After the tease of Black Mirror’s choose-your-own-adventure special “Bandersnatch” in December, the fifth season of Charlie Brooker’s twisty sci-fi anthology returned to Netflix this month with three episodes. This smaller offering reverts back to the series’ earlier days on British Channel 4, when seasons consisted of sparse but excellent episodes. While the episodes in Season 5 don’t quite stack up to the likes of “Fifteen Million Merits” or “White Bear,” they are a fine addition to the Black Mirror universe.
This batch kicks off with “Striking Vipers,” named after an immersive Mortal Kombat-esque virtual-reality game where players can feel everything. When two longtime buddies (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) begin to play, it evolves from a sensory playground to an escape from their very different lives — one is a bachelor, the other is a husband and dad — and sparks a major change in their relationship.
The story bucks gender norms and heteronormative stereotypes in a really interesting way, particularly in how it explores the masculinity or straightness of two black men. For many, that will be too taboo and seem silly, but I found it significant. To break down these barriers in the world of gaming — where homophobic slurs are often tossed about like confetti — is quite fascinating.
Next up, “Smithereens” is classic Black Mirror — a dismal tale of social media infecting the world that could very easily take place today without a single advancement in technology, making it all the more of a grim warning. Actor Andrew Scott shines in everything, from Sherlock to Fleabag, and this episode is no exception. Before we know anything about his character — and he truly keeps us guessing until the end — it’s clear that he’s on the brink of a destructive break. His mission for vengeance gets botched and side-tracked so many times viewers might feel almost as frustrated as him. Wait, are we rooting for a villain now?
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” shows what technology can bring out in a person who is suffering, isolated or lonely. Rachel (Angourie Rice) has recently lost her mom and moved to a new high school. She is disconnected from her dad and sister, and the only thing that seems to excite or inspire her is Ashley O, a pop star played by Miley Cyrus. When Rachel receives an A.I. toy, “Ashley Too,” programmed to mimic the uber-positive Pop star, this super-fan gets more connected to her idol than she could ever imagine.
Now, there are viewers who only either tuned in or trashed the ep because of that casting and, while I love to see relatively unknown actors in the series, Cyrus nailed the role of a celebrity who isn’t quite as squeaky-clean and happy as her public persona.
For some reason, Netflix seems to be randomizing the episodes instead of presenting them in order (as outlined above), so I ended up watching “Ashley Too,” then “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens,” which made for an increasingly foreboding and compelling experience. Being an anthology, Black Mirror is truly the type of show you can watch in any order — newcomers are often advised not to start with series premiere “The National Anthem” so as not so get deterred by, ahem, a particular sex scene — though if you follow it season by season, you’ll notice little Easter eggs and threads between. Multiple eagle-eyed viewings of this latest installment reveal clues of the twists to come and several winks and nods to storylines in previous episodes.
Overall, this season offers relatively lighter fare for what can typically be an extremely heady, dark watch. And outside of a few pieces of tech, these stories could very much play out in the real world today. Because, despite the curious, futuristic gadgets associated with Black Mirror, the series is really about how humans interact with them — and human nature in general. Of the latter, some of the best parts of this season are the relationships explored between characters.
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern