The best episodes of Black Mirror suggest that familiar technological ideas — things like social networks, artificial intelligence, or gamification — carry with them some sinister, heartbreaking, or alarming possibility for a dystopian future. It’s a series that is known for twistiness: Black Mirror’s anthology episodes often set up a premise and then reveal additional, surprising elements of the story as they go, with each new layer complicating or subverting the initial story.
In its three-episode fifth season, which debuted Wednesday on Netflix, all of Black Mirror’s central impulses are still there. It is telling stories about the possibilities of technology and the unexpected ways tech and humanity intersect. It sets up ideas and then further complicates them as each episode rolls along. But unlike the heights of Black Mirror — like “San Junipero” or “USS Callister” — where stories twist into unexpectedly brutal or tender results and technology’s potential is explored in wrenching ways, the three new episodes of Black Mirror are almost universally dumb.
This is not to say they’re not well-crafted episodes of television, beautifully made and filled with impressive acting. Andrew Scott and Topher Grace are both fantastic in “Smithereens,” respectively portraying a man traumatized by grief and a tech company mogul. The first episode, “Striking Vipers,” features Anthony Mackie as a man in a functional but unsatisfying marriage, a character he makes both restrained and yearning. The final episode, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” has two effective performances by Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport as sisters Rachel and Jack — and notably, compelling work by Miley Cyrus as a disillusioned pop star.
The problem with these episodes is not in their production or their performances. In each episode, but especially “Smithereens” and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” the problem is that instead of an underlying point powering the story’s core, there is almost nothing. “Smithereens” is pointed in the direction of being an indictment of technology’s addictive qualities, but the execution of how that idea plays out — the reveal of the way addiction damages one man’s life — is so blunt and unfocused that it loses the meaningful charge that tech is really the thing causing the problem. It’s not that the story doesn’t work in the way it plays out; phones, it turns out, can be bad in any number of ways. But because “Smithereens” picks the most crude and unspecific way imaginable, it also loses its grip on all the truly alarming, addictive elements of the technology it’s trying to indict. It’s like spotting Godzilla on the horizon, but only worrying that people might trip and fall over some debris Godzilla leaves in its wake. The concern is legitimate, but surely the more interesting story is about the massive, people-gobbling lizard?
Things get even more muddled and pointless in “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” a story about a former teen pop star (Cyrus) who chafes under her management and longs to escape the restraints of her cheerful, girl-empowering, rainbows-and-hearts celebrity image. Without revealing the specifics of this episode’s arc, the general concept is that it seems possible to replace Ashley Q with some digital version of the star, which would eliminate the real Ashley from the equation and allow the celeb persona to live without any reference to what Ashley actually thinks or feels. Not only is this idea one that Black Mirror has already played with in its previous seasons (in episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits” and “Be Right Back”), but those earlier iterations were more thoughtful and more poignant. Here, in the final ten minutes where a typical Black Mirror episode would turn the screws once more to fully hammer home its thesis, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” punts, collapsing entirely into a giant shrug of an ending and a (decent!) Miley Cyrus cover of a Nine Inch Nails song.
Meanwhile, “Striking Vipers” is just as unmotivated as the season’s other two episodes, but the sweetness and tragedy of its two lead characters — two best friends who discover they might love one another in a Brokeback Mountain sort of way — help excuse the episode’s lack of insight into the technological premise it seems to be exploring. The two lead characters, Danny (Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), play one another in a Mortal Kombat-style online game, with one playing as a female character and the other as a male character. They end up kissing rather than fighting. What might it suggest for someone to play as one gender in a digital space, while their gender in the physical space is very different? How might this game — which could transmit physical sensation through one gender to a physical body of a different sex — alter the way one thinks of oneself, or how one sees the world? How do you draw the borders between sexuality in digital spaces and sexuality in physical ones? Black Mirror neither knows nor cares. Like “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” this installment ends without any of the punchiness or sharp insight that characterize Black Mirror’s best stories.
The most interesting character of this season is Grace’s Billy, a tech mogul from a Twitter-like company who is made to consider the dangers of social media addiction. After hearing the sob story of a man irrevocably harmed by his platform, Billy is moved, but then claims that he’s just as trapped by his tech, just as helpless in the face of the giant corporate mechanisms that push the product to invade more and more of its users’ brains. At its most thoughtful and merciless, earlier Black Mirror episodes might have treated this declaration with a sneer. A powerful, wildly privileged mogul can do nothing to stop the thing he has created? Is that actually true? And even if it is true, should his plight earn our empathy? In “Smithereens,” though, those questions remain unanswered. More troublingly, they remain largely unasked. Billy isn’t given a pass, but the episode doesn’t play up his delusion or culpability, either. Instead the whole thing drives toward a dramatic if ambiguous conclusion, ending with a literal bang that cuts off any meaningful ideas lurking under the story’s surface.
Season five of Black Mirror is underwhelming, but that doesn’t mean the show has necessarily lost its keen edge. Before these episodes, the previous installment was the interactive Bandersnatch, which has its flaws but still felt like a story with a strong point of view and a truly innovative storytelling method. If the next handful of Black Mirror stories can return to the care and intensity of Bandersnatch, the show may well right itself. But season five is a mess, and nothing about it suggests that Black Mirror retains its original, unnerving insight into the ever-blurring borders between the digital and the human.