Known for its innovative, dystopian take on technology, based in both science and science fiction, “Black Mirror” has become a household name over the last few years, by appealing to diverse audiences, using Netflix to amass a dedicated following and delivering clever material. Unsurprisingly, the series has garnered repeated praise from critics and regular viewers alike, including myself.
Yet every time a new series premieres, I hesitate before hitting play; as a seasoned viewer of television shows, I know not every episode can be a winner, but “Black Mirror” always seems to oscillate wildly between its hits and its misses. (Think back to Season 3, when the clunky “Men Against Fire” had to live up to fan-favorite “San Junipero.”)
Despite any hope for the contrary, Season 5 is no different; it’s peppered with both lovely hits and bitter misses. Perhaps the only new aspect is that the frequency of quality shifts; in previous seasons, you could count on some episodes to remain great throughout, but now, individual scenes are divided into duds or diamonds. So, without further ado, here are the biggest hits and misses of the fifth season of “Black Mirror.”
Episode 1: “Striking Vipers”
Anthony Mackie, fresh out of “Avengers: Endgame,” plays family man Danny, who reconnects with an old friend, Karl. For Danny’s birthday, Karl gifts him a new VR version of a fighting game, “Striking Vipers X,” that they used to play, and, almost immediately, they use the game to have sex with each other (in conveniently heterosexual bodies). This stirs up conflict in their personal lives, which forces them to eventually face each other in reality.
Nikki Behari, who plays Theo, is a powerhouse, who swiftly steals the show with her honest vulnerability toward a husband she worries no longer wants her. The anniversary scene where she confronts him excels far beyond most of the other scenes, and easily packs the most emotional punch of the episode.
The main issue I had was how the episode seemed to tiptoe around showing queer love on television. My man Karl is clearly in love with Danny; he admits it in-game as his female character, Roxette, and he initially declares them a “gay thing” after they first hook up, which Danny denies. But back in the real world, he’s the first one to say that their one real kiss meant nothing and that it’s “different” in the game.
Of course, Karl could have been defending his feelings before Danny could hurt him, but we never get a confirmation on whether he really meant what he said. It would’ve made for a far more fulfilling end if Karl actually acknowledged his attraction to a man. You can do better, “Black Mirror.”
Episode 2: “Smithereens”
The wonderful Andrew Scott (you may recognize him as Moriarty, from “Sherlock”) plays a rideshare driver, working for an Uber knockoff. He kidnaps an employee of app company Smithereen, desperately hoping to contact Billy Bauer, its CEO. With his car surrounded by police, he protects himself with a gun and a hostage and fights his way, over the phone, up the company’s chain of command, from HR all the way to the top.
Honestly, there aren’t a lot. Out of all three episodes of Season 5, this is probably the worst; that being said, Scott is a delight to watch, as always. With his mastery of capturing the manic persona of his character, he pretty much carries the entire episode, and his endearing lack of criminal skill and heartbreaking portrayal of grief also make it difficult to discount this episode as a total bomb.
You can predict the ending after about 10 minutes: this rideshare driver is clearly nervous and searching specifically for a passenger that’s an employee of the company whose building he’s parked in front of. Oh, and he keeps ranting about phones, and how we can’t live without them.
With just this information, it’s not that hard to extrapolate that something traumatic involving phone usage happened to him, and he wants to speak to someone high up in the company, presumably because their product is related to the event. And what do you know! We already know the whole plot.
This also might be their most heavy-handed “phone bad, book good” episode. Besides Scott’s constant griping about how we’re so addicted, the episode ends with an incredibly blatant montage of people using phones, while “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” plays in the background. It doesn’t even show us who gets hit by the bullet in the end, but they had the time to film random extras who are irrelevant to the story?
Episode 3: “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
Famous popstar Ashley O, played by Miley Cyrus herself, releases an AI doll based on her (supposedly) real, bubbly personality. Miles away, a lonely teenage fan named Rachel finds her first friend in a new town, in the form of a five-inch robot doll that emulates her idol.
While Rachel navigates high school, the real Ashley rebels against her tyrannical aunt and manager Catherine, who’s been drugging her and controlling every aspect of her career. Things quickly get messy, and their worlds collide.
Like the previous two episodes, the best part of the episode is the acting talent. Cyrus shines as a trapped and pissed-off popstar, and the actors for Rachel and Jack are also enjoyable, despite their clichéd characters. Both main storylines hold their own, with entertaining merits, and you actually care about the characters, making this the best episode of Season 5.
The pacing in this episode is funky; for the majority of the runtime, it feels like a Disney Channel Original Movie: girl has no friends, girl befriends a robot version of her idol, robot helps girl prepare for the big talent show, girl humiliates herself at talent show.
It’s a classic tragedy in four acts — but then, suddenly, everything jumps from zero to a hundred when Ashley’s aunt poisons her and puts her in a coma, with plans to harvest songs from her subconscious. If the focus of the entire episode had been on Ashley’s ordeal alone, it would have made it far more interesting and exciting.
Many of the themes this season felt cliché and general, and it definitely didn’t feel like they were breaking new ground with any of the episodes. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t enjoyable to watch, but it’s a departure from previous seasons.
None of them felt like “San Junipero” or “USS Callister”; they didn’t have that je ne sais quoi that fuels the internet machine and makes them a phenomenon, generating opinionated conversations and memes galore. They didn’t feel like “Black Mirror,” and that can’t be a good omen for the show’s future.