black mirror season 5 review

A strange thing has happened since Black Mirror first launched back in 2011: the real world has become more and more like the fictional, sci-fi world of the show. Tech companies have become more and more powerful, and more and more destructive. Social media has played a real part in harming – some might even say destroying – democracy. Season 2 of the show featured a story about a vulgar TV personality running for political office as a publicity stunt, and then defying the odds and winning (sound familiar?).

As the world around us becomes more and more unstable, Black Mirror now finds itself in a precarious position. How can your dystopian sci-fi show compete with the actual impending actual dystopia? Black Mirror season 5 returns to Netflix today with three lengthy episodes, all of which have their moments. But perhaps it’s time to accept that the show has run its course.

Black Mirror seemed to hit a turning point with its special choose-your-own-adventure movie Bandersnatch. The special seemed less concerned with holding a mirror (or cell phone screen) up to the evils of technology, and more interested in telling a strange, unique story (even if some of it didn’t work). Black Mirror season 5, however, goes back to basics. Sort of. Perhaps in an attempt to recreate the magic of the show’s very best episode – “San Junipero” – there’s a bit more happiness in store for certain characters this season. There’s even a touch of – *gasp* – optimism?

Is this shift in tone writer Charlie Brooker‘s way of dealing with the desperate times we suddenly find ourselves stuck in? A way of pushing back against the darkness? Or maybe Brooker and company realize people are already pretty damn miserable about the future, and some escapism might go over well right about now.

The three episodes each focus on a specific technological platform. “Striking Vipers” features video games. “Smithereens” tackles social media platforms, and throws in an Uber-like transportation network company as well. And “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” involves an intelligent personal assistant service reminiscent of Amazon’s Alexa. These are topics rife for exploration, but Black Mirror season 5 is more interested in using them as launching points to tell their particular stories.

In “Striking Vipers”, two somewhat estranged friends, played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, find themselves reconnecting by playing an elaborate, realistic video game. “Smithereens” has an unhinged cab driver Andrew Scott taking a man (Damson Idris) hostage in order to speak to Bauer (Topher Grace), the aloof CEO of a social media platform. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” follows a shy teen girl (Angourie Rice) attempting to connect with her favorite pop star (Miley Cyrus) via an intelligent personal assistant-device modeled on the pop star’s personality.

striking vipers

What these three stories lack in structure – Brooker’s screenwriting for all three is all over the place – they make up for in performance. Mackie and Abdul-Mateen II both bring a wounded quality to their estranged friends, and their episode pushes the two actors to unexpected places that they both handle in fascinating ways. Scott, currently more popular than ever thanks to his role as the Hot Priest on Fleabag, is crushingly anguished and frantic as the hostage situation he’s created spirals out of control. And Cyrus is perfectly cast as the struggling pop star dealing with her own personal demons.

“Smithereens” is the most consistent of the three, with director James Hawes employing unflinchingly tight close-ups that create an overall sense of claustrophobia and dread, and Scott’s performance conjuring up genuine pathos. Topher Grace makes an impression here as well as the somewhat sympathetic social media guru. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” appears to have the most promise, but the episode ultimately collapses under its own weight, and can never decide if it wants to be dark and dramatic or weirdly comedic – points, though, for making all of Cyrus’s songs poppy covers of Nine Inch Nails tunes. “Striking Vipers” comes remarkably close to being the best of the bunch, and is the most emotionally satisfying. But even this episode fails to sustain itself.

So what’s the problem? Pacing – and length. All three episodes run well over an hour, and the storylines suffer as a result. A little trimming knocking the three segments down to an hour each would’ve worked wonders, and yielded tighter, powerful results. In retrospect, it makes season 5 frustrating – you can sense the greatness lurking beneath it all, struggling to get out.

And through it all, even as the episodes entertain, and thrill, and illicit deep emotion, there’s a prevailing sense that there’s just nothing left to say. That the future has already been written, and the outlook isn’t good. If Black Mirror hopes to continue, it will need to make a choice: embrace the darkness that lies ahead, or find a way to let in some light.

black mirror andrew scott

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Black Mirror season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.

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