★ ★ ★
“Strong, affecting concepts give way for repetition and mostly confusing tones”.
Contains spoilers for Season 3 of Black Mirror.
The problem with making another season of social thriller Black Mirror was always going to be that the first twenty episodes are so brilliant. How do you follow up the terrifying ingenuity of White Christmas and The Entire History of You, the gut-punching plot twists of Shut Up and Dance and White Bear, or the dreamy visuals of San Junipero and Hang the DJ? Herein lay the challenge ahead of writer Charlie Brooker: when you’ve already tapped into the collective cultural anxieties of modern society with ideas so original and affecting that they leave your audience in a disquieted daze, where do you go from there?
Unfortunately, the fifth season of the satirical anthology series doesn’t quite reach the levels of creativity that its predecessors did – or, if it does, we are too distracted by the similarities to prior episodes concepts. Since its first season in 2011, Black Mirror has explored politics, technology and morality through a particularly bleak lens. In 2019 – a time where an ex-reality television star is President of the U.S., artificial intelligence is progressing at a worrying rate and politics is dividing nations around the world – it feels like there is a myriad of real-world news pieces which could easily become premises for compelling new episodes. While Brooker grapples with AI, virtual reality and holograms in interesting ways in this season, we’re not left with that same sinking feeling that we have learned to expect and, perhaps masochistically, enjoy.
As someone who is terrified of virtual reality in video games, I was expecting this episode, with its premise of two ex-flatmates blurring the line between friendship in the real world and the one they explore in a hyper-real fighting game, to be my favourite. A flashback in the opening scenes of Striking Vipers, in which Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Theo (Nicole Beharie) pretend to be meeting for the first time before going back to their apartment and having sex, gives us a sense of the passion that was an integral part of their relationship at the time. Eleven years later the couple have a child and are trying for another, but their monotonous domestic lives are clearly taking a toll on the electrifying connection they once had. This may be why a present from Danny’s somewhat estranged best friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), in the form of a frighteningly realistic video game that emulates human sensations, leads to the two men engaging in a virtual relationship while playing.
At one point Theo comments that the men never discuss their feelings; Danny and Karl fail to communicate their emotions to each other throughout the episode. When Theo tries to talk to Danny about the lack of passion in their relationship – which, unbeknownst to her, is due to his ‘affair’ with Karl – Danny is a blank wall. In fact, their marriage isn’t the only thing that’s devoid of excitement. Both men’s lives are filled with ‘stuff’: their ambiguous careers providing them with a wealth of possessions and allowing them sizeable houses. But, unsurprisingly for Black Mirror, they are chronically dissatisfied with their mundane lives; while Karl goes on disappointing dates with younger women, Danny and Theo grow tired of the repetition of family life and small talking with fellow parents. Virtual reality was the focus of the terrifying Season 3 episode Playtest, but Striking Vipers sees Danny and Karl finding themselves in a compromising relationship which forces them to reflect on the nature of their friendship in the real world, as well as Danny’s complicated marriage to Theo.
All the elements are in place for an inquisitive, tentative exploration of male friendship, long-term relationships and the possible problems with VR. The central premise could truly happen in our world (with just a few technological advances) and there is an ethereal beauty to the overexposed visuals, both in the Japanese landscape of the game and the real, affluent cityscape and suburban area that Karl and Danny respectively live in. But something about the episode just misses the mark. Mackie’s performance is lacklustre, though his character may just be embodying the bored, complicit family man that the story requires. The narrative is unpolished, with the first kiss between Karl and Danny’s characters in the game feeling rushed and unconvincing, and the remainder of the episode dragging out so much that while the conclusion is satisfyingly intelligent, the level of connection between audience and characters necessary for it to pack a punch just isn’t there. It feels like there are two episodes here; one that asks questions about male relationships and toxic masculinity, and another which makes a comment on monogamy, committing to relationships and society’s addiction to porn. These concepts are flimsily connected to each other here and the result is a mostly forgettable story that, disappointingly, never really does what it sets out to do.
Although Smithereens rehashes some concepts that we’ve seen before in the series – most notably the obsession with our phones that was explored in Nosedive – this episode still manages to do something a little different. The narrative begins with a man attempting to follow a guided meditation in his car, before he is notified of a new customer on an Uber-style app. Chris, played by Andrew Scott, is lonely, awkward and frustrated. It soon becomes clear that he’s infuriated by society’s inability to detach themselves from their phones; the familiar iPhone notification and keyboard sounds plague him with anxiety. When he picks up Jaden (Damson Idris), an intern at Smithereen (a fictional social media app similar to Twitter), an amateur hostage situation ensues, with the police soon tracking him down and attempting to negotiate with him. Refusing to let Jaden go until he speaks to Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), Chris is a flight-risk with a short temper and a personal motivation that doesn’t reveal itself until the third act, allowing for a slow burn of an episode that stands out as the highlight of the season.
