Breaking Down the Three Episodes of 'Black Mirror' Season 5, with Series Creator Charlie Brooker
Albert Einstein is thought to have once said, “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” That the world’s smartest man could say that at a time before technology produced mind-enslaving devices we could hold in our hands, when Big Brother was merely a fresh idea from Orson Welles rather than a reality (or reality TV show, at least, for now), says much about the perils of our own ingenuity. The inexorable pace of technology, sprinting at breakneck speed, has allowed us to experience things both wondrous and terrible. Einstein must’ve been eminently prescient because that quote seems even more applicable today than ever. An exploration of how technology exceeds our humanity, how close we come as a society to falling over the razor’s edge of technology, is the heart of Black Mirror, the science fiction anthology that returns to Netflix for a fifth season and three new stories.
“Striking Vipers,” “Smithereens,” and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley, Too” are self-contained stories that can be watched in any order, much like past seasons. Many past episodes of Black Mirror, including the interactive special Bandersnatch, which was initially written as another story in this season but simply became too epic an undertaking, yield a certain heaviness after watching. The three stories, on the other hand, yield an uncharacteristic lightness that’s greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say, the newest season might possibly be the most viewer-friendly.
'Smithereens' Is A Palette Cleanser
“Smithereens” is a tale set in a reality very much close to ours, described by writer Charlie Brooker in an interview with Esquire Philippines, as “a palette cleanser, [like] having a bit of ginger between courses,” because it was “an episode where [producer Annabel Jones and I] were talking about cultures set in the present day, absolutely no sci-fi element in it.” The story is intense and gripping, carried very nearly entirely on the remarkably able shoulders of actor Andrew Scott playing shared ride driver Chris, who wants to make a phone call to one very powerful, hard to reach person. Chris is grappling with a personal tragedy and his method of coping, or the only way he sees a way out of his grief, is the center of the story. Unlike the other episodes this season, “Smithereens” is straightforward and has fewer layers but is still deeply emotional. The simplicity of the storytelling belies the depth of the commentary.
The beauty of Black Mirror is that despite its exploration of technology, it never loses sight of what’s human. “Smithereens” is a story that can imaginably happen in the present day and is very much a reminder to cherish our moments with the ones we love, the ones who are physically with us. “'Smithereens' has always been about the present day, no matter what the setting is,” Brooker says, “It’s always about now or about the way humans live.”
Ryuichi Sakamoto scores the episode with a hauntingly beautiful melody that keeps audiences on edge, and contrasts with tiny touches such as the song selection in the playlist used to keep Chris on hold. It’s these thoughtful details that make Black Mirror stories not only introspective but also just simply well-crafted short films.
'Striking Vipers' Explores VR (and Porn)
“Striking Vipers” moves toward the other end of the spectrum, being more fantastical than the other two episodes, but still exploratory of very human needs and relationships. Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play Danny and Karl, a dudebro-ish pair of friends and former roommates who used to bond over video games, in this case a virtual reality fighting game similar to Mortal Kombat called Striking Vipers. Having lost touch over the years, the two reconnect at Danny’s birthday party, where Karl gifts him with the Striking Vipers X, the newest release of their favorite game on a virtual reality platform that makes Oculus Quest look like Atari 2600.
“Striking Vipers” is as multilayered as “Smithereens” is straighforward. Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin also appear as Roxette and Lance, characters in the virtual world of Striking Vipers X. The story is an extremely multifaceted look at the many layers of human relationships, including our relationships with friends and lovers and the technology we use to connect with them. When the characters use the VR add-on, a fantastically minuscule gadget the size of a button that attaches to the temple, and get transported into the virtual-yet-all-too-real world of their favorite video game, lines blur between reality and fantasy.
The dirty little secret of the VR industry today is how much porn is a driver for the technology. VR porn today sees more traffic than any kind of VR, and “Striking Vipers” plays with this reality in more ways than one. It’s important that Black Mirror asks the questions nobody wants to ask. “Are we saying something interesting and something new?” Jones relates, “The whole exploration of porn as porn gets more sophisticated and potentially more immersive. You know, our relationship with porn changes. When is it a healthy distraction?” And when does it become more than just porn? How does porn affect our real life relationships?
These questions and more swirl around “Striking Vipers,” which might potentially be an extremely uncomfortable watch for many people. Brooker does a terrific job tying together a story that could go wrong in so many ways. That he was able to weave all the layers among all the characters to reach an oddly, and for some perhaps uncomfortably, satisfying conclusion, is a testament to his remarkable skill and experience. It is one of those Black Mirror episodes that leaves audiences with so many questions, not only about the episode itself but about their own relationships and their identity.
'Rachel, Jack, and Ashley, Too' Wasn't Written for Miley
The lightness in tone for the season might almost be wholly attributable to the third story, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley, Too,” which features Miley Cyrus as pop star Ashley in what almost certainly feels like a Black Mirror homage to Disney caper-style movies and television shows. It’s clearly a nod to Cyrus’ Disney roots and it almost seems like the part was written with her in mind, but Brooker dismisses the notion. “We wrote the part for a pop star,” he says, “but really we didn’t think in a million years [that] we’d get someone like Miley Cyrus.”
The team was, in their words, gobsmacked when Miley said yes to the role. Some elements of the story hew closely to what pop stars go through in terms of abuse and control from the people around them. “It is quite a brave thing for Miley to take this on,” Jones says, “I think she’s exposing her world, and in some ways, what she’s been through. And I think that the fact that she shows, you know, such vulnerability, and show a dark side of the industry that people don’t often get to see.”
Indeed there are some dark elements to “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley, Too,” but it raises the entire season from reflective pieces to almost pure entertainment. Jones explains that the whole lightness might be something that viewers feel “a little bit more keenly because it’s a season of three rather than a season of six (Seasons 3 and 4).” But it was important that they deliver a balance of tone, which is to say it wouldn’t have felt as positive if Bandersnatch were included as part of the season as originally intended.
One thing that all three episodes have in common is the deep human emotion that is exposed and explored, touched and augmented by technology. Black Mirror is exactly that, a mirror held up against ourselves, to remind us not to let our technology exceed our humanity. “That’s when we always feel we’ve got a good sort of mix going on in the stories,” Brooker says, “when you’ve got something deliciously weird happening at the core, but also something that’s emotionally grounded.” The stories never forget that we need each other, that we must constantly connect, and that we need our emotions to stay human.
Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix now.