By Peg Aloi
All three episodes have intriguing storylines, with plenty of human pathos and drama: but I admit to finding the first and third episodes a bit too digitally-focused for my taste.
Black Mirror, Season 5, Netflix
Maybe I got a bit spoiled by recent seasons of Black Mirror because they were filled with so many great episodes. Season 4 had six entries, each one a stunner. Then there was the in-between, stand-alone creation, a sort of movie, the interactive Bandersnatch, which allowed viewers to choose between two narrative outcomes at multiple points in the story. I admit to becoming obsessed; I watched it four times, recording my choices and their outcomes each time. I am still not sure if I saw every combination of possible story elements. Bandersnatch received mixed reviews, but there is no question it drew a huge amount of attention
The “black mirror” of Black Mirror is a metaphor (for the screens we live so much of our lives on, in, and through, via smartphones, TVs. and computer monitors) that is used to probe legitimate (if familiar) concerns about life in the digital age. Many episodes also focus tightly on the specter of social media, and its potential for destroying lives — or at least needlessly complicating them. The first two seasons, with three episodes each, were mainly seen in the UK on the BBC network. But, by the third season, the show became more widely available in the US, finally moving to Netflix for its fourth season, where it remains.
Season 3’s “Hated in the Nation,” a longer-than-usual episode set in London that combined the science of colony collapse disorder, mechanical bee drones, and social media outrage was the first widely talked about episode on American social media. An irony that was (perhaps) lost on many fans? By Season 4 there was a distinctive shift to more episodes based in the United States; now roughly half the stories are US-based. This has also led to casting more American actors (like Bryce Dallas Howard in “Nosedive,” or Jesse Plemons in “USS Calister”), thereby increasing the show’s appeal to American viewers. Season 5’s finale episode leans on this by casting pop star Miley Cyrus as a darker version of herself. All three episodes have intriguing storylines, with plenty of human pathos and drama: but I admit to finding the first and third episodes a bit too digitally-focused for my taste, even though that has always been a hallmark of the series.
The first episode of Season 5, “Striking Vipers” features a video game that requires a virtual reality headpiece to play. Two longtime friends, Danny and Karl, haven’t seen each other in years and meet up again at Danny’s 38th birthday party. Danny (Anthony Mackie) is happily married to college sweetheart Theo (Nikki Beharie); they have a child and are trying for a second one. When former roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gives Danny a present of a revamped video game, like the one he and his buddies played in college, they make a date to play online together. Black Mirror often riffs on current cultural phenomena. I’ll admit I know very little about video gaming culture. Recently, my students laughed at me when I expressed disbelief that watching other people play video games was a popular pastime around the globe, one that has necessitated its own form of fashion (no, really).
Because of the virtual reality chip, playing together means they are feeling physical sensations in real time, too. Even though they are still “gaming” their actions consist of sitting slumped on the sofa while their eyes go blank. (This is a trope used in Season 1’s “The Entire History of You,” when characters used a common technology to replay their every interaction as if they were reliving it.) Danny and Karl choose game avatars who are an Asian-American man and woman. Their spirited martial arts fighting escalates to more passionate entanglements. Danny and Karl are freaked out by the implications, and must navigate the unexpected feelings unleashed by the game’s too-real capabilities. Then there’s Theo, wondering why Danny is suddenly distant and not adhering to the baby-making schedule. It’s odd, to say the least, that two African-American men are acting out their deepest desires via Asian-American avatars. Could this be a commentary on the taboo of homosexuality in black culture? Former Boston Globe/now New York Times film critic Wesley Morris had a thing or two to say about this in his excellent article “Last Taboo: Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal with Black Male Sexuality.” The special effects in the episode are outstanding; though those who enjoy video games might find them more appealing than I did.
In “Smithereens,” which I consider the most powerful, if not the most fun, episode of the season, Irish actor Andrew Scott (recently seen as the “hot priest” on Fleabag’s second season) plays Chris, a man who works as a rideshare driver. He parks outside a tech company’s building, Smithereens, the name for a social media application/empire that resembles Facebook. Chris appears to be polite, intense, and distracted. Strangely, he asks all of his fares if they work for Smithereens. When he picks up an intern for the company, he kidnaps the young man. The police eventually negotiate Chris’ one demand: he wants to speak directly to the founder and CEO Billy Bauer (played by Topher Grace). The story spirals to an unexpected place once we learn Chris’ real motivation; the police manage the situation by connecting with Smithereens’ super–sophisticated surveillance technology. The insidious, omni-powerful nature of social media is laid bare, though Topher Grace manages to imbue his odious character with some modicum of compassion. Scott’s portrayal of a man unraveling under unbearable strain is a tour de force. I have never seen a bad or even middling performance in this series. In fact, many of them have been mesmerizing and memorable: a testament to the excellent casting and direction.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” stars Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a popstar worshipped by millions of teenage girls. Rachel (Angourie Rice) is a shy, lonely teen who begs her father, an amateur inventor, for a newly-introduced tiny robot companion (basically a smart speaker, like Siri or Alexa), named Ashley Too, who speaks with Ashley’s voice and responds in an eerily realistic way to conversations. Rachel’s older sister, Jack (Madison Davenport), disparages Rachel’s love of Ashley O — she retreats into her ’80s era vintage music tastes and rolls her eyes whenever Rachel interacts with the robot. The home is tense, the absence of the girls’ mother a source of unspoken awkwardness between them. Ashley O’s mother is also absent and her Aunt Catherine (House of Cards’ Susan Pourfar) serves as her guardian and dominating business manager. Ashley’s tired of the celebrity shtick. She wants to write darker songs, and to confront her emotional problems instead of medicating them away. The technology on display helps drive the story, and there are some seriously terrifying implications to Catherine’s insistence that Ashley retain an upbeat façade. There’s a rather hilarious hijacking of a Nine Inch Nails song for one of Ashley’s videos, and the story, by taking on some teenage caper energy, becomes inventive and entertaining.
I wouldn’t call this Black Mirror‘s strongest season, but it continues to push the envelope in terms of sophisticated drama that explores, parodies, implodes, and exposes the problematics of modern life, often with uncannily accurate detail. The stories, in which we see ourselves and our communities reflected in harsh light, are often hard to watch…and yet, we keep watching.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.