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Josh Reviews Season Five of Black Mirror

I think the first six episodes of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s haunting anthology series that explores the many (mostly negative) ways in which technology has and will continue to affect our lives, are a triumph of television.  I love all six of those original UK-produced episodes.  I’m thrilled that the series has found a new life on Netflix, and I’ve quite enjoyed the new Netflix episodes as well, even though I’ve fallen a bit behind on the show.  (There is so much great TV being made these days, it’s hard to keep up!)  I thought that Bandersnatch, the 2018 Black Mirror special that utilized a choose-your-own-adventure type interface to create an interactive experience with the viewer at home, was spectacular.  I’ve recently caught up with the three new episodes released this past summer, and they’re all strong new installments of the series.

Striking Vipers Anthony Mackie (who plays the Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) stars as Danny, who has a comfortable suburban life with his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and their young son.  Danny is reunited at his birthday party with his old friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played Black Manta in Aquaman and is also part of the cast of HBO’s new Watchmen series), who gives him a new video game as a birthday present.  The game is Striking Vipers X, a new virtual reality version of the fighting game the two used to play when they were young.  Now the two can actually inhabit the characters they used to play on a screen: Danny as the buff Lance and Karl as the hyper-sexualized Roxette.  With the VR world, Danny and Karl start having sex in the form of their characters.  The intense sensation of sex within the game begins to make everything else in their real lives feel lesser, and Danny and Karl struggle differently with how to respond.

Striking Vipers was wrenching to watch.  Despite the fantastical aspect of the VR video game, this is a pretty grounded story about a marriage in trouble and two men questioning their sexuality.  The actors are all very strong.  The lead trio of Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole Beharie are all terrific, and bring so much humanity to this story.  It was painful watching them all suffer.  This was the hardest-to-watch episode of this trio of new episodes, because the drama felt so real to me.

The depiction of the video-game world come to life in the Striking Vipers game was amazing, a perfect extrapolation of what one of those classic street-fighting video games would look like in the virtual world.  The visuals were very cool.  Pom Klementieff (Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) was terrific as Roxette; she really nailed a moment in which she, as Karl, tries to explain to Danny, as Lance, what it’s like for him to experience sex while in a woman’s body.

The idea that someone could easily start to find a virtual world more exciting than real life is not a hugely original notion, but this episode does a great job of exploring that idea. The added issue of both Danny and Karl questioning their sexuality was an interesting extra layer.  I wish the show had gone even farther to allow us to see more of Karl’s life in particular outside the game, once he started discovering this aspect of himself.

As has consistently been the case for Black Mirror, the episode looks terrific.  I love how this episode is 99% set in our recognizable real world, with just a few small touches (like everyone’s cool-looking phones) to remind us that this is set in the near-future.

The ending was interesting.  I guess this is what passes for a happy ending in the Black Mirror world?  All of the characters seemed to get at least some of what they wanted, though to me as an audience member this was a sad ending, as the connections between our three main characters seemed to be pulled apart.

Smithereens Andrew Scott (Moriarty on Sherlock and, more recently, the hot priest on Fleabag) plays Chris, a disturbed rideshare app driver in London.  He is looking to kidnap someone who works for Smithereens, an enormous Facebook/Twitter-like internet/social media company.  He winds up kidnapping a young Smithereens intern, Jaden (Damson Idris), setting off an escalating hostage crisis in the English countryside.  Chris demands that he speak to the head of Smithereens, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), or he will kill Jaden.

This is a rare Black Mirror episode given a specific date (2018) and without any beyond-our-time technological advance as part of the story.  Nevertheless, the episode’s story is still centered on technology, as it is all about the effect of social media on our lives.  Checking his phone after getting a ding for a Smithereens app notification (of the style we all get on our phones from various apps) changed Chris’ life forever.  We also see how much access the Smithereens company has to the details of the lives of Chris and Jaden and everyone who uses their app, allowing them to be far ahead of the British police in their investigation of the hostage crisis.  And the social media posts of the kids watching the crisis unfold wind up causing a dramatic turn of events late in the story.

Andrew Scott is spectacular as always as the unhinged but sympathetic Chris.  Mr. Scott is able to be very funny and also very scary, all at the same time.  It’s a tremendous performance and it elevates this episode even above and beyond its sharp script.  I’ve never seen Damson Idris before, but he’s terrific as the unfortunate kid who gets kidnapped by Chris.  I’ll be paying attention to his work in the future.  And Topher Grace (That 70’s Show, Spider-Man 3, BlacKkKlansman) is a hoot as the super-wealthy Smithereens CEO Billy Bauer.  Our first glimpse of Billy Bauer (meditating inside a glass structure on his ten-day tech retreat) sets him up to be a joke of a super-wealthy, out of touch buffoon, but Mr. Grace’s Billy winds up being surprisingly empathetic.  (In some ways, he’s as lost as Chris is, which is an interesting subtext to the episode.)

I thought this was a terrific episode and the standout of this strong trio of episodes… except for the very end in which they annoyingly don’t tell us what happened to Chris and Jaden after the shoot-out!  For what reason did they withhold that information?  After following these characters through this extended (hour and ten minutes) episode, I was very irritated they didn’t give us a better resolution.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too — Angourie Rice (Betty Brant in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home) plays Rachel, a young girl whose single dad has recently moved her and her sister to a new town and a new school.  Rachel seems like a nice, normal girl, but she feels isolated and lonely in her new town, and we can understand that there’s underlying grief over the death of her mother lying over the family.  Rachel is a big fan of pop star Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and receives for her birthday an Ashley Too doll, which is a cute little robot that has an aspect of Ashley O’s real personality encoded onto an AI that can interact with the people who buy it.  Rachel begins bonding closely with her Ashley Too, to the concern of her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) who thinks Rachel is running away from real life.  Meanwhile, we also get to see some of Ashley O’s actual life, and her growing unhappiness at feeling controlled and medicated by her aunt and manager Catherine (Susan Pourfar).

The first half of this episode unfolded in an interesting but not unexpected manner.  It was fascinating to see the parallel stories of two unhappy young women, Ashley O herself and the girl Rachel who idolized her.  On top of that, of course, we had the growing dread that something sinister might happen with the Ashley Too AI doll (and, perhaps also with Rachel and Jack’s father’s work trying to use technology to literally build a better mouse trap).

The second half takes a turn into truly bonkers territory, with Catherine drugging Ashley so that she can control her and use mind-reading technology to pull her songs out of her brain, while Ashley Too turns out to have Ashley O’s entire personality encoded within her so that, once this personality is released by Rachel and Jack, she turns into a tiny robotic perfect replica of the real Ashley.  This is far sillier and more ridiculous than Black Mirror has ever gotten before, but somehow it all works, because the girls’ adventure with the tiny Ashley Too is so much fun!  It really shouldn’t work, but it does.  It all winds up in probably the happiest ending we’ve ever gotten on Black Mirror.  It’s a preposterous, wish-fulfillment ending (Jack playing guitar next to Ashley is absurd), but it’s all so much fun I really can’t complain.

The two main girls, Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport, are both terrific.  I was also extremely impressed by Miley Cyrus’ work as Ashley!  She obviously knows a thing or two about being a young woman navigating the vipers in the music and entertainment industry.  This is clever casting, and Ms. Cyrus steps up and delivers a very strong performance.

The Ashley Too doll (with a design very reminiscent of EVE from Wall-E) was very memorable!  I loved the “real Ashley” version of this little robot that we got in the episode’s second half.

This was a very strong new batch of episodes!  I love that these three episodes were each so different from one another.  I really enjoyed all three, it’s hard to pick a favorite!

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