For a series deeply invested in being innovative and futuristic, Black Mirror seems to have lost its sense of imagination. The highly-anticipated fifth season of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology follows the December release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive film in which viewers are active participants in the development of the storyline. Black Mirror Season 5 marks both a return to the show’s standard format and also a notable decline in quality.
At just three episodes, Season 5 contains half the content of Seasons 3 and 4. This puts a certain amount of pressure on each episode to deliver the kind of insightful, visually-pleasing social commentary audiences have come to expect from Black Mirror. The season’s first episode, “Striking Vipers” is the strongest of the three. “Striking Vipers” presents a familiar dilemma: Danny (Anthony Mackie) is utterly bored and dissatisfied with suburban family life, all the more so after reconnecting with his old roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). When Karl gifts gives Danny Striking Vipers X, the newest, VR-enabled version of a video game they played together as younger men, Danny seizes upon the opportunity for nostalgic male bonding via digital escapism.
Virtual reality offers Danny a chance at real freedom, the opportunity to pursue impulses and indulge in the forbidden, all without waking his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). Striking Vipers X leads to confusing developments in Danny and Karl’s friendship, most of which are played out via their avatars (Ludi Lin and Pom Klementieff). Theo unwittingly verbalizes pivotal question of the episode: “Are you in there?”, though the quote that best encapsulates the chaos of the digital realm belongs to Karl: “I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.” And yet, “Striking Vipers” lacks any real panache. Though the episode contains the most interesting character conflict of Season 5, its believability is severely limited by the lack of supporting context.
“Striking Vipers” succeeds in raising some valuable questions about the ways in which digital spaces could transform human sexuality, but it backs away from a full exploration of these ideas, settling for a convenient but mediocre ending. It is also overshadowed by Season 3’s “San Junipero,” which delves into similar concepts and is widely considered one of the series’ best installments.
Episode 2, “Smithereens,” is undoubtedly the weakest episode of the bunch. “Smithereens” features the Chris Gillhaney (Andrew Scott), a distressed widower and rideshare-app driver. For reasons that aren’t meant to become clear until the end of the episode, Chris is desperate to make contact with employees of Smithereens, a social media company evocative of Twitter. After Chris picks up a young intern, Jaden (Damson Idris), from company headquarters, a standoff ensues—your typical “man with a gun” scenario. Though local police are quick to arrive at the scene, it is not law enforcement who controls the situation or the narrative, but the domineering social media corporation at the center of Chris’ rage. The episode clearly means to build suspense here, yet most viewers will not have a hard time guessing how it all plays out.
The intended emotional crux of the episode comes when Chris is finally able to finagle a phone call with Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), founder and CEO of Smithereens. Bauer’s appearance on screen amplifies the omnipresence of Smithereens; Grace is in full long-hair, flowing-robe Jesus mode, hearing confession from his desert spiritual retreat (reminiscent of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s own 10-day silent meditation trip). Though Grace and Scott play their parts skillfully, Chris’ hard-earned phonecall feels more like a sloppy drunken tirade than a grand finale.
The final episode of Black Mirror Season 5, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” depicts two simultaneous storylines. The first illustrates the wholesome teenage angst of Rachel (Angourie Rice), shy girl and superfan of bubblegum popstar Ashley O. Rachel’s struggles are those you’d probably expect for a teenage girl: fitting in at a new school, fighting with her snarky older sister Jack (Madison Davenport), and convincing her dad to buy the new Ashley O. robot toy imbued with the star’s personality. The episode also portrays Ashley O. herself (Miley Cyrus) as she strives to escape the cookie-cutter branding imposed by her greedy aunt and manager, Catherine (Susan Pourfar). The episode is littered with references to feeling physically and emotionally trapped, be it a doll on a shelf, a rat in a cage, or a girl cuffed to a bed.
Catherine takes dramatic steps to silence Ashley’s inevitable revolt; what follows is a brief examination of how robots, holograms, and AI might warp or even eliminate the human element in the entertainment industry. However, these ideas are never fully realized; a contrived series of events leads Rachel and Jack to rescue Ashley just in the nick of time, preventing any of the more exciting possibilities from actually materializing. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” represents Brooker’s attempt to push beyond the show’s dystopian roots in order to do something fresh and fun, but it comes at the cost of real substance.
Many of Black Mirror’s traditional thematic concerns are carried into Season 5: escapism through technology, the struggle to find and maintain one’s identity in a world that’s rapidly transforming, the relationship between technology and soulless capitalism. And yet, this is not the surreal, futuristic series so many of us came to love. Gone are the eccentric, speculative storylines exploring how technology might one day shape humanity. Season 5’s offerings take place in present-day or shortly thereafter, relying on more familiar iterations of current technologies like VR gameplay, social media, and AI toys. This might be okay, had the show stayed loyal to its clever, compelling, suspenseful approach to the subject matter. However, Black Mirror Season 5 shies away from the kind of unsettling conclusions that made the previous seasons so captivating. This insistence on playing it safe cheapens the content and, ultimately, leads the season to fall spectacularly flat. 2/5 spoons.