Black Mirror season Five review
Image: Graham Bartholomew/Netflix

Black Mirror Season Five review – has the show’s formula been overused?

Black Mirror always puts me on edge. After spending a few hours binge watching the latest season, I felt uneasy. I had to watch a rom-com to remind myself that the world can be a happy place.

I didn’t enjoy watching season Five of Black Mirror, but I suppose that’s the point. It’s a series renowned for its disturbing portrayal of modern society. It can be strange, it can be gripping, and there are episodes that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. But Black Mirror has had as many forgettable storylines as powerful ones, and a lot of the plots have left me downright confused. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has headed straight to Google at the end of an episode, trying to find answers to: “What actually happened in episode X of Black Mirror?”

Sadly, the Fifth season is not Black Mirror at its best

At its best, Black Mirror is shockingly dark. It takes a simple idea, involving technology, and twists it into something horrific. The first episode of the first season saw the Prime Minister forced to have sex with a pig. Bizarre, but shocking and utterly memorable. It’s horrible to watch, but you can’t stop watching.

Sadly, the Fifth season is not Black Mirror at its best. It’s not at its worst, either, but I think the words ‘fine’ and ‘not bad’ sum up how I feel about the season as a whole. For a show that intends to disturb and shock its audience, that’s not a great reaction.

I will say that, immediately after watching the season, I felt unsettled. There’s little light relief in Black Mirror, and this season is no different. But a few weeks after watching it, I don’t think any of the episodes have had an impact. I actually struggled to remind myself of their plots before writing this article. As the GQ review puts it, Black Mirror might have “run out of ideas.”

But perhaps it’s not the ideas that are the problem. Maybe we’ve simply got used to Black Mirror’s formula and are bored now it’s in its fifth season. Even Charlie Brooker must be exhausted with all the gloom about technology.

Immediately after watching the season, I felt unsettled

Individually, each episode has a distinctive tone and idea. The first, ‘Striking Vipers’, is an interesting exploration of gender and sexual fluidity. The central plot focuses on two friends who decide to play video game. Within the virtual world, the men, Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are transformed into different characters – a man and woman. The sexual chemistry between them becomes clear, and a single kiss soon turns into sex. And a lot of it.

This causes rife in the men’s real lives. Both question their sexuality, and it creates distance between Danny and his family. Neither can forget about the incredible sex they have in the virtual world.

The idea sounds pretty tasteless, and it could have been a disaster, considering how much of it revolves around sex. But there is a tenderness to the episode, thanks to some strong performances by Mackie and Abdul-Mateen. In an age in which toxic masculinity is such an issue, its exploration of male friendship and sexuality is important. And, in typical Black Mirror style, it blurs the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds.

In an age in which toxic masculinity is such an issue, its exploration of male friendship and sexuality is important

There are a lot of interesting subtleties within ‘Striking Vipers’, but it lacks tension and there’s little drive in the plot. I enjoyed watching it to begin with, but I found myself getting slightly bored and reaching for my phone halfway through.

‘Striking Vipers’ has got the best reviews from a number of critics, but I preferred the second episode, ‘Smithereens’, because it felt the most real – an urgent warning, rather than a musing on the future.

The episode is actually set in the past – in 2018. It focuses on a grieving man, brilliantly played by Andrew Scott, who kidnaps an intern whilst posing as a taxi driver. Going into too much detail about the plot would spoil it, but I will say that it’s a powerful exploration of the dangers of social media.

The episode has the tension that ‘Striking Vipers’ lacks, which made it a gripping watch. But it’s missing the nuances and subtleties of the first episode. Once again, it relies on the strong performance of the actors to give it its psychological depth.

It’s a powerful exploration of the dangers of social media

Unlike when I was watching ‘Striking Vipers’, it did make me feel guilty for relying so much on social media and my phone, which I turned off to watch the episode. Having said that, my digital detox didn’t last very long. The inconclusive end made me rush straight to Twitter to see what others thought had happened – I’m still not quite sure.

The third episode is the least acclaimed, but possibly the most talked about because it stars Miley Cyrus. ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ centres on Rachel, a teenage girl who is obsessed with a pop star, Ashley. She gets given a doll, Ashley Too, who mimics the singer and becomes a ‘friend’ to Rachel. The subplot follows the real Ashley, who is being controlled by the industry and forced to perform as a distortedly innocent version of herself.

When Ashley refuses to conform, her aunt puts an overdose of drugs in her food and she winds up in a coma. Rachel, her sister and the Ashley Too doll go on a mission to save their favourite celebrity.

It’s missing the psychological depth of the other episodes

The episode has been compared to a “feel-good teen comedy”, but there are some very dark undertones. Drugs, fame, and teenage vulnerability are all central. I don’t mind the moments of light relief, optimism and attempts at humour, which are uncharacteristic for the series. But it’s missing the psychological depth of the other episodes, and the idea that a teenage superfan swoops in to save a pop sensation seems strained.

It can’t be a coincidence that there are so many parallels to Cyrus’ life and to Hannah Montana. It felt like they had written the episode with Cyrus in mind. Her character is forced to become a ‘Disney-fied’ pop star, when she really wants to paint her eyes in dark makeup and be a rock star. There is some emotional depth to her character, and I thought her performance was fairly believable – but I can’t help but wonder whether it was entirely necessary to hire a famous pop star to play a famous pop star.

There are positives to each episode, but none are particularly striking

The episode is the least nuanced of the three, and we’ll probably have forgotten the plot before long. It will simply be remembered as that Black Mirror episode that Miley Cyrus was in.

There are positives to each episode, but none are particularly striking. They didn’t shock me in the way previous episodes have. Perhaps even Charlie Brooker is clutching at straws in his attempts to explore the horrors of technology. But will I be patiently waiting to see what season Six brings? Absolutely.

Read the review on Black Mirror‘s ‘Bandersnatch

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