Black Mirror: Season Five Review

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Black Mirror, the dark sci-fi anthology series returns to Netflix with three new episodes for more tech-driven tales from the mind of critic, writer, and producer, Charlie Brooker.

Episode 1 – Striking Vipers (Directed by Owen Harris)

‘Striking Vipers’ tells the story of two estranged friends from college reconnecting with one another following a birthday party. As their newly re-established connection takes them into the virtual world, their relationship evolves beyond what the pair had ever believed possible.

The on-screen chemistry between the central cast, especially that between friends Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), brings an emotional complexity to the events and relationships within the episode. The pair navigate a mosaic of different emotions with ease as their relationship becomes more and more strained.

Similarly, Nicole Beharie offers a nuanced and touching performance as Danny’s wife, Theo, as she struggles to navigate their changing relationship as Danny becomes increasingly distant throughout the episode. The cinematography contrasts the somewhat garish, unreal nature of the virtual scenes with the increasingly brooding and sullen ‘real’ world scenes to generate a sense of uncertainty that lingers long after the conclusion of the episode.

‘Striking Vipers’ kicks off the season with a very human examination of virtual spaces. Throughout, the episode’s blending of brooding cinematography and nuanced writing does an exceptional job of balancing the ‘unreal’ style of the virtual world with the claustrophobic physical world, slowly unfolding and complicating relationships that span across the two.

Doing as Black Mirror does best, ‘Striking Vipers’ examines the complex nature of virtual space, bringing into question the human aspects of human-virtual interfaces by unpicking the relationship between technology, selfhood, and the very nature of reality itself. Overall, a very strong start to Season 5.

Episode 2 – Smithereens (Directed by James Hawes)

‘Smithereens’ sees Andrew Scott playing Chris, a ride-share driver with a grudge. For Chris, his day begins like any other until his actions send things escalating out of control when an employee from a large, multinational company steps into the back of his car.

Firstly, Andrew Scott’s performance in this episode is exceptional. His interpretation of a man who has been pushed to the limit cannot be faulted and keeps viewers pinned to the very edge of their seats. His emotional range is highlighted throughout the episode, seamlessly moving from rage through fear, apathy, desperation, and grief with ease. He is volatile yet calculating throughout, a balance that can be a very fine line to tread for many actors but not for Scott. Overall, a brilliant acting performance.

A similarly impressive performance is given by Damson Idris, who plays Jaden, the unfortunate ride-share passenger who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Idris and Scott’s interactions are tense throughout, poised on a knife’s edge as the pair find themselves in an escalating situation that evolves into a matter of life and death.

Thematically, the episode focuses primarily on the impact of social media on its users’ emotional wellbeing. From Smithereen’s international role as a tech conglomerate to Chris’ constant monitoring of the posts made on social media by onlookers to the crisis, networks form the central focus of the plotline of this episode. From large networks including police and government agencies, right down to the small-scale interactions between the two central characters within a small space, Charlie Brooker’s writing delves into the darkness that seemingly underpins it all.

For those sci-fi fans expecting space-ships, lasers, and teleportation, this episode is arguably not for you. Instead, it focuses again on the impact technology has upon its users and their relationship with the ‘real’ world. With ‘Smithereens’, Charlie Brooker has penned an intense, emotional exploration into the nature of grief, an often difficult to examine topic, and the episode does it brilliantly. This is made more powerful with the present-day setting (2018) and the sheer intensity of Andrew Scott’s performance. ‘Smithereens’ is my personal favourite of the episodes on offer in Season Five and a must-watch for avid Black Mirrorfans.

Episode 3 – Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (Directed by Anne Sewitsky)

Season Five’s third and final episode follows Rachel, a lonely teenage girl who attempts to combat the difficulty of starting at a new school by purchasing a robotic home assistant developed by her pop idol.

The episode’s writing moves between two converging plotlines, that of teen Rachel (played by Angourie Rice) as she adjusts to her life with her new robotic assistant and that of Rachel’s pop idol, Ashley O (played by Miley Cyrus) as she struggles with the emotional and physical impact of her international fame. Cyrus’ performance is commendable throughout as a star who is strained by the shadow cast over her by her domineering manager and the struggles that this causes.

One particular highlight of the episode can be found in the believable performances of Rachel and her sister, Jack (played by Madison Davenport). Their arguments and heartfelt discussions carry a certain honesty and believability that contributes to the genuinely touching portrayal of their sisterly relationship. Rice’s character Rachel explores the loneliness of teenage life and the desire for acceptance by your peers so often explored within Young Adult film and literature, and it is this acceptance which she attempts to find from her robotic assistant.

On a somewhat related note, it must be said that the Visual Effects team that worked on the creation of ‘Ashley Too’, the robotic assistant, should be commended on just how real it looks. From the lighting gleaming off the robots glossy finish to the plastic textures used on the robot’s exterior, the viewer is continually tricked into believing that Ashley Too is actually there. Cast members, carry, drop, and interact with the robot seamlessly and it is evidently a huge task to achieve this level of detail. A hugely commendable visual effects feat.

Compared to the previous two episodes, however, ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ doesn’t quite hit the heights that Black Mirror is capable of. It must be stressed that this episode is far from a dud by any stretch. But, compared to the emotional complexity of ‘Striking Vipers’ and the explosivity of ‘Smithereens’ it does not quite hit the mark squarely and cleanly.

The episode does continue the trend of questioning the role of technology in human lives, with strong themes of family and isolation throughout. It is intense in its approach. It provides a harsh critique of the all-consuming nature of fame. And yet, for me, there was something that did not quite connect like the previous offerings. A good, but not great, episode of Black Mirror.

Concluding Remarks on Black Mirror Season Five

Although shorter in length than the two previous seasons, boasting just three episodes as compared to seasons Three and Four’s six episodes a piece, Season Five of Black Mirror continues to cement the show’s reputation as one of the best dark sci-fi television series out there today. It is dark. It is brooding. It explores the nature of new, technologically-driven landscapes and their impact on the lives of individuals in the claustrophobic manner which Black Mirror has built its reputation upon. For fans of dystopian fiction, Season Five of Black Mirror delivers yet again.

Dan Ewers

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