If Black Mirror is the brain-child of Charlie Brooker, then that child is the grotesque Eraserhead baby heavy-breathing in the dark and absolutely nothing is right with the world. Serving as a ‘Twilight Zone for the 21st century’ and all that comes with that, the tech-themed anthology show has since outkicked that niche coverage into a force of global television.
The ‘Americanisation’ of the former Channel 4 series hasn’t so far compromised the feeling of narrative dread the show has become famous for. If anything, these horrifying sentiments from not-too-far-away have packed a much heavier punch (over the last two seasons and the interactive film Bandersnatch), juxtaposed against glistening, cinematic production values since the move to Netflix. Season 5 however… well, it’s a little different.
All three of these episodes do occasionally get lost in the tropes of a Black Mirror episode. Brooker and Co. aren’t exactly playing the hits here; there is just enough to these stories to dispel a criticism like that, but it does seem as if there may have been a lot of self-influence – a whiteboard of ‘things we think people enjoy about our show’ that they could pull from and regurgitate for later use. Not the usual shared-universe Easter eggs to send Reddit into a frenzy either (they’re still in) – that’s all well and good; but more along the lines of smashing two pre-existing plotlines together and daring to present it as new, or how the show chooses to reveal ‘the moral’ you know is coming.
So, as with the last season, the opener ‘Striking Vipers’ returns to the world of video games. We follow Danny (Anthony Mackie), a hard-working family man introduced by an old friend to the titular VR sequel of an arcade fighting game the pair played together a decade ago. When the two realise that player consciousness is temporarily transplanted into the physical forms of fully mirroring in-game characters, their relationship begins to change, and alters what they know of their lives completely. ‘Striking Vipers’ is a great example of how every once in a while, Black Mirror will deviate from the tested formula of cold and bleak, and invite you into a very human journey (see ‘San Junipero’ from S3, or ‘Hang the DJ’ from S4). However, the run time is a little too stretched for the story actually told, and it could have hugely benefited from being shaved 10 minutes and keeping everything concise.
READ MORE: November – Review
Next up is ‘Smithereens’. Andrew Scott is the performance of the series as Christopher Gillhaney, an irrational and incensed man with a vendetta against social media titan Smithereen, and its elusive creator, billionaire Billy Bauer. Posing as a taxi driver through an app called Hitcher, Chris hangs out around their HQ building in London, waiting desperately for an employee. In one of the most tense episodes to date, Chris is against the clock to speak to Bauer, hopefully before his world caves in around him. The third act of this episode floored me like very few things have. A comprehensive exercise in tension building and the pay-off is catastrophic. A must watch.
READ MORE: Lizzie – Review
“I’m going to get what I deserve” sings Miley Cyrus’ Ashley O, before the titlecard of the third instalment, ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’. Whilst dealing with feelings of intense isolation, megastar songstress Ashley O has realised she’s being exploited as a cash cow for her aunt and guardian Catherine. Not too far away, 15-year-old superfan Rachel deals with similar notions on loneliness exacerbated by moving schools, and the tragic death of her mother. This episode is almost split in half tonally, with some very strange comedy beats in the latter portion that don’t entirely land. Regardless, it’s fun for the most part, and Miley Cyrus turns in a solid showing in a difficult role.
Overall, the season is fine, and absolutely has moments that the catalogue should be proud of. But the show has been far too good for too long though for this to be anything other than a negative comment. Simply put, this run of three doesn’t quite stack up. It isn’t Black Mirror at the point of parody, but rather the show feeling a little rusty and trying to remember how it used to work. Honestly, that’s alright. I have every faith that when it comes around again, it’ll blow me away. A project the scale of Bandersnatch has to dry the well a little bit as far as creativity goes, and we’re only six months removed from that, so this gets a pass.
You could argue that maybe production should have been postponed longer to avoid this (if it truly is the reason), but you’d only get as far as the cusp of a huge conversation about our media consumption habits these days, and how the industry has changed… and that is a whole other beast.
A beast that I wouldn’t be surprised to see pop up next season.
Black Mirror Season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.