Charlie Brooker has found his groove. The fifth season of “Black Mirror,” now out on Netflix, offers three very different techno-parables to add to his off-kilter canon of near-future dystopia.
And, in a refreshing departure, Brooker’s starting point for these installments seems to have been a story, rather than a message.
He has not abandoned his moralizing – “Black Mirror” wouldn’t be the same without a cautionary message or two – but the tone of these latest episodes is lighter, less preachy and more reflective than some previous ones. And Brooker is at his funniest, his most humane and his most relatable when he steps down off the soapbox.
Each of this season’s offerings has its imperfections, to be sure. None of them, perhaps, rate among the top five “Black Mirror” episodes of all time. Brooker, it seems, has given himself the freedom to use this show simply to write the stories he wants to tell.
The opening episode, “Striking Vipers,” is an examination of sexual fluidity and fidelity, in an age when technology allows for ‘virtual’ encounters with online partners. Starring Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen, it asks questions about sexual identity and mores that will become increasingly relevant in the near future.
Danny, who lives with his wife, Theo, and their son, meets up online with Karl to play a virtual reality version of the Mortal Kombat-style fighting game they played together years ago. Thanks to a newly developed chip, players feel the physical sensations of the characters they control. Danny and Karl’s characters – Lance and Roxette, respectively – are drawn to each other and end up having sex on multiple occasions in the game. Both men are understandably confused by the experience and begin to question the nature of their real-life relationship.
While Danny and Karl are exploring their sexual and romantic boundaries in virtual reality, Theo’s reality is all too familiar. She feels distanced from and ignored by her husband, who is preoccupied with his online affair. Brooker’s handling of Theo’s suffering, however, is unconvincing and, despite a strong performance by Nicole Beharie, the role is underdeveloped.
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“Striking Vipers” does not disappoint in terms of techno-gags. Brooker has always taken a geeky pleasure in suggesting mundane innovations that will almost certainly be coming to a gadget near you very soon. In this episode, there’s a dishwasher with food sensors that, taking on the role of nagging spouse, reminds Danny to rinse the plates before putting them in.
Brooker’s dialog, too, is sharp in this episode. When Karl is trying to persuade Danny to rejoin him in the virtual world for another sexual encounter, he lists all the “characters” he’s had sex with in an attempt to recreate what he had with Danny/Lance. “I fucked a polar bear,” he pleads, “but I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.”
Far from dystopia
In the end – atypically – Brooker writes a conclusion in which no one blows their brains out or gets locked forever in virtual prison. It might not be a perfect ending, but it’s far from the dystopia that we’ve come to expect from “Black Mirror.”
The second episode, “Smithereens,” is simultaneously the most tense and least impressive of the three. Starring Andrew Scott, Damson Idris and Topher Grace, it is a classic kidnap yarn – without much of a twist.
Chris (Scott) hatches a plot to abduct an employee of the social media company Smithereen, in order to be able to talk to its founder and guru-like CEO Billy Bauer (Grace). When he finally does get through to Bauer, the message he delivers, however, is trite. It’s the same message that “Black Mirror” has been pushing since Episode 1 and the delivery in “Smithereens” is weak.
The episode is not without its charm, however. As always, Brooker’s use of soundtrack is outstanding. In this episode, in which the protagonist caused his fiancé’s death by glancing at his mobile phone while driving, the song that plays throughout the episode is “Can’t Take My Eyes off You.”
The episode is rescued by Scott’s portrayal of Chris, who is spiraling out of control, but is fundamentally decent. In one of the best performances ever seen on “Black Mirror,” Scott encapsulates the despair of his character perfectly.
The final episode – “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” – is the worst-rated of the three on review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. Yet for me, it was the most enjoyable of the trio.
Perhaps some viewers were put off by the star of the piece, Miley Cyrus, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter who shot to fame as Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel show of the same name. I’m not sure what a Venn diagram of the crossover between Miley Cyrus fans and “Black Mirror” viewers would look like, but I suspect that Brooker had a mischievous glint in his eye when he was writing this episode.
Cyrus was inspired casting for a role that involved portraying a millennial pop icon disillusioned by the industry and taken advantage of by her manager. Her public persona, controversial videos and conscious effort to distance herself from her teenage idol image all helped support her in this role.
As with the whole “Black Mirror” canon, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” touches on familiar themes: capturing and recreating consciousness, the malevolent use of technology, and virtual realities.
The episode, while entertaining and occasionally very funny, feels a little like a cross between Nancy Drew and Scooby-Doo. There’s an evil aunt and her sidekicks, there’s a car chase and there’s a “pull the mask off the villain” moment at the end. It’s kitsch, but it’s well-written and well-performed kitsch – and it works.
Brooker has managed to create three new episodes – replete with Easter egg references to previous episodes of the show – which remain true to the spirit of “Black Mirror.” To do so, he needed to free himself from the shackles of the genre and focus on storytelling. These new episodes are a worthy addition to the “Black Mirror” catalog and prove that Brooker is not just a techno-skeptic satirist with penchant for bleak endings.