'Black Mirror' Season 5: Not the Finest Hour
The Popular Show goes 1 for 3
Black Mirror is a historically strong show. It’s one of my favorite shows, to be honest. I was excited to see what this newest season would bring. Seeing the casting, I was a little nervous. With the three episodes starring Anthony Mackie, Andrew Scott, and Miley Cyrus in each, I wondered if the star power of these well-known actors would overshadow the writing and big ideas the show is known for.
I went in hoping for the best. However, my fears came true. Besides the middle episode, the three episode season was a huge disappointment. It felt like there was something missing throughout most of it. The usual dark, slightly quirky, and foreboding tone wasn’t quite there for me, as if there were no stakes. I need to pick apart each one episode by episode, because they each had separate issues.
This episode might have been the biggest disappointment in that it had the most wasted potential. Anthony Mackie is a great actor. He’s done comedy and drama, so he has range. It was a little distracting seeing him, as he’s a huge Marvel star right now. I will say that out of the three episodes, his wasn’t the one most affected by star power (that will be a later episode, obviously). "Striking Vipers" is about two friends, Danny and Karl, who reconnect on a virtual reality Mortal Kombat-esque game entitled "Striking Vipers." While playing as their characters, with Karl as the female character and Danny as the male character, they end up making out. This starts a relationship between the two on this game, all while Danny’s wife Theo is getting frustrated with her husband becoming increasingly distant.
I wanted to love this. I loved the way they shot the game sequences, as if I was really watching a video game screen. The parallels between Danny and Karl were also amazing. Danny barely touches his wife, despite her want to have another child, and Karl sleeps with loads of younger women. They’re on opposite ends of the spectrum with their physical connections, yet both are emotionally distant from those around them. Ironically, the connection they have on the game is the most genuine emotional link they have to another human being. Then there’s the big debate over whether or not it’s actually cheating on Danny’s end, since he isn’t quite having a traditional affair. Is it? I mean, he is emotionally cheating, even if not physically. Interestingly, the episode ends with a compromise; Danny can continue his virtual visits with Karl while Theo goes out to the bar, and it’s implied she meets a nice man for the night.
There are so many questions here. This episode is one of the hour long ones, but I think this would have benefited from a little more time and focus. My biggest issue with this episode is the way they just skimmed the surface with the material. We barely had time to see Danny and Karl interact as friends before a eleven year time jump brings us to where the bulk of the story happens. When they suddenly make out in the game, it comes out of nowhere. I wanted more subtlety in their dynamic, maybe a few moments when they were younger to show some questionable feelings and what not. The episode wasn’t terrible, it was just rushed and shallow. Black Mirror has done so many episodes where relationships are shown in depth, and how technology affects these relationships. For some reason this one was flat. I’d say it’s the second best out of the three episodes this season.
This one is easily the best out of the three. It has the tension, the tight timeline and locations, and an interesting premise. This one revolves around Chris, a taxi driver who kidnaps an intern from the huge tech company Smithereen. Smithereen is basically an equivalent to Twitter in this universe. Chris clearly has a grudge against them and demands to speak to the founder, Billy Bauer, or else he will kill Jaden, the intern. The entire episode takes place mostly in Chris’ taxi after he drives off the road into the field. Police surround him and everyone from the British forces to the FBI, to Smithereen’s higher executives interact via phone to diffuse the situation.
I loved this episode. I was anxious to know what Chris wanted and how it would all end. Along the way, there were also eye-opening facts about technology and social media that spoke to frightening facts about our world. While some of the messages, like, “technology is too distracting” and “young people never look up from phones” are old and predictable, I liked some of the curves in this episode. Even the usual technology based fears get a spin. Though Chris rails on Jaden (which was terrific acting from Scott, by the way) about how obsessed he is with his phone, Chris then finds he needed that phone to call Jaden’s boss. Similarly, he gets the jump on the police in some situations because he sees posts on social media that alert him to their latest developments. Though he has issues with the tech, it is still vital to his plan. Little twists like that are what I expect of Black Mirror, and "Smithereens" delivered.
Notably for me is the scene where everyone is connected on a conference call and figuring out Chris’ past and his psyche. The police and FBI are quiet as the Smithereen executive Penelope educates them about him. She was able to understand his mental state and track his personal information quicker than law enforcement all via social media and the internet. That was really poignant to me. We put so much of our lives on social media that it isn’t too difficult for people with access to piece together the trajectory of our lives in many ways. I was speechless and engrossed throughout that entire sequence.
