Black Mirror season 5 review: Less dystopian, more derivative in a disappointing 3-episode run

Rohini Nair

Jun 06, 2019 08:15:35 IST

Black Mirror season 5 has premiered on Netflix with three episodes, each about an hour-long. Much has happened since Black Mirror first came into our lives. For one, its tales of a dystopian tech future have been bettered and perfected by the show itself in its standout third season (and to some extent, the fourth). There was the 'Bandersnatch' special that (despite a run-of-the-mill storyline) kept us glued to our screens, obsessively trying out every possible option path to see which outcome it would lead us to. And in the months preceding the season 5 release, there was the out-of-this-world Love Death + Robots.

Also read: Bandersnatch or Bandar's Naach? The Black Mirror 'event' isn't all it's cracked up to be

Season 5, even in the Black Mirror universe, seems too inconsequential. Where is the true horror of 'Men Against Fire' or the emotional tug of 'The Entire History of You'? The unexpectedness of a 'Be Right Back' or the sparkling brilliance of a 'San Junipero'? Or even the campy vibrancy of a 'USS Callister'?

Let's take a look at episodes 1-3 of Black Mirror season 5 —

[SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Episode 1: Striking Vipers
Rating: ★★★

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Beharie, Pom Klementieff, Ludi Lin
Directed by: Owen Harris

Danny, his fiancee Theo, and Karl are roomates. Danny and Karl are gaming buffs — one game in particular, Striking Vipers, is a constant favourite. The men inhabit the same two avatars/characters every time they face-off in the game, Roxi and Lance.

Eleven years later, Danny and Theo — now in their late 30s — are living the typical suburban life with their child. Karl is dating women a decade younger, and generally leading the party lifestyle. Danny and Karl have drifted apart, and their sole contact is usually on the former's birthday, when they meet for a celebratory meal.

Black Mirror season 5 review: Less dystopian, more derivative in a disappointing 3-episode run

Black Mirror season 5. Striking Vipers. Netflix

On his 38th birthday, Danny is gifted a nostalgic 'blast from the past' by Karl: a new and improved version of Striking Vipers. Striking Vipers X comes with full VR — with the help of a tiny microchip on the side of your head, you can enter the world of the game, inhabit your character, and experience everything they do.

Karl and Danny set up a game, slipping into their old avatars of Roxi and Lance. Throwing punches, battling each other — it's exhilarating. Until the proceedings in the game take a wholly unexpected turn — with wrenching real world consequences.

'Striking Vipers' is by far the best of this three-episode Black Mirror season 5 offering. Not just in terms of storyline or some of the performances, but in doing what Black Mirror does so well: questioning our use of technology, exploring the intersection between the real and the virtual, and accentuating certain facets of human behaviour.

The behaviour (or emotion) explored here is desire, and what makes 'Striking Vipers' interesting is the juxtaposition of how it operates in the online and offline worlds. In the real world, it means desire taking a backseat to sex scheduled as per ovulation cycles (if you're looking to conceive), or putting it on the backburner after an exhausting workday, or worrying about how your body appears to your partner — if you're still attractive to them. Where the aftermath of desire can leave you feeling estranged from the partner you just engaged in passionate casual sex with. Or *not* exploring desire because you are in a committed, monogamous relationship.

On the other hand, virtual desire can be...freeing. You're not confined by your physical body. You're not confined in your choice of partner: you could have sex with a player in a polar bear avatar if you wanted. It can be liberating and consequence-less. ("It's just like porn," Karl tells Danny at one time, making a case for the harmlessness of virtual sex.) But is it really? Or does online desire just extort a different price?

In the end, 'Striking Vipers' posits that virtual desire (and by extension, any virtual choice/action/behaviour) also has offline consequences. And that real world desire can be as thrilling as its virtual counterpart.

Its cleverness lies in presenting a future where our range of sexual choices will include whether we choose to explore desire in the real world, or in a virtual one of our making.

Episode 2: 'Smithereens'
Rating: ★★ and a 1/2

Cast: Andrew Scott, Damson Idris, Topher Grace
Directed by: James Hawes

London 2018. A driver with an app-based cab service has a penchant for picking up customers from a very specific building: one that houses a corporation called Smithereens. Smithereens is an internet company, whose success is based on their very popular eponymous social media app.

