with its 6.0 IMDB score reflecting this.
Rachel (Angourie Rice) is a lonely and awkward teenager and a huge fan of pop star Ashley O (Miley Cyrus.) Ashley O releases an interactive doll that’s a cross between Amazon’s Alexa and a Funko Pop doll. When Rachel gets an Ashley Too doll for her birthday she treats it as a friend, leading to her older sister, Jack (Madison Davenport), to worry. At the same time Ashley O life struggles creatively and is dominated by her aunt/manager (Susan Pourfar.)
The first half of “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is typical fare for Black Mirror where a new technology is released and someone becomes obsessed with it or it has a negative impact. This was done in “Be Right Back” and “Arkangel” and has the added dimension of focusing on a teenage girl. It easily draws on ideas that children and teens are too dependent on technology for socialization and validation.
As well as being a story about technology “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is a story about siblings and this is where the episode was really relatable. Rachel and Jack are chalk-and-cheese, Jack is a moody rocker who scoffs at her younger sister’s tastes and often makes fun of her. But deep down Jack does care, from telling their dad when Rachel’s birthday is, to trying to protect Rachel from a negative influence. Anyone who has brothers or sisters could easily relate to their story.
Ashley O’s story is nothing out of the ordinary where a young pop star personal life is hell. Ashley O is forced to sing music she has outgrown and controlled by her handlers. The most interesting part of this story was it acted as a meta-commentary about Miley Cyrus’ career. She started out as a teen singer who wanted to break away from her Disney image when she got older. It did lead to the question of how the stories would connect.
When the stories do merge the episode turns into an outright comedy and this is where the point of contention arises. Cyrus was clearly having fun voicing Ashley Too who was allowed to swear like a sailor and the narrative turns from a slow boil to a fast-paced heist. It was tonally inconsistent but the humor make a change of pace from the usually depressing show and Cyrus was funny in her role.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” had a lot of interesting ideas and the three leads gave strong performances. Rice was particularly impressive as the awkward teen and shows why her star is rising. The episode did need a bit of refining, especially for the final act where Brooker wanted to get to the end quickly.
Season 5 is sadly the weakest Black Mirror season so far in its consistency. The quality of the acting and the special effects were still of the same high standard and there are worst episodes as individual pieces. But this season has a rushed quality to the writing: the philosophical and social ideas and character development were not as rich as in the previous seasons.