Once you first lay eyes on Billy Bauer, it is greater than 40 minutes into “Smithereens,” the primary episode of Black Mirror‘s new season. Bauer, the younger CEO of a social-media platform, has a disaster on his palms. A rideshare driver has taken one in every of his workers hostage, and is demanding to speak to him. Getting maintain of Bauer has been a little bit of a tall order, nonetheless, seeing as how he is on a 10-day silent retreat in the midst of the mountains. When the digital camera lastly lands on him, with unkempt hair and a shaggy kinda-beard, seated in full lotus place, the neon signal flashes much more brightly: HEY, GUYS. GUYS! IT’S JACK DORSEY.
So far as satire goes, it is respectable. Slightly on the nostril, possibly, given the Twitter CEO’s (in)well-known 10-day vipassana retreat in Myanmar, however nonetheless good. There’s only one factor: Dorsey first mentioned his retreat in December 2018, by which level at least part of “Smithereens” had been filmed. In different phrases, present creator Charlie Brooker and govt producer Annabel Jones in all chance plucked Bauer’s imaginative and prescient quest not from the headlines, however from their very own brains—solely to have actuality outpace what would in any other case be a pitch-perfect lampoon of tech-founder sanctimony. Such is the burden of Black Mirror. Greater than seven years after it first debuted, the sci-fi anthology can nonetheless make you chortle (typically), unnerve you (many extra occasions), and even disappoint you (extra on that in a bit). It simply could now not be capable of shock you.
The present’s fifth season, which releases right this moment, consists of solely three episodes, presumably in deference to the outsized calls for of final 12 months’s interactive episode, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. “Smithereens,” which options Andrew Scott because the hostage-taking driver in query and Topher Grace as Bauer, hinges on an acquainted gripe with social media—so acquainted, the truth is, that the episode by no means fairly latches on to the essence of the present it belongs to. Black Mirror‘s finest episodes characteristic both a speculative imaginative and prescient of the long run, a funhouse-mirror distortion of our worst digital selves, or each. “Smithereens,” with its present-day setting and its predictable twist, may as nicely be a well-acted episode of CSI: Cyber. (Scott, who lately confirmed up in Fleabag‘s second season, turns in a shifting, jittery efficiency.)
“Putting Vipers,” the second episode, at the very least tries to bend the thoughts in a brand new course—until you are already uninterested in boy-meets-girl, boy-marries-girl, boy-plays-virtual-reality-fighting-game-with-old-friend-and-ends-up-well-let-me-not-spoil-it-here tales. Black Mirror has handled VR quite a lot of occasions, however by no means has it grappled so frankly with the unprecedented methods digital embodiment can upend the human expertise. Once you’re capable of inhabit a unique physique, what try this physique’s actions imply for the IRL you? Is what occurs in VR actual sufficient to represent infidelity? Can it shift your sexuality, and even gender id? What begins out feeling cartoonish finally ends up legitimately affecting, anchored by stable turns from the episode’s core trio (Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
As has change into more and more the case over the present’s run, the brand new season is studded with references to different Black Mirror episodes. Brooker and Jones like hiding their connected-universe Easter eggs in news crawls, and a momentary shot in “Smithereens” delivers a basket’s value. (Search for nods to in-world staples like recreation developer Saito and sci-fi collection Sea of Tranquility, together with classically Black Mirror trending matters #StJunipersStrike and #snoutrage.) Equally, the VR of “Putting Vipers” comes by the use of TCKR, the expertise firm that drives a lot of the present’s Pandora’s-Boxiest gadgetry, from its chronological starting within the 1980s (Bandersnatch, when it was simply beginning out as Tuckersoft) to its decades-hence future (“San Junipero”).
Peter Rubin writes about media, tradition, and digital actuality for WIRED.
So. This is the half the place you say hey, there are three episodes and you’ve got solely talked about two. This is the half the place you say does not Miley Cyrus present up on this season? This is the half the place you say, I am beginning to get the concept you won’t have a lot good to say about “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” And you would be proper on all three counts. The ultimate episode is … nicely, it is dangerous. The story of a younger teen (Angourie Rice) who receives an Alexa-like cutesy-robot model of her favourite pop star, Ashley (Cyrus), is nominally a warning about music-industry exploitation and inventive empowerment, however merely by no means will get out of hackneyed territory. Most seasons of Black Mirror have, if not an outright clunker, at the very least one episode that falls quick. From its flat villains to its facile allegory to its peek-through-your-fingers closing musical quantity, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is not simply that episode for Season 5—it is that episode for the entire rattling present. (It additionally options what must be probably the most contorted, ill-explained, ooooh-spooky! expertise in Black Mirror historical past.)
However maybe most disappointingly, it is merely not surprising. Of the three, solely “Putting Vipers” delivers what viewers have come to anticipate of Brooker and Jones after 18 episodes and two specials. A few of that’s inescapable, proper? Black Mirror has one of many highest levels of inauspicious on tv. A speculative dark-satire anthology is tough sufficient, not to mention making every episode a bracing extrapolation of one of many some ways individuals have mortgaged their humanity for comfort and narcissism. A stumble was inevitable. Nevertheless it’s arduous to shake the sensation that in Season 5, the difficulty is not inventive selections—it is that wherever we’re headed on this present platform-enabled tailspin, we’re clearly going to get there earlier than Black Mirror does.
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