Black Mirror is a frustrating show. For all that it’s touted as award wining and intellectual, and for all that it positions itself as such, it’s a deeply flawed series that does little more than give a surface level criticism of new technologies often with the sophistication of an old man yelling at teenagers to get off his lawn.
For all that it’s frustrating, Black Mirror is not actually a bad series. Especially here in the fifth season, the actors and production values are top notch. It’s also shed the annoyingly reflexively nihilistic endings that plagued the series in the first few seasons, but it hasn’t replace them with anything substantial from a thematic perspective.
The primary problem with the fifth season is simply that’s there’s no bite to it. Of the three episodes two (Striking Vipers / Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too) utilize the virtual reality and mind uploading technology already extensively explored in the show, and the third (Smithereens) has essentially a slightly more advanced version of Facebook. And though not the first episode of the season, it’s the one worth looking at first.
Isn’t it terrible that people spend too much time looking at their dang phones? That is, in a nutshell, the entirety of Smithereens. The plot is about a man who takes hostage an intern at a social media company and demands to speak to the company’s president. It’s suitably tense, but for 95% of the episode’s runtime it’s just that: a tense hostage story that has nothing to do with the technology involved, and doesn’t explore it at all.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Black Mirror: it’s either about technology and kind of boring, or slightly more interesting and not about technology. The series as a whole has a hard time marrying the two into one story: this is not to say it can’t, usually at least one episode a season has managed it, but here in the fifth season none of the three episodes pulls it off.
Smithereens is also a good example of the superficial way Black Mirror explores the tech on display. There are many, many troubling things about social media: the way it disseminates inaccurate news at blistering speed, just how large social media companies have been allowed to become, their business model of collecting and parceling out private data to other companies, the inaccurate sense of lifestyle they portray. Smithereens doesn’t explore any of those, instead opting for complaining about how people spend too much time on their phones.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too
There’s two halves of this story, and either one could be cut. The first follows child pop star Ashley O and her overbearing aunt and manager who uses pressure and drugs and eventually technology to profit from the commercial image and persona of her she’s constructed. The second follows a pair of sisters; one a fan of Ashley O, and the other not. The sisters buy an Ashley Too, a robot imprinted with the mind of the actual Ashley O. When the actual Ashley O is put into a coma by her manager for being too willful and trying to break out of her image, it’s up to the sisters and Ashely Too to save her.
If that second plot sounds suspiciously like one of a young adult novel, you’d not be wrong. It’s a fun, but again does nothing to explore the technology involved. And the first plot is trite and tired by this point: the entertainment industry dehumanizes it’s stars and constructs and commercialize their personality? Mind boggling. Truly groundbreaking.
The episode never moves beyond that tired message, which is unfortunate because there’s the seed of an interesting idea is at play in the episode. The metaphor of Ashely O’s unconscious mind being reaped of song ideas is apt for the overall theme of someone’s authentic identity being hijacked. It should have been explored more though. At one point Ashley Too unplugs the original Ashley O from life support claiming that she wouldn’t want to live that way.
In the episode this action is framed as true to the character, but it could’ve been complicated: maybe the brain scan of Ashley O’s that created Ashley Too is from years before, and who and what Ashley O wants as a person has evolved since then. In that case the unplugging would be Ashley O’s past self trying to dictate her life. All of us change over time, and often our past selves can seem like entirely different people, a thematically more fertile ground to explore than a condemnation of the entertainment industry.
(And while not a major issue, there’s no consideration of the fate of Ashley Too in the ending, a glaring omission considering the Black Museum episode last season that delved into the horrors of being a human mind in a limited body.)
Striking Vipers too has an interesting idea at the heart of it, but doesn’t explore it. The plot follows Danny (played by Anthony Mackie) a married man whose grown bored with the stability his life now has, and his reconnection with his college friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The two begin to play a virtual reality fighting game that quickly devolves into a sexual relationship in the virtual reality where Dany is a man and Karl a woman.
It’s hard to feel like this element of Striking Vipers isn’t simply included to be shocking or salacious. There’s virtually no exploration of what either Danny or Karl, two nominally straight men, think of what’s going on: does Karl grapple with what his gender identity is if he prefers sex as a woman than as a man? Does Danny question his sexual orientation? Do they both view the virtual world as not real? Does Karl learn to accept that he doesn’t have to choose between being a man or woman? That there are aspects of both genders within him? In all of us?
These are all interesting questions the spring from the technology that the episode is purportedly about, but ones that Striking Vipers is completely uninterested in exploring. The technology at the heart of the episode (like so many Black Mirror technologies of the week) is simply not vital to the story the episode is actually telling. Outside of the queer aspects it’s not interested in exploring, the episode could simply be about a bored married man reconnecting with an old friend and entering a sexual relationship that threatens the marriage that he values but has grown bored in.