When an employee from Smithereens steps into the driver's vehicle, for a drop to the airport, he finds himself taken hostage. The demand: the driver wants to speak with Smithereen's founder Bill Bauer.

The kidnapper's plan steadily unravels as the police pick up his trail early on, even as he realises that he's got a less-valuable-hostage than he'd hoped for. And Bill Bauer proves exceedingly elusive. What explains the kidnapper's obsession with Bauer? Why is he so insistent on speaking to the tech tycoon? What does the kidnapper really want? The answers are not terribly scintillating.

To be sure there are some interesting moments/ideas in 'Smithereens': the addictive nature of smartphones and social media apps; how they are deliberately designed to keep hooked (and the ethics thereof); our inability to switch off, for anything longer than a few minutes, from our devices. The only two characters in this story who're completely switched off from the online world are outliers in terms of their circumstances. There's the Bill Bauer figure — who, having created an app that has millions of users hooked, has embarked on a tech detox retreat when the crisis unfolds. He seems to be modelled on Jack Dorsey, but really it could be the founder of any new age tech firm. Topher Grace captures some of the idiosyncrasies of a tech guru; his Billy Bauer is at times genuine, and at times in control of the situation, at others, powerless or seeing himself as a victim.

The performance is not entirely convincing, but is made intriguing by its present-day parallels (for instance, Bauer disassociating himself from the money-making behemoth his app has become, and trying to present it as a monster that has grown out of his control — unrecognisable from the simple connecting platform he wanted it to be). The kidnapper calls bullsh*t on Bauer's ramblings, as should we on modern tech companies that try to distance themselves from what their platforms have morphed into. Bauer too is shielded by 'suits' — a team of executives who we're asked to believe have more to do with Smithereen's failings than the man who created it.

The rest of the episode is strictly humdrum and plays out like any other hostage crisis drama. The tension the plot tries to create doesn't hold, and there is little else to write home about. Its conclusion too is bleak: we can't break out of this cycle of addiction, the story seems to say, unless we're jolted out of it by tremendous personal loss, or our own deaths. The only other alternative is to be so rich and powerful that you can simply disconnect.

Episode 3: 'Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too'
Rating: ★★ and a 1/2

Cast: Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport
Directed by: Anne Sewitsky

Black Mirror season 5. Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Netflix

Black Mirror season 5. Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Netflix

Sisters Jack and Rachel are dealing with a move to a new town and new high school, a couple of years after their mother's death. Their father's too busy creating a humane mouse trap to be fully present for his girls. Jack loves classic rock, the bands her mother listened to. Rachel prefers pop — in particular, the cutesy-upbeat-and-uplifting music of Ashley O.

Ashley O, meanwhile, wants to break out of the cutesy-upbeat-and-uplifting mould, and make music that satisfies her creatively. This is at cross purposes with her aunt/manager's plans: If Ashley moves away from the image, persona and music that made her famous, then it's goodbye to mass market millions. So the aunt ruthlessly controls Ashley, even if it means putting her in a medically induced coma.

Enter a twist in the form of Ashley Too, an AI doll that emulates the pop star's voice and mannerisms, plays hours of recorded songs from Ashley O's repertoire, and later (at a most helpful time in the plot) turns sentient.

Doll Ashley tasks Rachel and Jack with helping Real Ashley and vanquishing the evil aunt/manager, but not before we have a chance to see a Hologram Ashley perform before a wondering crowd.

This caper feels like one of those made-for-TV movies or a low budget summer film rather than an episode of Black Mirror. There is some fleeting commentary on mass-produced hits; a regurgitation of ideas previously expressed on this series about the nature of our consciousness; a possible meta narrative on young stars and how they struggle to break out of images that have been crafted for them (what with Miley Cyrus playing Ashley O). But none of these are dwelt on in any meaningful way.

Episode 3 is a bit like Ashley O's music: Lots of surface glitz and a catchy beat, but little that really stays with you. The characters and story are as one-note as the musical identity the evil aunt/manager wants Ashley to cultivate.

At the end of 'Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too', when Ashley O 'finds' her adult identity/voice, it is to a cover of Nine Inch Nails' 'Head Like A Hole'. No quibble with the music choice there, but maybe the makers should have thought of what it says about a character's journey when the anthem that's meant to depict her coming-of-age, is someone else's song.

On second thought, maybe that is the perfect ending for a Black Mirror season that feels so derivative.

Black Mirror season 5 is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 14:09:40 IST