Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers. Close the page if you haven’t seen season 5 yet, but definitely come back once you have!
Black Mirror came out with its fifth season on Netflix this Wednesday and the product is… interesting.
The season narrates tales of sexuality and gender fluidity in an age of immersive virtual reality. It stars Miley Cyrus in a story about a disillusioned teen pop-sensation who wishes to break out of her sparkly yet manufactured image. And my personal favourite – a contemporary story about the grave implications of our digital addiction and the power that resides with social media giants.
While this could easily spell out a wonderful season with episodes joining the likes of San Junipero and USS Callister, they aren’t really quite there. The season raises some fascinating new questions but fails to conclusively answer them. The technology, too, is recycled from previous episodes, so much so that the only good new thing they bring is the manner in which the end credits are accompanied by cuts of the story’s conclusion and some very fitting music. Bare respite comes from its cast, but unfortunately, the season overall falls short of impressing – especially in comparison to past seasons.
The first episode stars Anthony Mackie as Danny and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Karl, two long-time best friends who used to live together and play Striking Vipers – a fighting video game.
After almost a decade, Karl meets Danny and gifts him the newest version of a game they used to play, Striking Vipers X, along with a virtual reality disc. However, once immersed in the virtual game, instead of fighting, they end up kissing as their digital avatars – Karl as a woman and Danny, a man. This quickly spirals into a toil of guilt and pleasure given that Danny is married.
Are you cheating on your wife if you’re attracted to your male best friend’s virtual self – who’s a woman – but not to his physical self? What does it say about your sexual orientation and gender identity, if you’re into women in the physical world, but a man – as a woman – in the digital realm? Is there a line to be drawn between your sexual identity in the digital world and physical reality?
Only Black Mirror makes it possible to broach such questions, but the episode does not satisfactorily answer all these. Its continued obsession with the physical aspect of Danny and Karl’s virtual relationship makes it extremely one dimensional – lacking in the intimate, more emotional aspects of it, or how those would translate in a digital space. There was a lot to be said here about this relationship, that the episode just doesn’t.
The episode ends in true, twisted Black Mirror fashion, that somewhat redeems it. All thanks to Theo, Danny’s wife portrayed by Nicole Beharie, injects a unique perspective of a wife into this situation. She called out her husband’s inclination towards role-playing in an easter egg right at the beginning of the episode. One sympathises with her as she blames her own body for their relationship losing its spark. And when you see her find common ground towards the end, you feel proud of her for bending the norms of marriage.
Andrew Scott does a stellar job as Chris Gillhaney, a grieving cab driver who’s obsessed with driving employees only from ‘Smithereens’, a social media company. As he kidnaps an intern, things quickly go south. He finds himself stranded in a field surrounded by cops and it’s revealed that he wishes to speak to the CEO of Smithereens with no intent of extortion but just to ‘‘say his piece.’’
To me, this episode works on three levels.
First is Chris, a man ridden with the guilt of causing the accident that killed his girlfriend. One that could be prevented if not for his addiction to social media. Second, we find a mother trying to log into her late daughter’s social media account hoping to find answers about her suicide. But in vain, as the company refuses to divulge the password, citing reasons of privacy.
Third, we see the disproportionate manner in which access to information is distributed and concentrated amongst corporate and government establishments across the Western world. Smithereens has access to more direct and indirect information than the police – a commentary on how our social media presence says more about us than how we’re actually understood by society.
Topher Grace as the CEO almost has us empathise with him. He innocently tells Chris how “they” continue to make his platform more addictive and how he can no longer control or stop that.
The episode is well-paced, and the urgency and relatability of the story makes it that much scarier and engaging. We all admit to spending far too long on our phones. The Apple encryption dispute of 2016 is a testament to how privacy laws can interfere with justice. The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of 2018 showed the world how our personal information can be harvested at will by the very platforms we used to trust.
Black Mirror’s best served stories feel distant yet absolutely inevitable. This episode, on the other hand, progresses as something we could hear on the news today, adding a sense of immediacy and panic to the story, making it my favourite in the season.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too
While Smithereens was my favourite in the season, this episode might easily go down as one of my least favourite in the entire show.
Rachel’s story leaves a lot to be desired. She’s a diffident teenager, obsessed with a popular singer, Ashley O. With the launch of the AI doll – ‘Ashley Too’ – created to mimic the singer’s personality, Rachel finds a new best friend, only to receive insincere compliments. Her ultimate failure at her school’s talent show leaves Rachel where she started – under-confident and retreated. All this seems to be a lot of build-up to no clear pay-off as Rachel is just “a big fan” throughout the episode, with no real personality growth or character development.
And if you hoped her older sister Jack would be an improvement, there is nothing but disappointment there, too. Jack was served the ‘Manic-pixie-girl-punk-rocker-who actually has feelings’ card, which is so overdone that her narrative progression feels contrived and forced. With the addition of a father who lands on the opposite end of the parenting spectrum than the mother from Arkangel, there is hardly anything of substance in this family.
Moving on to the star Ashley O, while her character of a troubled teen-sensation has been visited countless times before, casting Miley Cyrus in the role is oddly fitting given her history with Hannah Montana. I couldn’t help but relate her final Nine Inch Nails’ cover to her own post-Montana album ‘Bangerz.’
But, that is just about the only thing I thought was fitting in the season.
Black Mirror’s signature tech-gone-wrong is given a back seat. I wanted to be engaged in her story, the way her aunt used technology we’ve previously seen on Black Mirror to mine songs from her brain after drugging her into a coma. The way she artificially manufactured music and altered its lyrics and moods at will. I was more interested in the 10-feet-tall digital version of Ashley O than most of what the episode tried to focus on.
Its sad attempts at humour barely ever worked and the tragic tale of the disillusioned teen pop-sensation lost its appeal once you get over Cyrus being cast.
Black Mirror is one of those shows I frequently rewatch. To relive the thrill, the horror and the odd episode which ends happily. To remind myself of everything that technology and our society can be – for better or worse. Season five would be a first that I rewatch solely for the cast, if at all.