Black Mirror, as a television show, has taken the world by storm. Starting off as a eerily constructed dystopian anthology on Channel 4, the show is now one of the most popular Netflix properties. So, you can only imagine everyone’s excitement upon learning that the show would be returning to our screens with a fifth season. A fifth season that arguably recalls the show’s humble beginnings on British television. Unlike the previous two Netflix commissioned seasons, this one is only made up of three episodes, each one playing out like a well-made short film.
But the recent ‘Americanisation’ of the show can still be felt in this recent season, but not in the same capacity as the longer seasons have delivered. Overall, the reaction to this new season has been negative, with many citing it as one of the worst seasons of the show. One of the main criticisms being how this recent season does not feel like a season of Black Mirror. And to that, I would argue that there is no set stencil for what Black Mirror can do. After all it is an anthology show, and therefore open to different genres, styles and narrative structures. Something that Charlie Brooker seems to understand, unlike Jordan Peele, who’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone seems very much stuck in one time period and genre.
The first episode of the season is entitled ‘Striking Vipers’ and it appears to have been made to appeal to the more ‘geeky’ members of the fandom. With the episode not only utilising video games as the incentive of its narrative, but also starring a slew of Marvel veterans. The story focuses on the friendship between married man Danny (Anthony Mackie) and rich playboy Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen ii), which takes a surprising twist when their relationship turns sexual within a virtual arcade world. Also starring Guardians of the Galaxy regular Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin as the two men’s video game avatars, this episode is unfortunately the weakest entry of the new season. In many ways the episode feels like a surreal mash-up of ideas already covered in the show’s previous years. We have a virtual world, and two lovers caught in the middle of it, recalling both ‘San Junipero’ and ‘Playtest’. The episode is also nothing but a weak storyline interspersed with somewhat graphic sex scenes. And yet, it is also the only episode of the season that very much feels like a product of our modern world. The episode deconstructs many facets of our society, that we ourselves are also beginning to question. The episode is about two heterosexual, African-American men who place themselves into the virtual bodies of two Asian characters to engage in sex. One of these men even adopting the form and shape of a petite young woman. You can already see how this episode questions the relative greyness of both gender identity and sexuality. And although these are themes that need to be addressed, this episode is not the best candidate to do it. This episode may actually instead convey Brooker’s running out of potential ideas, seeing as it draws so heavily from stories he has already perfected.
The second entry in this new season is entitled ‘Smithereens’ and it is the only episode of the season that arguably fits the ‘Black Mirror Mould’, or what people expect the Black Mirror mould to be. Set almost exclusively in England, the story focuses on an Uber driver called Chris Gillhaney (Andrew Scott) who kidnaps the employee of a Social Media company called Smithereen, leading to a hostage situation that holds your attention for the entirety of the episode’s 70 minute runtime. The supporting cast of British TV regulars, as well as some guest appearances by American talent such as Topher Grace, make this episode one that truly embodies what Black Mirror now is. Although it falls back into tradition, with an episode completely devoid of dystopian flavour, it also still holds true to its new Netflix aesthetic – demonstrating a scope and vastness that would never have been seen in season one. This episode is evidently the best of the whole season, and, dare I say, one of the best the show’s five years has delivered. It’s no ‘San Junipero’ but it still holds a great sense of atmosphere, tension and a truly mind-bending performance from Scott, who demonstrates that he can do so much more than simply play an overly camp iteration of Doctor Moriarty. Brooker returns to true form with this episode, giving all we may expect from a Black Mirror episode. However, there is a laziness or predictability to the episode that does weaken its credit, but it still remains a constant gem in this divisive season.
The third and final episode of the season is probably the strangest one the show has ever given us, and this is from a show where we have had political bestiality and murderous metal dogs. But I believe that it may be this episode that has led to the season’s overall negative response from both the critics and fandom. The episode is called ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ and it is an episode that looks at the music industry and how it may change with advancements in technology. The episode also interestingly examines celebrity culture, and how certain public figures may have the ability to change the world with only a few words. The narrative follows a lonely teenager called Rachel, who’s admiration for a pop singer called Ashley Oritz, leads her to buy a robotic doll containing Ashley’s consciousness. Meanwhile, the real Ashley (played by Miley Cyrus) finds herself being manipulated and controlled by her dominating Aunt. In terms of narrative, this episode ranges from a teen drama, to a domestic thriller, to a buddy adventure, to a robot narrative and it is probably this unhinged and messy structure that has helped to weaken this episode’s reception. It is clear that Brooker is not truly comfortable tackling such topics as celebrity culture and pop music, because they are not themes or subjects that he is interested in. So the episode constantly switches from Gone Girl to Goonies at the drop of a hat to make up for the fact that Brooker has no idea what he’s trying to do with the issues he’s addressing. Cyrus does however give a solid performance in both her roles as the abused pop-star and the robotic toy version of herself. However, in some cases it feels like Cyrus’s casting was more strategic than it was creative, with her own experiences in the pop industry obviously filtering into her performance. But in the end, this episode still holds a strange charm that makes it both an enjoyable and endearing watch, even though it won’t be remembered when the show is studied as a cultural phenomenon.
This season of Black Mirror is strange in that it feels far more invested in human interaction that it is in technology. Although futuristic machinery is at the heart of each story, the narrative focuses more on how the characters interact with it, rather than the repercussions it has upon them, their life and the world at large. And in this we may see the problem with this season overall, that it breaks away from Brooker’s comfort zone, creating three stories that don’t seem to fit what we expect from the show. I myself would argue that this change in narrative pace and direction is both brave and interesting, and that again there should be no set rules for a show that changes its story every week. I’m sure we will see a season six in the following years, but for now I think I can say that Black Mirror still remains to be an interesting and engaging show that hopefully will continue to make bold creative decisions that keep us guessing and on our feet.