In December last year, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was released on Netflix and met a mixed reception from fans of the television series. The overriding consensus was that though its examination of free will and fatalism was a novel and compelling experiment, its execution as a choose-your-own-adventure film was a little messy. Now half a year later, season 5 of Black Mirror appears to have the opposite problem, backtracking on the innovative exploration of new ideas and focusing on the consistent development of specific styles and tones in each episode.
All three new instalments retread a lot of ground that the show has covered before – existence in virtual reality, social media addiction, and how living in an interconnected globalised community pushes us to the edge of sanity. But although these concepts have previously been dealt with in more interesting ways, the lighter touches in season 5 generally help to repackage them in episodes that are more hopeful for the future.
‘Striking Vipers’ is the strongest of the set, telling the story of Danny, a married man, who indulges in virtual reality sex with his best friend. Though both are gamers who fulfil traditionally masculine roles in the real world, their inhibitions and pretences drop away as soon as they take on the appearance of their online fighter avatars, Roxette and Lance. In an ironic reflection of modern Internet behaviours, they are only able to express their true selves and desires while they are detached from their physical bodies. The game’s partial anonymity and its endless list of identities that players can adopt is enticing, and stand in for the many ways online communities can be used as a form of escapism.
The question of how gender identity and sexuality come into play with this technology is raised, though ‘Striking Vipers’ seems more occupied with the impact of the men’s online relationship on their external lives. Both grow disconnected from their surroundings, searching for some form of satisfaction that can live up to their simulated sex. Their dudebro expression of masculinity compensates for the insecurity that they feel in their skin, and this eventually escalates to a violent brawl when Danny is forced to do the one thing he has always strived to avoid – face his deepest feelings.
‘Striking Vipers’ does what Black Mirror does best, blurring the lines between social concepts we are familiar with until they can barely be distinguished. Does this abuse of video game mechanics constitute as porn, cheating, or does it deserve an entirely different label with new ethical guidelines? While it could have dug deeper into the psychological implications of this VR game, the worldbuilding and creativity of ‘Striking Vipers’ make it the most thought-provoking and challenging episode of season 5.
The middle episode of this season brings our setting back to the modern day in a tense thriller starring Andrew Scott as Chris, a man with a vendetta against a Twitter-like social media company, Smithereens, from which the episode gets its namesake. On the outskirts of its central story, ‘Smithereens’ gets close to hitting something brilliant in its critique of how big tech companies may potentially be better at tracking and identifying criminal suspects than the police force. Much like its predecessor though, the core of this episode sets its sights on simpler, more familiar material.
After Chris kidnaps a Smithereens employee, attempts to ransom him for a direct phone line to CEO Billy Bauer, and attracts the attention of the police, it quickly becomes clear just how incompetent he is. But though Chris isn’t cut out for this sort of criminal activity, he is still intelligent enough to take control of the negotiation attempts. While the police are struggling to figure out who he is, Smithereens has already figured out everything about him through his online data history. Even after Smithereens and the law enforcement team up, the company executives realise that if they’re to successfully defuse the situation then they will need to go about it their own way.
‘Smithereens’ doesn’t ponder so much as it brushes over the power shift that has happened with the rise of social media, which has given an extraordinary amount of power to private entities who hold large reserves of personal data. Instead, its focus is on social media addiction, an issue that Black Mirror tackled in a far more insightful way in season 3’s ‘Nosedive’ by examining its manipulation of the basic human desire to be loved. Though Scott delivers a convincing, impassioned performance as he rails against the companies that design their apps to be deliberately addictive, there is no new perspective on display here that hasn’t been considered before. The reveal that his wife died in a car accident due to his own compulsion to check his Smithereens notifications is tragic, but it fails to develop the idea that social media ruins lives beyond that very simple moral statement. Even though ‘Smithereens’ ends up being a missed opportunity to explore the potential for the abuse of data collection, its masterful direction and intense performances still allow it to succeed as a suspenseful crime drama.
Wrapping up season 5 is the vibrant, poppy episode ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’, a cautionary tale against the brand of positivity culture that comes at the expense of personal dignity and individuality. Though it also has some similarities to ‘Nosedive’ in this way, its focus on the commodification of celebrities allows a fresh take on how a desire to be part of a people-pleasing community is fuelled by corporations that profit off these behaviours.
The narrative itself is split between two concurrent storylines: that of Ashley O, a pop star on a depressive downward spiral, and sisters Rachel and Jack, two grating stereotypes of 2019 teenagers. In the former, Ashley O is dreaming of pushing her music into darker territory and breaking free from the marketable teen-friendly image that she has created for herself. The casting of Miley Cyrus in this role is a fun nod to the actor-singer’s own experience pushing against the constraints of the corporate music industry and helps her slide naturally into the part of the discontent musician.
Ashley O’s story takes a dramatic turn after her manager sees her shift in disposition, drugs her, and forces the singer into a coma to preserve her perfectly clean, conservative image. This is clearly intended to be a twist, but its sudden escalation only robs the episode of the nuance that Black Mirror episodes usually deliver so well.
The second plotline follows schoolgirl Rachel who has purchased the brand new Ashley O artificial intelligence doll, Ashley Too, whose intent of delivering empty platitudes to self-doubting teenagers has subtle, insidious implications. Though it bolsters Rachel with self-confidence, it disconnects her from a reality that can never live up to the doll’s fake, relentless optimism. Self-improvement is a commodity that Ashley O’s brand specialises in, promising fans that by actively consuming her merchandise they can learn to become the best versions of themselves possible. It’s the same old “money will buy you happiness” promise, but delivered in a 21st century self-help package.
Around the third act, the rising stakes of ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ become a little too far-fetched. The episode starts to rely on contrived plot devices, such as a machine that extracts music from Ashley O’s dreams, and a wacky rescue sequence that would be more at home in a Disney Channel series. The story comes to a stock standard happy ending that sees the “bad” music executives punished and has each of our heroes rewarded for their noble efforts in fighting for autonomy and individuality.
I’m not averse to Black Mirror episodes ending on positive notes, but generally those that are more satisfying are the ones that maintain some level of authenticity. In the case of ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’, the corporisation of entertainment is treated as a threat that hits hard but can be easily beaten by staying true to oneself – a message that doesn’t sound too far off from something the Ashley Too doll might spout out. As a result, the win is barely earned, undercutting its own warning against positivity culture and Black Mirror’s thesis that the future is inevitable.
There is only so much a single writer can create before they start to repeat themselves, but that doesn’t mean the concepts they’re writing about can’t be reinvigorated with new perspectives and possibilities. Charlie Brooker still has the ability to make us squirm as we watch our most self-destructive social habits exposed on television, but in season 5 his truly fascinating ideas are merely kept in the background while the more worn Black Mirror tropes play out in the centre. Though it remains one of Netflix’s most thrilling and cerebral television series, Brooker’s production team may need some fresh blood if it is to recapture the thoughtfulness of its early seasons.