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‘Black Mirror’ and Technology Are Evolving Together

Season 5 of Netflix’s anthology series hits on advancements in social media, VR, and AI—but as always, the show is at its best when zeroing on the consumers of such accelerating tech

Netflix/Ringer illustration

As technology has evolved, so too has Black Mirror. Such mutual growth is natural: As tech advances—growing more complex and invariably scarier in ways small and large—so must the anthology series’ notions about it. Just as we began to think the Boston Dynamics dog-robots were becoming a little too proficient, along came the Black Mirror episode imagining they were mass-murderers. The Christmastime release of “Bandersnatch” was almost too on-brand: Of course Black Mirror would be the first show to experiment with an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure experience featuring a dizzying number of outcomes.

The underlying problem with “Bandersnatch,” however, was how much the admittedly novel interactivity exposed a weak, underdeveloped story. Between making the main character jump off a building or karate kick his father in the balls, it was hard to emotionally invest in the episode’s narrative, as the whole endeavor revealed itself to be a cool gimmick weighted down by dumb ideas. In the end, the series had been seduced by a new form of technology made available by Netflix’s digital platform. Congratulations, Black Mirror, you played yourself.

For fans hoping Black Mirror would move on from “Bandersnatch” to eschew style in service of more compelling, character-driven stories—the kind that mark the show’s high points, episodes like “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back”—the three episodes of the newly released fifth season are a welcome course correction. While the level of quality among the three episodes diverges greatly—one of them, at an overstuffed 70 minutes, is occasionally unwatchable—all three commendably keep technology on the fringes of their stories. Even when it swings and misses, Black Mirror Season 5 understands the show is at its best not when highlighting new technology, but when exploring how that technology affects the human experience and the ways in which the addictive nature of certain tech could ultimately tear us apart.

The first episode of Season 5, “Striking Vipers,” is among the series’ most ambitious. Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are best friends who’ve drifted apart since their 20s, back when they could bro out and play a Street Fighter–esque video game called Striking Vipers into the night. Danny’s become the poster boy for Bored Suburban Dad, while Karl is a bachelor aimlessly going on dates with younger women, who, much to his dismay, don’t understand his Dennis Rodman references. Danny and Karl rekindle their bromance with the release of the latest edition of Striking Vipers, which is aided by the breakthroughs in VR technology that replicate “all physical sensation.” Soon, the VR-aided bromance becomes a plain old romance, and through their avatars, Danny and Karl start having extremely passionate sex. (Like I said, the episode is ambitious.)

“Striking Vipers” occasionally plays the unexpected romance for laughs. When they break things off, Karl tries to hook up with other VR players online, leading to the immortal line: “I fucked a polar bear, and I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.” But the episode works because it genuinely considers the potential of virtual reality, sexual fluidity, and the ennui of unfulfilling relationships. While the climax of “Striking Vipers” isn’t as openly optimistic as that of “San Junipero,” it also doesn’t succumb to the bleak, tech-centric nihilism that defines most of Black Mirror. In fact, there’s an Easter egg linking “Striking Vipers” to “San Junipero” via TCKR Systems—the company that drives both of these VR experiences—which perhaps implies that the episodes are different sides of the same coin.

Technology as escapism is also the crux of “Smithereens,” a ponderous installment that takes aim at social media addiction. Andrew “Hot Fleabag Priest” Scott plays Chris, a rideshare driver who keeps picking up passengers outside the London headquarters of Smithereens, a social media company with shades of Twitter and Facebook. We learn early on that he’s hoping to kidnap an employee to use as leverage to speak to the company’s founder, Billy Bower (Topher Grace). Naturally, things spiral out of control—first when Chris kidnaps a lowly intern, mistaking him for an executive because he dresses nicely, then when his car stalls in the midst of a getaway.

“Smithereens” is a laborious 70 minutes, most of which is spent on a derivative hostage situation and Chris’s tragicomic attempts to get Bower on the line. We don’t learn why Chris wants to talk with Bower—who, off on a “spiritual retreat” with a messy beard and ponytail, is clearly meant to evoke Twitter founder Jack Dorsey—for a very long stretch of time. Which is a shame, because the central idea at play—how much blame falls on a company for its addictive features versus the personal responsibility a human should have in moderating their addictions—is certainly relevant. Sure, when hundreds of people have incidentally died taking selfies, a cynic can point to Darwinism. But because social media companies with unprecedented digital reach are complicit in the spread of misinformation, the discussion is much more complicated. “Smithereens” has the right idea, grounding its thesis in the story of one particularly distressing character, but in this case, Black Mirror seems to have conflated a longer runtime with weightier ideas.

That isn’t the problem with the third and final episode, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” which juggles a little too much in the space of 67 minutes. There’s a couple of narratives at play, which don’t overlap for a long time: 15-year-old Rachel (Angourie Rice) moves to a new city after her mom’s death and finds solace in the pop star Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) and a robot companion doll called Ashley Too; meanwhile, the actual Ashley wants to break free of her empty-calorie pop songs to pursue other ideas, much to the dismay of her over-controlling managers. Cyrus herself has said that the episode is eerily familiar to her own experiences as a pop star, as she eventually shed her Hannah Montana persona for other, more mature pursuits.

Perhaps because Cyrus is such a big name, Ashley gets a good chunk of the spotlight in the episode. But the focus on Ashley is a disservice to Rachel—and her older sister, Jack, (Madison Davenport), who’s taken to punk rock and sardonic comments to cope with their mother’s death—who is a more sympathetic and compelling figure. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” arrives at an inflection point for pop stars like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Ariana Grande, who have leveraged their celebrity for seeming independence while dominating cultural discourse. But coming off the heels of celebrated films like A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, Her Smell, and Teen Spirit, which all delve into the harsh, destructive world of music stardom, the episode’s ruminations on artistic autonomy seem thin, where harder focus on the consumers of such artistic expressions might not have.

The intersection of technology and how people choose to wield it will always provide Black Mirror with new material to work with. The show isn’t impervious to misses—“Smithereens” certainly belongs in that category—but its batting average is high enough that most viewers would concede that the good more often than not outweighs the bad. That’s mostly how this trio of episodes can be characterized. By grounding the scope of its technology—none of which approaches any of the series’ conceptual highs, like the futuristic dystopia of “Fifteen Million Merits”—Season 5 of Black Mirror places its characters front and center. If that isn’t your cup of tea, well, there’s still more than a trillion “Bandersnatch” story combinations available for your perusal.