In the wake of the Emmy-winning ‘San Junipero’ and ‘USS Callister’ it’s no real surprise to see Black Mirror following up with lighter, marginally more hopeful installments in season 5. The new season is a bit shorter than seasons 3 and 4, both of which offered six episodes with recognizable casts that came from a variety of directors, like David Slade, Joe Wright, Dan Trachtenberg and more. Season 5 opts for just three episodes directed by James Hawkes, Owen Harris, and Anne Sewitsky, respectively, but brings in plenty of recognizable faces with Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Endgame), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace (The Hot Zone), Andrew Scott (Fleabag), and more, all playing various incarnations of those influenced — positively and negatively — by technology.
With its three offerings, ‘Smithereens,’ ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,’ and ‘Striking Vipers,’ Black Mirror season 5 is noticeably devoid of the usual dystopian story typically offered at some point in each series. There’s no ‘Crocodile’ or ‘Metalhead’ or ‘Men Against Fire’ this time around. Instead, the new season is mostly comprised of lighter fare, with both ‘Striking Vipers’ and ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ feeling conspicuously reminiscent of both the show’s recent Emmy-winning episodes. While on the surface it may seem as though series creator and writer Charlie Brooker is attempting to relive past glories, the manner in which these less conventional Black Mirror episodes unfold suggests it may simply be a case of a show maturing out of its more cynical tendencies, at least for the time being.
This change-up is a welcome bit of fresh air, as Black Mirror can sometimes feel stifled by its overtly bleak, finger-wagging, technophobia. It also frees the series from the somewhat suffocating confines of its usual tech-based morality tales, offering audiences a slightly more emotionally complex tale that aims to examine technology’s influence from a decidedly more humanistic perspective. That is certainly the case in ‘Striking Vipers,’ which feels of a piece with ‘San Junipero’ in its exploration of an unlikely romance between two people facilitated by a powerful, potentially all-consuming technology.
Though ultimately not as emotionally satisfying as ‘Junipero’ or even the similarly upbeat ‘Hang the DJ,’ ‘Vipers’ is more provocative, in a way that will launch a thousand think pieces and social media conversations. The story takes the idea of the seven-year (ish) itch and turns it on its ear by opening the door for a pair of semi-estranged college buddies, Danny and Karl, played by Mackie and Abdul-Mateen II, to engage in a sexual relationship via a hyper-advanced virtual reality fighting simulator (think Street Fighter in real life), in which the lines of identity (both personal and sexual) are blurred by the men inhabiting their respective avatars, played by Klementieff and Ludi Lin (Power Rangers).
In addition to ideas of how realistic monogamous relationships are and how easily technology facilitates infidelity, ‘Striking Vipers’ is only interested in Danny and Karl’s sexual fluidity on the surface, especially since the latter is ostensibly switching gender in the context of both the video game and the friends’ sexual liaisons. It’s surface in that the characters — and by extension, Black Mirror itself — don’t really explore the nature of their newfound relationship outside the impact it will have on Danny’s marriage to his wife played by Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow), and a cursory exploration to find out if Danny and Karl are sexually attracted to one another outside the boundaries of the game. While the episode’s most fascinating aspect is the dynamic between Danny and Karl, and the emotional and physical (inasmuch as it’s actually physical, in this case) needs they are meeting for one another, ‘Striking Vipers’ itself seems more interested in sticking to a relatively familiar narrative of one man's midlife crisis, fueled in part by sexual desire that’s limited by the constraints of monogamy.
Even with its various problems — Beharie’s character lacks substance in a way that might otherwise have better conveyed the significance of the choices made by her and Mackie’s characters — ‘Striking Vipers’ is by far the most interesting hour in the new season. It takes the basic premise behind nearly every Black Mirror episode and filters it through an unconventional lens (for this show, anyway). The result is an hour that, while not being as jubilant as ‘San Junipero,’ is nevertheless just as memorable.
The other two episodes more or less exemplify the series’ past and its present, as ‘Smithereens’ walks a familiarly dark path, while ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ offers up a bubblegum-pop version of Black Mirror, complete with a role for Miley Cyrus as a mega pop-star aching to break out of a persona she's long since outgrown.
Each one is less successful in various ways, though ‘Smithereens’ does offer a tremendous performance from Andrew Scott as Chris, a man so desperate to make contact with Topher Grace’s Billy Bauer, a Jack Dorsey-like tech bro and creator of the Twitter-like social media platform Smithereen, he’s willing to kidnap an intern played by a woefully underused Damson Idris (Snowfall) to make it happen. The hour is an exercise in tension, as Scott’s character, who works for an Uber-like (you see a theme here) rideshare company, abducts his victim in a convoluted ploy to get Bauer on the phone. Brooker keeps Chris’s reasons secret until the episode’s end, which effectively ramps up the tension as Chris’s car is descended upon by the London police, while in the US, the Smithereen team work with the FBI to try and discern a motive and keep Bauer away at all costs.
While director Jame Hawes succeeds in making it feel like the situation is rapidly spiraling out of control, ‘Smithereens’ ultimately punts in its final moments, offering a fairly rote “social media is too addictive” explanation of Chris’s actions and a semi-ambiguous denouement that more or less seals the character's fate. In the end, the hour hews too close to the agenda of too many other episodes of Black Mirror, leaving audiences with a somewhat simplistic morality tale that undercuts Scott’s performance.
If ‘Smithereens’ feels too familiar, ’Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ might be an example of Black Mirror overcorrecting with regard to its approach. The hour effectively pinpoints the negative aspects of commercialism and the marketing of superstars to a young and impressionable audience seeking validation and emotional intimacy through various interactions with technology and social media. Yet, even with those ideas at its core, ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ devolves too quickly into a lightweight teen caper/fantasy, complete with a wicked stepmother and sleeping princess.
For most of the hour, the episode works diligently toward a convergence of its parallel storylines. The first one features the artistic dissatisfaction of global superstar Ashley O (Cyrus), who has just launched a new toy that’s a mix between a Sony Aibo and an Amazon Alexa, and allows her fans to interact with a digital version of her. The other focuses on a pair of teen sisters, Rachel (Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys) and Jack (Madison Davenport, Sharp Objects), who recently lost their mother and are being raised by their amiable but absentminded father played by Ozark’s Marc Menchaca.
More interesting than the plot involving Ashley O’s wicked aunt Catherine (Susan Pourfar) conspiring to control every aspect of her famous nieces’s career is the way in which the hour (deliberately or not) addresses the nature of celebrity versus artistry, intimating, in a manner reminiscent of Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, that pop stars are somehow too manufactured or otherwise less authentic than other artists. That’s a particularly fascinating stance to take considering the episode’s characters exist in a world where the song 'Head Like a Hole’ is credited to Ashley O rather than Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails.
‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ is at its best when exploring the aching loneliness of Rice’s Rachel, and her desire to not only fit in at school, but to emulate her hero, Ashley O. Like some other Black Mirror stories, this one feels like it starts too early and spends too much time setting up its premise, leaving too little room for a deeper understanding of the characters, and for the story to arrive at anything but an unearned and uncomfortably facile ending that resembles wish fulfillment.
In all, following in the footsteps of the interactive ‘Bandersnatch’ and the alternatively humorous and despondent offerings of season 4, Black Mirror season 5 is something of a mixed bag. Though it has moderate success with regard to its attempts to vary the show’s sometimes overwhelming bleakness, the three-episode season nevertheless tries too hard to live up to (or even emulate) its recent successes with ideas that are somewhat half-baked.
Black Mirror season 5 will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Wednesday, June 5.