TV Review – Black Mirror Season 5

Black Mirror Season 5 (Netflix)
Created by Charlie Brooker

Striking Vipers
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by Owen Harris

We live in an era where the boundaries between sexuality and gender are blurring more and more, allowing people to explore their identities in ways never before possible. Technology also offers opportunities to rewrite and redesign yourself via the anonymity of the internet. Once users could change their identities through text-based interfaces but now the digital mapping of faces you can apply overlays over your visage that transform you into a different gender, a different species, or an entire fantastical being. Where Black Mirror will typically travel to the dark side of how humans interact with technology, Striking Vipers is a spiritual successor to San Junipero, one of the more hopeful entries into the series.

Charlie Brooker for all his acerbic and striking wit does an excellent job with the episodes of Black Mirror that focus on relationships and love. There’s the previously mentioned San Junipero but also Be Right Back. Brooker knows how to walk the line of positive sentiment but pull himself back before getting mired in sappy, maudlin manipulation. He doesn’t allow characters to get caught up in the nonsense of soulmates to dodge the peskiness of fidelity and established relationships. Allowing those elements into the story creates concrete complications for our protagonists to wrestle with.

Of the three new episodes in this batch of Black Mirror, Striking Vipers is my personal favorite. It is telling a very adult story that incorporates technology in a non-cumbersome way. This story could have been told without the video game at the center of it, but I think this element enhances the overall way things play out and deepens the themes. Striking Vipers feels like something urgent, addressing a contemporary question in a respectful and non-judgmental way. There’s some beautiful ambiguity in the ending, the audience is allowed to see what decisions the three characters have made, but we aren’t allowed insight into their thoughts and feelings. We assume everyone is happy with the outcome, but I couldn’t help to recall the scene in the rain where one person appears to tamp down their honest feelings about a romantic encounter. Is everyone happy with the outcome, or have they just become comfortable with the compromise?

Smithereens
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by James Hawes

It’s funny but the three episodes of Black Mirror Season 5 are ordered for viewing the same way I would rank them from best to worst, with Smithereens comfortably right smack dab in the middle. This isn’t a bad episode, but it stretches a thin premise near to the breaking point with a lot of the second act becoming non-essential filler. For most of the episode, it feels like we are watching a generic crime show about a hostage situation and even when we learn the main character’s impetus for putting all of this together it falls pretty flat. The biggest thing Smithereens has going for it is the acting.

Andrew Scott, who will be familiar to audiences as Moriarity on the recent Sherlock series, is the emotional backbone of the episode. He can take a relatively simple premise and bring pathos to it that honestly, the script doesn’t deserve. In the scene where his character of Christopher tearfully reveals why he’s been in a grieving support group and why he’s constructed a kidnapping plan centered around a social media platform, he sells the hell out of it. I wouldn’t blame viewers contemplating this entry to find themselves incredibly disappointed.

The technology angle feels muddled as if Brooker is trying to say way too many things about social media but fails to go deep with any of his ideas. Is the point how our addiction to dopamine-fueled approval from strangers causes us to lose sight of the world around us? Alternatively, is the concept that social media companies have a deeper access to our lives than we realize and can become part of a growing police state? Alternatively, is it a critique of how we interact with information regarding crisis moments, being engaged then suddenly disconnecting when a life is ended? Smithereens is all over the place and had the potential to be so much better than this.

Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by Anne Sewitsky

Hoo boy. This was bad. Real bad, like possibly the worst episode of Black Mirror to date. During the ridiculous third act, I leaned over to my wife and said, “This is essentially an R-rated Disney Channel movie.” It didn’t help that Miley Cyrus was in a lead role playing a more adult version of Hannah Montana where technology is evil. The premise centers on a fictional pop superstar, Ashley O who is idolized by an awkward, shy teenage girl, Rachel. Ashley O’s controlling aunt/manager has manufactured an interactive AI, which is an exact copy of Ashley’s consciousness. Rachel begs her dad to get her this unique chance almost to meet her idol. At the same time, Ashley wants to explore other musical avenues, but her aunt becomes worried that her cash cow will run out and take drastic measures.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the acting in this episode. Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is always talented and charming. She’s supported by Madison Davenport (Shameless) as an older sister who enjoys alternative music. As I said, these young women do an excellent job given the material handed to them. I think the depth of commentary you would expect from an episode of Black Mirror is absent here. There’s a subplot involving the girls’ dad developing a humane way to capture mice (He’s a pest control worker), and he’s got a pretty advanced set up to study rodent brains. I was expecting some connection between manipulating animals to how popular media is used to shape young people’s perceptions of gender and cultural expectations. Nope.

What we’re given ultimately is a comic relief robot, a rescue heist, and high-speed car chase race against time. If you cut out the profanity, this is something you’d have expected to see on the Disney Channel in the early 2000s. I am flabbergasted that Brooker would think this script was acceptable for this show and am genuinely curious what his mindset behind this one was. Is this the product of Netflix demanding more episodes, and he felt the pressure while writing? I would have liked to see the dark side of fandom explored and how young people are transformed by fame, losing their autonomy to an industry with performance and profit expectations. I would think this would be right in Miley’s wheelhouse as a woman who has gone through that wringer and probably has many stories to tell. However, this is such a low point to end the season on; it almost makes me want them to stop the series and just let us be happy with what we have.

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