Black Mirror’s fifth and latest season is out on Netflix on Wednesday, and with it comes something special. Like the outstanding USS Callister from season 4, new episode Striking Vipers is another stroke of brilliance from writer Charlie Brooker, who continues to deliver groundbreaking stuff despite the anthology’s increasingly familiar tech-gone-wrong formula.
With a reduced number of episodes compared to previous seasons, not one story drops in quality. You may have heard that one of those episodes stars Miley Cyrus, who brings star power like never before to classically twisted Black Mirror fare.
Let’s take a quick look at each episode with as few spoilers as possible.
Black Mirror episodes seem to fall into two categories: the big flashier episodes of its Netflix era (its earlier seasons first aired on Channel 4 in the UK) and the introspective quieter episodes that focus on relationships.
Striking Vipers balances a mixture of both. Focused on a married couple upended by seemingly innocuous technology, its big-tech small-story combination makes it one of the great overall episodes of Black Mirror. Some feat five seasons in.
We follow Danny and Theo, settled in their lives and on their way to having another baby. Yet the return of Danny’s college buddy Karl sees Danny rekindle his old flame for… a piece of technology that has now seen a few upgrades. It leads to a twist you’d have to be Bran from Game of Thrones to see coming, and forces Danny to question whether he really is OK with the current status of his life.
This is one of those episodes of TV that feels fresh. It’ll bring other great Black Mirror episode San Junipero to mind, as well as The Entire History of You and Be Right Back, both tender looks at heartbreak and humanity.
But with Striking Vipers, Brooker takes things a step further. Little touches like role playing, the unisex names of the characters, the events that take place on a street outside, they’re a testament to just how carefully crafted this episode is, and the result is a uniquely mature look at modern relationships and mindsets.
And we haven’t even gotten to the cast. Anthony Mackie, who some will know as the new Captain America, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Beharie, rival previous great Black Mirror performances from the likes of Hayley Atwell and Bryce Dallas Howard. Beharie (Shame, Sleepy Hollow) in particular is a name that should be cemented in your mind as the perceptive Theo, who handles what happens with incredible kindness and compassion.
Striking Vipers has a surprising twist handled with the most tender of touches. One of the best episodes of Black Mirror to date.
Smithereens is an evocative title for a Black Mirror episode. But a strange name for the Twitter-esque social media company it focuses on.
Andrew Scott of Fleabag and Sherlock is the driver of this episode, literally playing a cab driver who only seems to pick up employees from Smithereen’s London office. In his off-time, he listens to guided mediation .mp4s and attends bereavement support groups. It’s pretty clear he’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown and Smithereen is the cause.
When the story seems like it could go to a number of places, particularly as our hero drives a car for a living, it takes an unexpected turn. This sets up a unique plot device for exploring the darker side of all-seeing tech giants. The episode tells us it takes place in 2018, the same year news broke that Cambridge Analytica had mishandled data on nearly 100 million Facebook users. No coincidences here.
The split of scenes in England and America are a smart way to use the show’s British roots and newer American settings. It amplifies the already over-the-top Silicon Valley side, contrasting the fake tans with the starker greens of the English countryside.
While not exactly a nuanced look at the current state of society, Brooker highlights our social media addictions and the frightening intrusion of tech on our privacy. Equally addictive is Scott’s performance. He plays a largely silent role at first, until events ramp up and smithereens takes on a whole new meaning.
Smithereens is a personal look at the side effects of staring at your phone all day. Scott’s cabbie on the verge of an emotional breakdown makes equally addictive viewing.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too
Welcome to the Miley Cyrus episode. It’s about a pop singer and teen idol, which makes a lot of sense.
We follow three characters: teenage sisters Rachel and Jack, and Ashley O, a pop star whose new merch is a companion robot called Ashley Too. That’s where fandom is at in the near future.
Ashley’s diary reveals in big angry scrawl that she’s “pissed off” about the direction her management is taking her career. Little does she know that pissing them off is not a good idea.
Meanwhile, the sisters chat and interact with Ashley Too, the aforementioned companion robot made in Ashley’s image. They’re motherless and friendless and ripe for having a role model in their lives. A teen idol in every sense of the word whose AI is the squeaky clean version of the real Ashley.
While the humor is welcome and the songs Ashley O sings will actually stick in your head (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), the emotional setups see little payoff. Both fans and singer share common ground, but like in less successful episode Black Museum, Brooker chooses to focus on wilder, more fantastical tech over the human connections.
Some of that tech is recycled from previous episodes, but here it’s used to enhance and explore the world of music: idols who can talk back and be best friends with fans, hologram concerts, new music making methods. Again, the result is more humorous than profound.
With less realistic tech, Rachel, Jack and Ashely Too serves more to offer a look at what Taylor Swift would be like if she frequently dropped the F-bomb and accused fans of not being committed enough.
The episode rounds out a solid-across-the-board season of Black Mirror, the general tone of which has been relatively lighter, not just in added humor, but in the less doomed fates of its characters. If this signals a change in Brooker’s direction for the series, maybe that means there’s hope for our society. Either way, the more Black Mirror the better.