The fifth season of Black Mirror dropped last Friday on Netflix, with much anticipation following its original, Choose Your Own Adventure-style interactive film Bandersnatch released last year.
The sci-fi anthology series shouldn’t refer to these releases as seasons, but rather installments, seeing as we’re treated to a collection of just three at a time. That’s pretty anemic. Still, if the result of this restriction means avoiding the abysmal quality of CBS’ idiotic 10-episode Twilight Zone reboot, I’ll gladly wait two years for it.
Black Mirror’s current slough of stories include (spoiler warning):
Striking Vipers. This near-future tale of male gamesmanship both online and off—set in lushly urban Sao Paulo but starring American English speakers—is probably the most uncomfortable of the bunch. Just viscerally, and adjusting for your sexual orientation. Let me explain: Anthony Mackie plays Danny, who’s introduced by his buddy Karl to a compelling new VR iteration of a classic fighting game dubbed “Striking Vipers X.” And boy, is it virtual reality on fucking stilts. The gameplay is so shockingly realistic—the touch, the feel—that it apparently compels players to drop the whole charade and... fuck. That’s right. That’s something they can actually do. Just breach the bounds of the entire MO of the digital fighting arena and get down, make love. Game on!
With Karl having chosen a Chun-Li-style avatar named “Roxette,” who’s more than a little dangerous, and Danny “Lance,” a classic All Chinese Boy from the countryside, it’s a perfect facsimile of heterosexual martial arts, er, action. (For some reason the kicks and punches in this virtual reality realm hurt only mildly, but sex is as feel-good as it is in real life.) Danny and Karl aren’t averse to a “no homo” mentality, as far as we know. In fact Danny is married, and Karl regularly beds an attractive and youthful, if vacant, lady friend. I won’t presume to say they’re working out gay feelings here—none of us know just how tempting virtual reality may be one day—but there’s an eagerness to repeat the initially inebriated encounter on Karl’s end that makes you wonder.
There are questions. Why is Karl so hung up on Danny playing the game? Isn’t there an entire globe of potential players to take his place? People he’ll never meet, whose wives won’t invite him to dinner? Why insist on making it weird? Today’s gaming environment relies heavily on the Internet-facilitated cloud after all, within which you can obscure your skeezy real-life persona from others in a metaphorical fog. Why would a near-future gaming environment be any different? And how is this game’s sexy bug/easter egg not a major piece of news?
Smithereens. This episode is the least near-future of the three, and could take place more or less right now. Andrew Scott of Amazon Prime’s “Fleabag” fame plays Chris, a London driver for Uber-like company “Hitcher” (ouch, bad name). Still reeling from the death of his wife months earlier for as-yet unknown reasons, Chris picks up a young man named Jaden outside the headquarters of a social media company called Smithereen, with which he has an axe to grind. He believes Jaden to be an executive for Hitcher. After taking Jaden on a seeming detour into the English countryside, the rideshare experience morphs into a kidnapping at gunpoint.
It turns out Jaden is merely an intern. An intern wearing a nice suit, the reason for which is the fact that it’s Jaden’s first week at the company. Oh, shit!
Chris, not an evil guy at heart, is tortured by his mistaken instincts here, but proceeds to tell Jaden to attempt to get the CEO of Smithereen, Billy Bauer (played by Topher Grace), on the phone anyway, seeing as Bauer is the true target of Chris’ ire. Being an intern, Jaden doesn’t really have this power, but six degrees of Kevin Bacon later - with the police now involved due to a hostage situation - the reclusive genius is reached, at a retreat in the New Mexico desert. It’s then that we learn the true reason for Chris’ hostility: he blames Bauer for the death of his wife, who died in a car accident after Chris was distracted by a Smithereens app notification on his phone while she slumbered in the passenger seat. Until she didn’t...
The story presented here is an indictment of the tech-driven attention economy. (But then, texting-while-driving laws do exist.) Thing is, Chris blames himself too, and Bauer was meant to play the confesee to the confessor, priest-style. Chris is profiled by police as “high intelligence, low income,” a toxic brew that can culminate in drawn out, ideological standoffs. But Chris is more sensitive than anything, with shitty life events hitting him like two tons of bricks. He’s not especially intelligent; when he finally gets Bauer on the phone, he has nothing political or insightful to say.
Smithereens is very well-acted, and probably the most substantial story in that earthy, human interest and not-particularly-sci-fi way, but it’s also the most dour Black Mirror episode in the current round.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. This one is silly and teen-centric, but it’s soft sci-fi and stars Miley Cyrus, who plays a version of herself called “Ashley O.” Ashley O, beloved worldwide, has a hardcore fan in Rachel, a shy high-schooler who’s inspired by Ashley O’s manufactured Grrl Power optimism and in love with her hit single, “On a Roll.”
Weirdly, “On a Roll” is a knock-off of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” a move greenlit by Trent Reznor. This is rendered a little less weird when you consider that the remaining titular character and co-protagonist, Jack, Rachel’s sister, is a surprising throwback to old school rock, preferring The Pixies and Sonic Youth to her sister’s corny K-pop-style playlist. But the corniness gets worse. A conversational AI in the form of a doll—a combination Furby and smart speaker a la the Amazon Echo—is high on Rachel’s wish list. It’s a wish soon granted, and Jack is stuck sharing her room with her sister and a relentlessly optimistic and creepily observant entity called “Ashely Too.”
Meanwhile, in Ashley O’s world, all’s not well. It turns out she doesn’t like the cheerful but bullshit image she’s been polished into, all at the behest of her manager and substitute mother-figure, Catherine. It’s made Ashley O a ton of money, but it’s all so phony, you know? And driven by Big Pharma. Hear this: Catherine’s been drugging Ashley O, to the point of putting her into something resembling a coma. Once in Rip Van Winkle mode, Catherine manages to extract songs from Ashley O’s brain... while she’s dreaming. If that’s not shady enough, Catherine is likewise promoting a holographic version of Ashley called “Ashley Eternal,” who can perform multiple concerts simultaneously. Because she’s not embodied, you see. Catherine somehow manage to woo music industry heads with this notion of replacing the real Ashley O, despite how uninteresting it would be to actual fans and ticket buyers, beyond its quality as a novelty and supplemental gimmick, at best.
Like I said, silly. If the technology on display here actually existed—especially that which allows people to cultivate hit songs from someone in a vegetative state—there’d be bigger things happening in the world than starstruck teenagers, holograms, and smart dolls. And we’d want to see what that is! Like Striking Vipers, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too bites off more than it can chew, hinting at grand ideas and machinations but confining our gaze to fairly pedestrian drama.
Still, I’m looking forward to Black Mirror season 6. If there’s a tradeoff in this hit series between facile but suggestively cool and substantive but suggestively boring, I can live with it.