A Black Mirror binge is much like a religious, or spiritual, experience. Just half a day of storytelling gains the believer new, deeply significant insight. Your nose gets pushed into the best and worst of human nature. The best and worst of yourself. You submissively suspend disbelief to a fantasized time and place, because it’s all so shockingly allegorical and close to your everyday real life experience.
I decided to first do an “overview” of Black Mirror Season 5, then possibly follow it with a few individual reviews of each episode. The newest order of eps dropped this week on Netflix, so I crushed all three yesterday in a single binge. The fog here in New Jersey was extra thick, perfect weather for half a day of Charlie Brooker’s UK/US not too distant future of a mind f***.
I’ll get to specifics in a minute, but casts were stacked this season. All three new eps featured big names: Topher Grace (That 70s Show), Marvel’s Anthony Mackie (Falcon/Spoilers! now Captain America), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman’s Black Manta), and Hannah Montana herself, Miley Cyrus. A clear indicator of how big the Mirror has gotten, Netflix not to go unthanked.
Overall, I am satisfied with S5, but I do have some disappointments that perhaps could have been avoided with more stories in the group.
Before even starting the newest three stories, I was already disappointed that there were just three total: Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too. The last Mirror season to feature three eps was Season 1. S4 had six, 3 had six, even Season 2 had four. Overall, I am satisfied with S5, but I do have some disappointments that perhaps could have been avoided with more stories in the group.
Black Mirror as a whole has become more cinematic. Stylistically, this newer approach has brought a freshness to the storytelling over the past three seasons. Many more episodes are longer than an hour, some even feature length (Hated in the Nation, USS Callister, and every episode of S5). Brooker and his team of producers have all the Netflix money they need for heavy production and A-list stars/actors (Jon Hamm, Topher Grace, Jodie Foster directed one last season, again, Miley f***ing Cyrus!) A newer, more polished flavor has been sprinkled into the Mirror.
But, to me, the newest ones felt less like a season of Black Mirror and more like a series of short films that happened to take place in the Black Mirror universe.
It’s always good creatively to play around within your own creation, avoid doing the same thing over and over again. However, I would say that the show began as a much more tightly written sci-fi anthology series with Twilight Zone twists, whereas now, it’s more like a sci-fi anthology film series. Don’t get me wrong, Black Mirror‘s themes are identical to the first few seasons. We’re still faced with the gritty dark side of technology, of privacy, sex, relationships, the human experience. Yet, it’s more like the twists and turns are along the way, as opposed to the end. Or, as opposed to twists being funneled into a single shocking moment like the older seasons (Shut Up and Dance, White Christmas, The Entire History of You). Your mind breaking in two in those single reveals. The exact sound the mirror itself makes in the series intro to this day.
Now, back to what I mentioned before, on the newest season’s shorter length. It’s fair to say that every season of Black Mirror has had episodes within its grouping that were more cinematic than others (Hated in the Nation). But, if the seasons are longer episodically, with more episodes feeling like TV, I think it strengthens the season. For this reason, I’d say Season 5 suffered a bit, feeling less Black Mirror than possibly ever.
Again, I think all three of our newest eps are good short films that take place in the Mirror universe, so I did really enjoy them. In Striking Vipers, you have Falcon vs. Black Manta (Mackie and Mateen II) duking it out (in more ways than one) in a virtual Mortal Kombat–esque fighting game. The tech side of it is all there. They even use those same Black Mirror universe VR interface attachments you put on your temple (USS Callister, Crocodile). The sex/relationship side of it is there, when the two thus far heteronormative male best friends suddenly become sexually obsessed with one another inside a game. All fascinating, all weird, all Black Mirror. But, there was never much of a dramatic story turn that impacted me the way older ones did.
Smithereens did have a twisty moment with one of its reveals toward the end, but it certainly wasn’t enough to shock. Though, I did really love the hostage taking performance of Andrew Scott as Chris Gillhaney, the sympathetic kidnapper who “will only speak to Billy Bauer.” Bauer is the Mark Zuckerberg level social media CEO played brilliantly by Topher Grace. Strangely, I saw Scott for the first time to memory in this very episode of Black Mirror, and then continued my TV binge into the Amazon Original series, Fleabag, where Scott features prominently in the second season. He was exceptional in Fleabag, but, when I first saw him in Mirror, I was immediately impressed by the amount of humor, believable mania, and genuine frustration this guy combined into a single rant. He monologues about younger people addicted to their phones, and it’s something every young person should be required to watch.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too
This was easily my favorite of the three new Black Mirrors. The performance of the girl playing the main pop star, in particular, really got to me. Then, the credits rolled and I instantly felt both old and then lost control of my emotions. I honestly teared up for a minute reading “Miley Cyrus” in the credits. Hannah Montana and then her pop music were always off my radar, so I didn’t recognize her for a minute of the episode. As I keep saying, all of these newer episodes do feel very much like Black Mirror, and the most Black Mirror of moments all hinged on the performance of America’s Miley Cyrus. I’m not here to spoil today, but good god, does she crush this role of a tormented pop-star.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I want more from Miley Cyrus!
All three new episodes of Black Mirror Season 5 are now available for streaming, only on Netflix.
Tune in right here at C506 for more possible reviews and/or podcast coverage of Black Mirror Season 5 and other nerdy content!