Black Mirror is known for its pessimistic, bleak dystopian take on technology, and the formula has largely carried over from the very start to its most recent season. It’s grown into a familiar rhythm for fans, but that’s only to be expected – with gripping tales of despair and melancholy that have repeatedly glued viewers to the screen, there’s certainly little need to switch up the usual routine.
As an all-new fifth season releases on June 5, 2019, it would seem writer Charlie Brooker has decided to stick to what he does best once again by conveying technological paranoia-driven stories through compelling, creative narratives – except that they don’t quite have the same magic this time around. In fact, the team appears to be running a little short on inspiration here, especially in comparison to the masterpieces of previous installments, but there’s not to say that it’s not worth a watch. Interesting dynamics are aplenty in season five, and the cinematography is as praiseworthy as expected, although it’d be good to lower expectations for a bit.
Where season four saw a total of six episodes, the newest addition to the family takes a cut to episode count, with only three in store: “Striking Vipers”, “Smithereens”, and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”, in that order. The first and last snapshot, in particular, are bound to gather some attention, with Anthony Mackie and Miley Cyrus in the respective cast line-up.
In similar fashion to the previous season, each of these shorts is brought together by a common theme. The mutual link, in this case, would be connectivity in the realm of technology, where time skips and developments of past events form crucial parts of the overall narrative.
Considering the critical success of Season 3’s “San Junipero”, love is one central motif that the Black Mirror team is bound to revisit. “Striking Vipers” follows the lives of two estranged college friends who share a passion for one particular fighting game, and later reconnect in adult life through an upgraded VR version of said game. While its exploration of the boundaries and conventions of romance is commendable, the episode’s plot ultimately doesn’t quite impress – surely there are other more original, logical ways of having the characters re-examine themselves, especially with the sophisticated state of technology as portrayed in Black Mirror.
Acting-wise, Mackie and supporting actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II have done a good job at integrating into their characters, powerfully portraying their respective struggles and inner conflicts. Unfortunately, that same prowess is not carried over to Canadian-Chinese artist Ludi Lin, who fails to break free of his stiff, awkward acting, and makes it easy for audiences to disengage from the overall story.
With “Smithereens”, the sense of despair and despondency returns, and viewers should be ready to embrace the abyss that is misery. In it, the consequences of negligent social media and phone use are presented through a cab driver, who quickly becomes the centre of attention after one wrong move in which he expresses his wish to speak to the boss of social media conglomerate Smithereen. Not only does the presence of real-life elements in this episode help to check the audience back into reality, it also exudes an unnerving feeling that something similar could very well easily occur in actuality – especially with the golden age of social media already upon us.
This episode is particularly worthy of praise. Apart from having the main narrative tie in with little clues dropped along the way, the lead actor is extremely skilled at breathing life into his onscreen persona and giving him a personality. The pacing is well-executed as well, with tension constantly bleeding into the viewing experience, and burst intense moments building up to a gripping climax.
Bringing season five to an end would be “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”, which delves into the themes of real-life relationships versus idolatry-fuelled dynamics, alongside the superficiality of appearances, online or otherwise. It’s a well-worn topic, and the lack of novelty certainly shows – fractured familial dynamics, finding solace in spaces of comfort, and putting on false fronts for society frame much of the overarching narrative.
However, it’s also this sense of realism that hits a little close to home, such that viewers can relate to issues like loneliness and a lack of self-confidence. It’s a pity, then, that the episode is brought down by weak, lazy writing near the end, and comes riddled with logical fallacies and an overly-convenient resolution.
Of the list, “Smithereens” easily takes the cake for the most outstanding episode, and is inarguably the gem of the season. While none of the trio has an extremely compelling or mind-blowing storyline, it’s the one that pulls off the best pacing and characterisation. The reason behind the protagonist’s actions may be underwhelming, but the actor’s brilliant performance as a conflicted individual, and the episode’s tense set-up from start to end more than compensates for the flaw.
The order of show quality, thus, is as follows:
- “Striking Vipers”
- “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”
Beyond the imperfections, Black Mirror’s newest season still has heart, and shouldn’t be dismissed. Despite its fair share of inconsistencies, audiences will nonetheless find themselves drawn into the world of technology pitfalls and dangerous human minds. As a standalone, season five would probably be a solid entry, but when positioned beside the ingenuity of past episodes, it’s in dire need of some refinement and improvements that even the presence of both Anthony Mackie and Miley Cyrus is unable to lend. If there’s another season in the pipeline, it’d do good for Brooker and team to polish up their writing for future endeavours.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Inconsistency is the greatest enemy of Black Mirror’s newest season, but its charm still shines through the cracks of imperfections. It’s certainly worth a watch – just be sure to manage your expectations.
Story - 6/10
Direction - 8/10
Characterisation - 7.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7.5/10