Netflix’s Black Mirror rebounds after a few recent disappointments with a short but more consistent fifth season.
Black Mirror often dances the line between gimmicks (Bandersnatch, Metalhead, and to an extent U.S.S. Callister) and emotional wallows (San Junipero, Be Right Back, The Entire History of You). All of their episodes are about technology, of course. But each varies in the degrees it successfully balances gadgetry and real human emotions. The worst of Black Mirror holds up its techno-babble like a five-year-old child with a shiny new toy at Christmas – “Look ma! See what I can do!”
But the very best Black Mirror episodes manage to push the gadgets into the background and allow human stories to flow from its depiction of the near (or current) future. Season 5 does exactly that, much to my great pleasure. After an uneven and rushed fourth season, Black Mirror returns with three strong episodes that continue on of its basic themes – the most basic human traits of love, fear, and anger always remain despite the barriers of impersonal technology.
The first outing, Smithereens, is the least technologically advanced of the three episodes. It’s a basic story of grief as a ride-sharing driver kidnaps an employee of a social media giant. Here, the technology in focus is largely social media and the omnipresent cell phone. As the driver (Andrew Scott) holds the employee (Damson Idris) hostage, police and corporate heavyweights at the social media giant frantically try to discover his motives. We are also treated to an amusing brief performance from Topher Grace as a social media CEO douchebag. Going further into the emotional core of the episode would spoil it, so I’ll refrain. It is, though, one of the more simple resolutions/justifications I’ve seen in Black Mirror. Smithereens is an engaging and entertaining hour that, ultimately, doesn’t really go anywhere groundbreaking. But its heart is strong and its emotions ring true, and I’ll give it a pass for that.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too
This is the one you’ve already heard about. Rachel… stars Miley Cyrus (yes, that one) as a generic pop star who sings cloying songs about self-empowerment and achieving your dreams. Thanks to a multi-million dollar marketing team, she releases the Ashley Too, a small robot (think Wall-E‘s EVE with a purple wig) imbued with her subconscious. Her self-proclaimed “Number One Fan” (Angourie Rice) battles the resentment of her sister (Madison Davenport) as she uses Ashley Too to better her social circumstances in school. Well, attempt to anyway. It all comes crashing down as Cyrus slips into a coma thanks to what is reported to be a shellfish allergy but is really the result of a resentful aunt/manager. Thanks to Cyrus’s involvement, this episode is sort of the face of Season 5. Like Nosedive before it, it’s a fun episode that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’m not sure it exactly has anything brilliant or insightful to ultimately say about technology. It does feature a committed performance from Miley Cyrus that will probably surprise more than a few.
This is the one you’re going to be talking about for weeks. Striking Vipers is best seen under a veil of complete ignorance. The basic plot involves two life-long friends reconnecting online through a Mortal Kombat-style game that literally puts you in the action. To say that the episode veers into territory that I wasn’t expecting is a complete and total understatement. I should have done my homework, though, because this episode was directed by the great Owen Harris of San Junipero fame. Starring Anthony Mackie, Striking Vipers carries forward similar themes but overlays it with meditations on aging and parenting. It’s my overwhelming favorite of the three episodes, partially because it tells such a unique and uniquely human story but also because it shocked and surprised me the most. With such an incredible array of television available now, viewers (this viewer anyway) crave something different, something unique. Striking Vipers delivers exactly that in a touching, emotionally complex hour.
Netflix’s Black Mirror Season 5 is now streaming.