Black Mirror’s season 5 is here. The science-fiction anthology series has been a mixed bag for the last two seasons, and none was more divisive than the special Bandersnatch. I like the idea of an interactive Black Mirror episode and I hope Netflix does it more, but with better plot.
The season 5 — or the series 5 as the creators call it — brings this Charlie Brooker creation back to three episodes. It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a comprehensive review of a Black Mirror season since the episodes vary wildly in terms of quality and have no connection with each other (beyond thematic parallels).
So here are the individual episode reviews of Black Mirror season 5. There are minor spoilers.
If this episode is not enough to tell you that Brooker loves video-games, nothing will (well, his one-off television special for Channel 4 in 2013 titled How Videogames Changed the World also might). Brooker uses a Tekken-like fighting game to expound on things like VR or Virtual Reality (in a positive way, which is pretty rare for this show), fluidity of gender and sexual orientation. And it is clear that he is loving using a fictional video-game to tell a story.
Anthony Mackie’s Danny is happily married to his wife and they have a cute kid. His old friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) arrives on his birthday and gifts him a VR edition of the old fighting game they used to play together.
Late at night, they connect the device, and it is like magic. It is literally a virtual reality, as their consciousness gets transferred to their in-game avatars, and their real-life selves lie on the couch. They fight, and suddenly get sexually attracted to each other and have sex. Danny, once outside the game, freaks out and yet finds himself unable to stop. His wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) notices his disinterest in her and confronts him on an anniversary date.
Striking Vipers, which takes its name from the video game, is my second favourite episode of the season 5. One of the reasons is that it has a San Junipero vibe, easily among my top 3 favourite Black Mirror episodes. However, the execution of its undeniably interesting ideas is not as superlative.
Smithereens is the least impressive episode this season. It is mostly about the dangers of social media and technology in general and how lethally addictive it can be. Andrew Scott is a cab driver who waits outside the office of a social network company Smithereens (modelled not-so-subtly on Facebook) to pick up and kidnap an employee so he will be able to call the CEO Billy Bauer.
The episode has a nice suspense build-up and yet one gets an idea before the big reveal that the payoff of that long wait is not going to be all that impressive. And indeed, you see it coming from miles away. Smithereens is not without its merits, however. Scott, for instance, is superb (a part requires him to go full Professor James Moriarty).
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
Perhaps the best episode this season, and I am speaking purely in terms of entertainment value. We all know Black Mirror, at its best, is much more than entertainment. It is thought-provoking, shocking and brilliant. It also sometimes gives us a new understanding of technology and the ways (sometimes good, but often bad) in which it will transform us and our lives in future. Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, however, is none of these things. It is just enjoyable to watch. Miley Cyrus plays a fictionalised version of herself, a pop star called Ashley O. She is tired of her life, music and carefully cultivated persona. She wants to escape the confines set by her aunt and manager Catherine.
After Ashley’s intentions to ruin their project come to light, Catherine poisons her by mixing powdered hallucinogenic tablets that Ashley had been stockpiling to one day commit suicide. She falls into a seemingly irreversible coma.
In another plotline, Ashley O has a huge fan in a young girl Rachel who gets a small AI doll for her birthday that has a part of the real Ashley’s personality and memories.
Due to a glitch in the AI doll, its personality becomes wholly identical to Ashley O. Rachel is shocked how crude her favourite pop star is in her real life. Then, the story begins.
As you can probably tell, this is one of those too straightforward episodes with caricaturist characters. There are a lot of ideas in this episode, all stuffed together, and few lead to anywhere exciting. However, one can’t deny that Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is insanely entertaining.
Black Mirror season 5 was neither the best nor the worst season of the show. All of its episodes were quite entertaining, and yet at least two of the three episodes did not feel like Black Mirror at all. This season, Black Mirror stopped being edgy. Bandersntach, even with its paper-thin plot, brought something new to the table. The season 5 of Black Mirror, despite some high points, felt a little stale. There was little novelty that we have come to expect from this show. Let’s hope Charile Brooker’s devilish mind has something more impressive for the show’s future.