'Black Mirror' Season 5: TV Review

Still the king of the genre.
6/5/2019

Two new episodes prove that creator Charlie Brooker is still filled with creative surprises, though the third one will feed detractors.

Heading into its fifth season, Netflix's Black Mirror remains a prime example of an often brilliant series with a rabid fan base that turned — as the series grew more popular, expanded and drew more actors (and thus eyeballs) into its orbit — a different kind of rabid.

Somewhere around the third season, after two critically acclaimed and arguably "cult" seasons, the secret was out and fans were more demanding of the content of Black Mirror — less satisfied with creator Charlie Brooker's wildly eclectic sense of style and direction, more prone to ranking episodes from best to worst (the truest sign in the age of Twitter that we actually shouldn't be allowed to have good things).

That expanded six-episode third season featured the much-loved "San Junipero" episode, a template for Brooker becoming more interested in the emotional forefront of the technology fallout rather than the technology itself, a step into more nuanced storytelling that truly raised the bar.

Another six-episode fourth season was wonderfully, wildly all over the map, but it also represented Peak Black Mirror Episode Rankings, and a (frustrating) fan focus more on the inconsistencies of the episodes and less on the fact that Black Mirror had, since its 2011 premiere, been fantastically original and weirdly prescient when it came to all things techno-terror. Brooker had set such a high bar for himself that he was bound to, on occasion, tumble short on certain episodes.

But since Black Mirror is an anthology series, it's often unjustly judged on its episodes rather than its whole season — something that probably started because the first two seasons were merely three episodes each. But that meant that seasons three and four, with their double episode count, were routinely judged on any standout weakness.

Brooker and co-executive producer Annabel Jones, who has been there from the beginning, have crafted such an urgently inventive series that they have spawned a number of like-minded competitors through the years. But none lasting long enough to be a real threat — that's exclusively a challenge that seems to come from within, as fans (and critics) can sometimes obsess over the misses and, one could argue, are unduly jaded after four seasons, a Christmas special and an interactive movie, about the constraints of the form, with a lingering "oh, more of that" kind of weariness sinking in.

That is unlikely to end with this shorter — three-episode — season five, since one offering is clearly lesser than the other two and one of the rare broad misses that the series sometimes delivers. Ah, but the other two episodes this season are exceptional, a timely reminder that Brooker remains restlessly creative and still enormously interested in the genre, having moved it beyond "tech paranoia" to the aforementioned more nuanced exploration of how technology changes our emotional and intimate connections with loved ones, family and friends.

The excellent "Smithereens," written by Brooker and directed by James Hawes, is a microcosm of the more minimalist approach that doesn't need to predict what technology might look like in the next five years (where it no doubt snatches away a little more of our humanity); rather, it's a powerfully straightforward look at the intersection of technology and a simple human mistake, aggravated by that technology.

Andrew Scott plays Christopher, a ride-share driver who parks outside a tech company called Smithereen. He's clearly troubled by and also angered by technology, and in a scene where he's attending grief counseling, Christopher meets an older woman whose daughter has killed herself. It's just two disconnected people hooking up for no reason other than they are both a little broken, but it leads to a revelation  — the woman has been trying to get into an Instagram-like account of her daughter's called Persona, but the company won't give her the password, so she spends her days trying three entries before being locked out again for 24 hours and trying again. She's hoping to see any data that might shed light on why her daughter killed herself, but hundreds of attempts have failed her. It's a small, powerful subplot.

Meanwhile, Christopher finally gives a ride to Jaden (Damson Idris), who works at Smithereen and who must be, in Christopher's eyes, a top executive powerful enough to have the number of the company's founder, Billy Bower (Topher Grace), in his cellphone, because Jaden is wearing an amazing suit. Christopher thus kidnaps the poor guy.

But Jaden is an intern who started last week, and things quickly disintegrate from there for Christopher; he's stuck in a field, car stalled, his mostly botched hostage plan leaving him in a police sniper's scope. He's going to kill Jaden unless he talks to Billy Bower.

Now, the reason why this particular episode qualifies as one of the Black Mirror greats is that Brooker writes the hell out of the little moments, from Smithereen being able to access data faster than the cops (and the FBI, it turns out) and, hilariously, the company's terse COO, Penelope Wu (Ruibo Qian), being a better profiler based on the company's data than law enforcement. It also hints at the massive power these social media companies have, another timely issue. As local British cops try to stave off the hostage situation in a remote, rural field, Wu has patched in the FBI, which surprises the hell out of cops on the other side of the pond. "With me is Don from legal and Shonelle from analytics," Wu says. In that field in Britain, every cop looks confused.

It is a wonderfully funny and real scene. 

Elsewhere, Brooker, in the midst of high tension, gets at tech successes and failures. Shonelle not only patched into his phone and is playing him his favorite "stress-buster" playlist from his Smithereen account; her technology also allows her to listen into Christopher and Jaden talking when he's on hold. Every word he says is feeding, Siri-like, into a processor that transcribes it. When Christopher gets annoyed at Wu for stalling, he screams into the phone and the screen types "just ducking get Billy bower on the phone right now I'm not ducking around here I'll blow his ducking head off..."

We've all been there (and yes, Billy's last name is lower case and the grammar is off, adding to the perfection). But Brooker and Hawes expertly create tension and sadness in the simple story. The reason why Christopher wants to talk to Billy Bower is gutting — he just wants to tell the tech magnate how his fiancée was killed and why, laying some (appropriate) blame at Bower's feet. Again, a simple request. No extortion. No other demands. He just wants Bower to listen to him; it's all so tragically relatable.

Scott, who just played the "sexy priest" on the recent season of Fleabag, is exceptional here, selling every part of Christopher's emotional state.

The other successful episode is "Striking Vipers," starring Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nikki Beharie in a story best left to unfold without any spoilers but one that explores sexuality and love in surprising ways — the kind of conceptual idea that makes you realize why it takes Brooker so long to come up with these gems; putting a spin even on his own trademark conceits to freshen them up and surprise now-jaded viewers is a time-consuming creative task. 

"Striking Vipers," directed by Owen Harris, takes a phrase — "guys can be so awkward" — and psychoanalyzes it with a tech (and gaming) twist.

This episode alone is why it's probably best for Brooker to focus on three or possibly four episodes per season rather than six. As noted above, it's harder and harder to surprise and entertain certain Black Mirror fans.

And never would that be clearer than in "Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too," an episode that stars Miley Cyrus and wants to send up bubble gum pop manipulation and the artists (ahem) who want to express their darker and truer inner selves but can't because controlling parties don't want to damage the brand and the profits.

While that might also be considered a simple plot, Brooker and company get a little (okay, a lot) too cute with it, introducing an AI doll modeled after Cyrus's character and turning the hour into what looks unintentionally like a Disney movie spoof — though in fairness maybe all of it, down to the ridiculous plot and obvious writing, is really just that: a spoof. If so, it maybe hits things a little (okay, a lot) too on the nose.

Cyrus is all-in here and you have to give her credit for being one of the few actresses and singers who could even make this work. She looks to be having a grand time, but what "Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too" does best is prove that making episodes as superb as "Smithereens" and "Striking Vipers" is hard to do, and viewers should be more appreciative when they get them and less eye-rollingly outraged about the misses.

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nikki Beharie, Pom Klementieff, Ludi Lin, Adam Scott, Damson Idris, Topher Grace, Ruibo Qian, Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Susan Pourfar
Created and written by: Charlie Brooker
Directed by: Owen Harris, James Hawes, Anne Sewitsky
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)