The premise is simple, with much of the action taking place between the field where Chris’s car is surrounded by police and the Californian Smithereen HQ, meaning that a high-concept plot makes way for a focus on some truly great performances. While Scott is fantastic, initially playing Chris as an unhinged antagonist before slowly making him both empathetic and likeable by the episode’s end, Damson Idris is wholly believable as the unsuspecting intern. Inspired by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the irony is not lost that Grace’s Bauer is hard to reach due to being on a ten-day silent retreat. Though the rest of his team talk in buzzwords, more worried about bad PR than Jaden’s safety, Bauer shows genuine concern for the situation, admitting to Chris that the vision he had for Smithereen was regrettably turned into something very different. Brooker employs well-trodden conventions from the thriller genre, playing with heightened sounds, a tension-building soundtrack and extreme close-ups to keep the audience on their toes. While the action is well-paced, the seventy minute run time (the longest of the season) feels somewhat unnecessary during the slight lull at the episode’s midpoint, never mind the fact that when a character from earlier on in the narrative is re-introduced in the final scenes, we have all but forgotten her existence.
Throughout the episode there is a symbolic focus on eyes. We constantly see close-ups of the eyes of characters and Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Keep my Eyes Off You’ becomes a recurring song. Considering Chris’s backstory, this motif is a clear indication of the episode’s central moral message: that our attention spans are getting shorter and our obsession with technology is getting out of hand. Brooker makes a powerful statement about the immediacy of social media, with the Smithereen team acquiring information through Chris’s account before the police do. As the situation escalates a news crew appears and the Smithereen ‘homepage’ is littered with posts about Chris and Jaden. Even after the episode’s shocking climactic cliff-hanger, we see shots of people – from Billy Bauer to Smithereen employees to citizens going about their days – receiving news of what happened, registering it silently and then carrying on with their lives. Unlike the season’s other two episodes, the world of Billy Bauer and his addictive app is the same as our own, with none of the technology fictionalised, or even really exaggerated. Perhaps that is what makes this the most affecting episode of the season.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too
The casting of Miley Cyrus – the popstar who’s consistently been in the spotlight since her Hannah Montana days – in the season’s final episode was no doubt what reeled in much of its audience. Cyrus’s efforts to ditch her status as wholesome teen-idol for a more grown-up public image brought with it the controversial VMA performance involving Robin Thicke and a giant foam finger, which became one of the most memorable pop culture events of recent years. In Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too, singer Ashley O (Cyrus) is essentially a not-so-subtle fictional version of Miley herself. Trapped in a seemingly perfect life of wealth and fame, it becomes clear that Ashley longs to free herself from the overbearing shackles of her aunt (who is also her manager), in order to finally write the music that represents her true self, rather than the cheesy upbeat pop songs that her predominantly teenage fans love her for. Running parallel to Ashley’s story is that of Rachel (Angourie Rice), a shy and introverted girl who fails to make friends at school, finding refuge in watching Ashley’s performances and – much to the chagrin of her sarcastic, rock-loving sister Jack (Madison Davenport) – the slightly creepy doll which replicates Ashley’s voice and personality.
The concept of downloading human consciousness onto some form of device is one of the most oft-explored themes in Black Mirror, with episodes such as Be Right Back, Black Museumand USS Callister providing much more extreme and unnerving observations. While the ‘Ashley Too’ doll, which Rachel is gifted in a surprisingly thoughtful act by her otherwise useless father, acts as a catalyst for many of the episode’s later events, it’s the scenes where the similarities between Rachel and Ashley are explored which are the most engaging. While Rachel performs a wooden and awkward dance to Ashley O’s ‘On a Roll’ at a school talent show before falling on stage and fleeing, humiliated, Ashley tries to escape the isolation of life under her controlling aunt’s contract, but is drugged and deliberately put into a coma in order for her team to use her talent without the inconvenience of her evolving personality. There is an interesting message here about identity and loneliness – but it’s one that is largely forgotten by the episode’s teen-movie-esque second half.
As with Striking Vipers, there are features of this episode which feel like relevant and disconcerting concepts to examine, such as holographic versions of deceased stars, the commodification of celebrities, the sexualisation of child performers, and ‘stan’ culture. The characters are well-developed and it’s easy to empathise with them, especially in Rachel’s case; not only has she suffered from personal tragedy with the death of her mother, but her loneliness and lack of popularity in school is relatable to many of us. In fact, the first half of the episode is, by all intents and purposes, a successfully dark, funny and thought-provoking story. Unfortunately, the tone shifts so much after this that by the end credits it doesn’t feel like you’re watching Black Mirror at all. The dialogue, acting and soundtrack all feel corny and displaced considering the show’s magnum opus of disturbing narratives. When you consider that the song ‘On a Roll’ (adapted with frontman Trent Reznor’s blessing from the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Head Like a Hole’) is now available both to stream and as a music video, in addition to Cyrus donning her Ashley O wig and performing the song in character to thousands of fans at Glastonbury Festival last month, the episode feels like a far cry from the bleak stories that Brooker usually does so well. Or, maybe it’s just extremely meta and that’s exactly the point. Either way, the cheery second half allows for one of Black Mirror’s very few happy endings, but I would’ve been much happier without this episode’s inclusion in the series at all.
Directors: Owen Harris, James Hawes, Anne Sewitsky
Producers: Charlie Brooker, Kate Glover, Annabel Jones, Mark Kinsella, Madonna Baptiste, Nick Pitt
Cast: Antonie Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Beharie, Andrew Scott, Damson Idris, Topher Grace, Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport
Release Date: 2019
Available on: Netflix
All photos IMDB.