Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.
Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.
Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.
That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.
Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.
It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.
So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.
Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too
Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.
There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.
That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.
Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.
I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.
If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.