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Black Mirror season 5 review: Uneven, but still worth a look

We review Netflix's Black Mirror season 5: "Striking Vipers," "Smithereens," and "Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too."

Published onJune 7, 2019

Black Mirror review

Netflix continues to be the home to perhaps one of the best TV shows of all time: Black Mirror. As the spiritual successor to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the sci-fi themed Black Mirror keeps us both entertained and also concerned about the advancements of technology in the world.

Season 5 of Black Mirror just premiered on Netflix, with only three episodes this time round from writer and creator Charlie Brooker. That’s likely because more time was taken with the one-shot interactive special, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, that dropped last December. While this season is shorter, there are still two episodes that are worth watching.

Editor’s note: There are some mild spoilers in each episode review, but we won’t give away everything.

Black Mirror season 5 episode 1 review: Striking Vipers

Black Mirror Season 5 review Striking Vipers

Charlie Brooker used to be a game journalist before he became a TV show creator. Black Mirror has certainly featured episodes that look closely at the future of video gaming — particularly with Season 4’s epic Star Trek homage USS Callister. Striking Vipers isn’t quite as good, but it does have an interesting point of view of how future games could turn into something else for players.

Anthony Mackie (The Falcon in Marvel’s Captain America and Avengers movies) plays Danny, a man who is living a nice, comfortable married life. However, his life changes when his old friend Karl, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Black Manta in Aquaman) shows up for Danny’s birthday party with a gift. It’s Striking Vipers X, the new VR version of the fighting game the two played when they were younger.

The VR headsets are basically the same ones that we saw used in USS Callister, where you just place an implant on the side of your head. It allows Danny and Karl to see each other as Striking Vipers characters Lance and Roxette, respectively. They start playing the game as those characters, but after just a few minutes, Karl-Roxette starts to kiss Danny-Lance in the game environment (how the game allows these virtual characters to kiss each other, and apparently do other things, is never explained).

The two men in the real world break off the game quickly, but we see that they cannot keep their controllers, and their virtual bodies, away from each other for each other and keep going back every night to “play the game.” It starts to affect their relationships in the real world, and it all comes down to a final confrontation between Danny and Karl, with no controllers or VR, in a polar opposite (some might even say a “mirror”) of their game experience.

Striking Vipers shows how the next level of gaming could easily turn into an even bigger distraction than it already is for people right now.

The idea of using people using virtual characters to be intimate with each other in a game-life environmental is nothing new, but Striking Vipers shows how the next level of gaming could easily turn into an even bigger distraction than it already is for people right now. The performances in this episode are also excellent all around, including by Pom Klementieff (Roxette) and Ludi Lin (Lance) in the game sequences.

Black Mirror season 5 episode 2 review: Smithereens

Black Mirror Season 5 review Smithereens

This is the longest episode (70 minutes) and perhaps the best episode of this shorter season. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) plays Chris, a driver for an Uber-like ride share company. He picks up who he thinks is a high-profile executive at a company called Smithereen. Chris kidnaps the man, played by Damson Idris, but we don’t know why at first. Chris then learns that the man he thought was a Smithereen executive is just an intern on his first week on the job.

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This episode takes its time in its storytelling and doesn’t reveal why Chris has become a kidnapper for a while. This story turns into a pretty tense hostage drama for much of the episode, but it ends as we learn what the company Smithereen is actually all about, and why Chris is apparently so mad at this business and the people who work there.

Without giving too much away, Smithereens, like many of Black Mirror’s best episodes, shows us the dark side of  social media. Companies like Facebook and Twitter certainly have to take a certain amount of responsibility for their actions, but this episode shows individuals have to take control of using social media as well. Scott is perfectly cast as the kidnapper with a dark secret, and Topher Grace also has a role to play in this episode that we won’t spoil here. Also, the ending is not exactly neat and tidy.

Black Mirror season 5 episode 3 review: Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Black Mirror Season Five review

This episode has already been called one of the worst in the history of Black Mirror, but it’s not quite as bad as you might believe from the reviews. The biggest draw is casting Miley Cyrus. She plays Ashley O, a pop singer not unlike the persona that Cyrus has in her real music career. She is seen expanding her influence by launching a small AI robot product, Ashley Too. It’s meant to be sold to young girls as a companion, and it is supposed to be programmed with Ashley O’s personality.

This episode tells a couple of stories. One is about Ashley O. She is struggling to break away from her current pop singer life, but she has a rather controlling aunt who doesn’t want to kill the golden goose that has been Ashley O’s life. The other story centers on Rachel, a teenager played by Angourie Rice. She gets an Ashley Too robot for her birthday, but her sister Jack doesn’t like how much influence the AI is having on Rachel.

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The episode does take a while to get going; it only starts getting interesting just after the halfway point. Ashley O is put into a coma via drugs by her aunt, telling the authorities that she had a bad allergic reaction to shellfish. However, a new technology allows her aunt to extract songs in Ashley O’s brain, even while she is in a coma, so her career can continue. Rachel’s Ashley Too robot sees a news report on her real alter ego’s coma, goes berserk, and  shuts down. Jack manages to reboot the robot, only to discover that Ashley Too actually has all of the real Ashley O’s memory.

Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too falls apart in the last third when it turns into an odd sort of kids adventure movie.

It’s actually quite fun to see a version of a cute toy robot have a life of its own, and with Miley Cyrus’ voice to boot. However, the episode falls apart in the last third as it turns into an odd sort of kids adventure movie, with Rachel and Jack try to help Ashley Too assist the real Ashley O. 

There are a few themes at play here: how AI could evolve to include real human brains, along with a comment on the growing use of holograms in live entertainment. There are also some shots at how some performers may feel forced to stay in one lane in their career. Ultimately, the episode turns into a mash of ideas that don’t quite gel into a cohesive narrative. There’s still some enjoyment in watching the performance by Cyrus as Ashley O, and with her voice as Ashley Too.

What’d you think of Black Mirror season 5? Let us know in the comments!

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