Another strong performance for me was Topher Grace. Though Grace has never been a huge star or big draw in the past, his entrance into the episode was great. His character, the founder Billy Bauer, is on a ten day tech-free retreat when we meet him, and when finally gets news of the situation, his first line is a loud “Oh, fuck.” He gets to talk to Chris, and that gave us another fun curveball to play with. Chris tells Billy that he wanted to call him because of what Smithereen has done to the world. Years back, Chris was driving with his fiancé in the car when he looked at Smithereen on his phone, causing him to swerve and hit a car. It killed his fiancé, and the other driver he hit was drunk, so he took the blame. Chris snapped, unable to live with the guilt over knowing he was really the one responsible.
What I like was Billy’s response. He basically pops off after his team tries to feed him lines to say. He admits he has no control anymore, and he has no idea how things got to this point. It frustrates him, and he admits that on day two of his retreat, he checked some form of technology. His admission seemed very heartfelt and lost, and I felt the hopelessness that we all feel when we think about how dependent we are on technology. Chris didn’t even ask him to apologize, or make any changes, or any of that. He just wanted Billy to know before he put the gun to his own head and killed himself.
This, unfortunately, is the one part I hated. Chris unlocks the doors and tells Jaden to leave so he can kill himself. Jaden has a good heart, and tries to wrestle the gun away from Chris, telling him he doesn’t have to end his life. A police sniper shoots, and someone is hit, but we don’t see who. Tell. Us. Who. The point of this ambiguous ending makes itself clear in the credits. While the credits role, we get cuts of ordinary people checking their phone to read the news for a second, and then put it away and go to something else. It’s to show how we’re desensitized to the news and things like this. We glance and move on. That’s fine, but how much better would that have been if we saw Chris die? I’m assuming he’s the one who was killed. Andrew Scott took us on an intense emotional journey with him, and then once he’s dead, everyone else just shrugs it off and continues with their day. How would Jaden react? How would it change his life? How would Chris react if Jaden, the kid he never had any intention of shooting or hurting, was killed because of him. These two characters could’ve gotten a satisfying conclusion, and we still could see the indifference of the rest of the world; the effect would have been the same. Other than that, "Smithereens" was filled with brilliant attention to detail and acting characteristic of Black Mirror.
"Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too"
This episode. My God. I hated it. This is the one where star power did the show no favors. Miley Cyrus will always be seen as Miley Cyrus. Couple that with her playing a pop star who lives an upbeat on-stage persona and is struggling to be herself underneath and you get literally a darker version of Hannah Montana. It upsets me because it’s no fault of Miley’s either. Her acting wasn’t totally bad, but it wasn’t totally good. It’s just that she’s too big a media personality to get past seeing her as anyone other than herself.
The premise of this one is that Ashley O is a pop star being used by her aunt/manager, to the point of being put in a drug induced coma and having songs extracted from her subconscious. While this is happening, there’s a story of two sisters, Rachel and Jack, who don’t get along and slowly come to connect with each other. Rachel is an Ashley O fangirl and gets an AI-like toy, Ashley Two, as soon as it’s released. Jack hates Ashley, even though we know that the punk music Jack likes to make is actually the kind of music the real Ashley wants to make as well.
I was really mad with this one. It was another case of things being rushed. I wasn’t sure if the focus was on the Ashley Two doll, or the sisters, or Ashley herself, or the manipulative technology used to basically create Ashley’s voice and fabricate songs.
I almost wish we saw more of that song technology. That was the one part I was interested in. Ashley’s brain composes screamo music, but the producers listening are able to change it to a pop sounding song and use recordings of Ashley to even change the lyrics. That’s horrifying. It’s like one day we won’t even need artists to perform, because they even use a hologram of Ashley to perform the created songs. As a music lover, that’s frightening to me.
Seriously, this is the laziest episode of Black Mirror I’ve ever seen. You can tell all the effort was on getting Miley Cyrus on board and showing her as much as possible. The writing and pacing was atrocious. The pace was fine at first. The second Ashley went into a coma was when things fell apart. They raced through the finish and the emotional bond between the sisters. Even with the writing, it dropped severely in the second half. It felt like a campy teen drama. The “comedy” of the cursing Ashley Two doll felt basic and an attempt to give Miley an edgy role. The young sisters easily rescued her from her aunt’s house even though grown men were on guard there. I can’t even describe the ending because it was such a mess. It was so clean and tidy with everyone getting what they wanted. It just wasn’t Black Mirror. It felt like a cash grab attempt to get a more mainstream audience interested. Black Mirror: please never do this again.
I seriously love this show, and I only hope that they come out with better episodes. I didn’t wait forever for less episodes in a season with lower quality. I’m not too happy. I guess I’ll just have to go back and watch some of my other favorites while we wait for what will hopefully be something better next season.