Call it the “Bandersnatch” effect. After toiling away on a groundbreaking idea they actually had to bring to life, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ new episodes of “Black Mirror” feel like a half-hearted effort — not only in comparison to the extremely ambitious interactive “film,” but to past hourlong entries, as well.
Keeping with the series’ building trend, these episodes collectively reflect the human impact of advancing technology. No longer a warning about what’s to come, “Black Mirror” acknowledges the twisted future we’re already living in by focusing on its effect on people. “Striking Vipers” looks at a waning friendship salvaged (and warped) through video games. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” while a bit scattershot, examines the skyrocketing price of fame through fractured families. “Smithereens” doesn’t even bother conjuring an alternate reality or futuristic setting — everything that happens is already happening.
Though select performances evoke strong responses — Andrew Scott keeps his hot streak going post-“Fleabag” — the actual ideas put up for consideration are pretty thin. I’ll get into spoilers below, but for those who haven’t watched yet, it’s best to go in without high expectations for earth-shattering twists or shocking character choices. For all the pomp and circumstance, this season is pretty grounded, though not necessarily for the better.
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Setting aside “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” — the Miley Cyrus-staring entry that goes wildly off-the-rails without bringing any depth or, you know, fun to the table — the other two episodes feel like stray observations best summed up quickly, but instead stretched to near-feature length. “Striking Vipers” is forgettable when it tries to be provocative, while “Smithereens,” the best of the three, is still far-too-reminiscent of previous hostage stories.
For more detailed breakdowns, check out the individual, spoiler-filled reviews below. Or if you’ve heard enough, just know “Black Mirror” should still have better days ahead. “Bandersnatch” took a lot of work, people.
[The following review contains spoilers for “Black Mirror” Season 5, including all episodes.]
Serious Synopsis: Two distanced friends reignite their relationship through an advanced form of VR, pushing their perception of reality — and themselves — to new levels.
Less Serious Synopsis: If you could fuck your best friend in a video game, does that mean you’re gay?
Late in “Striking Vipers,” a hypnotic yet limited story of friendship, Theo (Nicole Beharie) casually drops the episode’s defining line: “Guys can be so awkward.” In the moment, it’s a funny aside, as her friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and her husband Danny (Anthony Mackie) are struggling to say goodbye after a strained dinner. Is it a handshake or a hug when you’ve known the guy for years, but recently broke off an affair via virtual reality? You see, unbeknownst to Theo, who arranged the birthday get-together, her old roommates had been having sex as video game avatars for months, until Danny broke it off and left Karl searching for comparable satisfaction elsewhere. (During dinner, Karl confessed to fucking a polar bear, hoping it would be as good as banging his bestie’s street fighter.)
This is as far as the entry is willing to go, which is ultimately its downfall. Because the users have the choice between avatars in the game, and because Karl chooses to play as a woman, there’s a discussion to be had about sexual fluidity that could’ve been intriguing. Instead, Brooker repeatedly emphasizes that all this is just about their friendship. The climax occurs when the two meet in real life and force themselves to kiss — which takes on a little too much drama, despite the life-altering possibilities for Danny and his family — before getting into a real fistfight after realizing they’re not attracted to each other in real life.
Yes, men can be juvenile about expressing emotion. Yes, everyone should learn to be more open and honest about their feelings and desires for a better, healthier life. But “Striking Viper” is oddly narrow-minded in its scope, settling for a shrug and a head shake instead of trying to progress the narrative around bromance.
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Serious Synopsis: Unnerved by his own addiction to a social media app, a London rideshare driver takes an employee hostage to try to make a difference with his higher ups, company, and the world at large.
Less Serious Synopsis: Don’t text and drive.
Much of the “Smithereens'” success can be attributed to Andrew Scott’s committed, textured performance. While his surrounding story is pretty basic — Chris (Scott) gets in a car crash that kills his girlfriend because he was using an addictive social media app instead of focusing on the road, so he holds one of the app’s employees hostage so he can talk to the creator — all that information is carefully teased throughout the episode, keeping you guessing long enough to get invested, even if your guesses are likely on point.
Scott’s conversation with the Smithereen CEO, played by Topher Grace, carries a few notable bits of commentary, including that the company is actively trying to make their platform as addictive as possible. (They even have “dopamine targets” for their customer base.) But Grace’s boss commiserates with Chris more than one might expect. He’s even on a solo retreat to the outskirts of Utah because he knows (more than anyone) how important it is to take a break from technology. The addictiveness is dangerous — he admits it, Chris is living with it, and they both feel wretched about it.
But what are you gonna do? This is the world we live in, and companies will continue to meet the demands of the consumer, even if that means manufacturing that demand internally. That “Smithereens” doesn’t have much more to say on the matter is actually somewhat forgivable — more so than its familiarity to other mystery-driven hostage dramas like “Phone Booth,” “Money Monster,” and “Man on a Ledge,” just to name a few — considering the foreground given to Scott’s character; he’s a believable madman, but still a human being. His pain is palpable, and the actor shifts between determination and hopelessness with impressive skill. Even when you’re not sure of Chris’ motivations (and triggers), Scott guides you through with great command.
“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”
Serious Synopsis: A pop star frustrated by the confines of her fame is forced into service against her will, while a teenage fan struggles to make new friends…other than a robot toy injected with the singer’s personality — and more.
Less Serious Synopsis: Robot pop stars are people, too, and it’s OK if they’re your only friend?
This is… a mess. Seemingly two separate stories fused together — or one story thrown out of whack by a beefed up supporting role to accomodate Miley Cyrus’ star power — “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” has a deadbeat dad character who never develops past providing important computer parts, a main character who literally never develops at all, and a script that can’t even get the details right. For instance, why would Cyrus’ pop star ask a robot with her exact same memories for its opinion? I mean, what the fuck? If you didn’t like the acoustics at a venue, the robot who is you who didn’t like them either.
Apologies for the profanity, but this overly cutesy entry feels like the biggest punt of them all. Somewhere buried within the 67-minute episode is a discussion about replacing pop stars with holograms and mining their memories for new marketable material, but the whole thing is so cartoonish it’s impossible to take any aspect seriously. From stilted dialogue (like, “Catherine, that’s evidence … against you, against Monk. I know everything.”) to a slapdash final escape and chase sequence, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” never finds its footing.
And seriously, what’s up with Rachel? To start the episode, her problem is that she doesn’t have any friends and lacks the confidence to find them. Then, she meets the robot version of Ashley and works up the nerve to go to the talent show — but she falls down, gets embarrassed, and… that’s it? Sure, she helps save Ashley from her evil aunt, but she’s still just sitting alone in the audience at the end of the hour while her sister plays guitar next to the now-rebellious “Ashley Fucking O.” Is her robot friend supposed to be enough? Because that’s still pretty sad for one of “Black Mirror’s” more ridiculously upbeat endings.
Season 5 Grade: C+
“Black Mirror” Season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.