Black Mirror season 5 review: Twisted and terrifying, Netflix’s feel-bad show returns for another round
Black Mirror - Season 5
Cast - Andrew Scott, Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Angourie Rice, Miley Cyrus
Rating - 3.5/5
Charlie Brooker has a weird relationship with technology. It seemed rather antagonistic at first, but it has turned into something more co-dependent. As critical as he is of our reliance on gadgets and gizmos, he is himself inseparable from it. In an odd way, it’s similar to the relationship between creator and critic - neither would exist without the other.
This love-hate dynamic plays out wonderfully in Smithereens, the first episode of the fifth season of Black Mirror, Brooker’s masterpiece. It’s one of the only episodes of the series - perhaps the only one, besides Shut Up and Dance - to be set not in a dystopian future or an alternate reality, as is the Black Mirror norm, but in the past.
Watch the Black Mirror season 5 trailer here
Sherlock’s Moriarty, Andrew Scott - younger viewers might know him as the ‘hot priest’ from Fleabag - stars as a ride-share driver named Chris. Clearly grieving the loss of a loved one, Chris spends his days outside the London offices of a tech company named Smithereen, waiting for the app’s algorithm to match him with one of its employees. After several failed attempts, a young, black man - snappily dressed in a crisp suit; his nose buried in his phone - jumps in Chris’ cab.
His plan finally in motion, Chris proceeds to (clumsily) kidnap the young man, and promptly gets pulled over by the police. A short chase later, he careens into an open field, where he stays for the rest of the episode, surrounded by a periphery of cops. With nowhere to go, and a hostage in the backseat of his car, Chris demands to speak with the elusive American CEO of Smithereen.
While not as obviously technologically driven as some of the show’s earlier episodes, Smithereens is heavily reliant on it. There are quick shots of Chris expressing his impatience with humanity’s obsession with their phones in public, culminating in a passionately delivered speech by Scott.
But in true Black Mirror fashion, Brooker plays his cards close to his chest, feeding us only morsels until we are ready to fully sink our teeth into his delicately prepared meal. It’s an excellently staged episode, if a little underwhelming by the end. Smithereens opens well enough, and ends with a rare moment of empathy in what has traditionally been - barring a few notable exceptions - a largely mean-spirited show, but it is bogged down by a saggy second act.
It’s the second best episode of the abridged fifth season - a welcome move, which takes the series back to its pre-Netflix, British roots. I was firmly of the belief that doubling the episode counts in seasons three and four was the absolute worst thing Netflix could have done to Black Mirror. But despite reverting to a shorter season, the show has clearly lost some of its edge.
Ironically for a story about forbidden love, Striking Vipers, the third episode - starring Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II - comes closest to invoking some of that twisted Black Mirror spirit, only to shy away at the last moment.
Brooker had the opportunity to make his own, futuristic version of the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, tackling themes of homosexuality and masculinity - particularly in context of black, American men - but he sticks to his comfort zone. The episode does, however, boast some of the most visually inventive moments of the season, thanks to a virtual reality video game world that resembles the side-scroller action of titles such as Street Fighter and Mortal Combat.
But all this is merely superficial distraction from its very real, very bold ideas. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but is still ambitious enough to effortlessly outclass the middle episode of the series: Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.
Starring Miley Cyrus and Angourie Rice, who play two lonely girls on opposite ends of the spectrum, the episode combines Brooker’s obsessions - technology and pop-culture - but offers only a middling critique of both. He compares modern pop stars to gadgets; each has a short shelf life that requires them to upgrade almost annually.
It’s the least exciting episode of the season; and indeed, the most disappointing, considering the endless possibilities that were available for Brooker to skewer with his trademark wit. It touches on several interesting concepts - teenage fragility, grief, artificial intelligence, social media, the pitfalls of celebrity - yet never manages to focus.
And that, essentially, is the trouble with season five. It can’t help but feel like a placeholder, something created only to fulfil certain contractual obligations, or perhaps to buy Brooker more time to create the next Bandersnatch. At five seasons old now, Black Mirror’s battery is draining faster than it used to; its body is chipped, its screen cracked. It’s too early to start thinking of a replacement, but perhaps a quick trip to the service centre is in order.