Is the fifth season of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror "Black Mirror" enough? Which episode is the most "Black Mirror"? Does the show live up to its own past? Here's our take on the show's trademark flavor - and what season 5 is saying about today.
How Black Mirror is Season Five?
It’s hard to think of any other TV series with as recognizable a tone as Black Mirror. When you slip into a Black Mirror episode you instantly feel it: it’s bleak, tech-saturated, infused with subtle foreboding -- though with a down-to-earth, familiar, not hyper-dramatic feel. It looks like our world, but something’s off, slanted. Answers are withheld from us, and as multiple twists and turns unfold in the story, we feel as if we receive the answer to the question or thought experiment that’s being posed through the dramatic scenario.
As creator Charlie Brooker once put it, “Black Mirror is a flavor.” In his words, “it’s like a box of chocolates in terms of variety, but they’re all dark chocolates.” This identity is so distinctive that, in a way, the show itself faces the challenge of living up to its own past -- of continuing to be “Black Mirror” enough. Each new episode is judged based on how well it captures that specific something that felt so original and particular about “White Christmas,” “15 Million Merits,” “The Entire History of You,” and so many others.
So...how “Black Mirror” is season five?
In our “How to Spot the Twists” video we laid out a blueprint of common patterns in this series which can actually help you predict where an episode is going. So now we’re going to use those rules to determine how well season five’s three installments channel the show’s special recipe -- and in the end we’ll decide which episode is the most Black Mirror.
Episode 1: Striking Vipers
One guideline we outlined in our Twists video is: watch for repetitions. If a Black Mirror episodes keeps returning to a key detail, pay attention -- because this just might unlock where the story is going. In Season 5’s first episode, “Striking Vipers,” a central theme keeps resurfacing: role-play. It’s highlighted in the opening scene,
“You here by yourself?” - Danny in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
“So far.” -Theo in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
“Oh. It's a shame. A pretty girl like you” - Danny in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
As young couple Theo and Danny connect through pretending to be strangers. After the episode flashes forward 11 years, the story transitions into portraying a different kind of role-play that’s a fixture in our society -- numbly performing the part of the “responsible adult.” We get recurring hints that our now “adult” couple continue to be drawn to strangers… like this shot of Danny looking out the window at a random woman, Theo observing a couple’s public display of passion, and her temptation when a stranger makes a pass at her.
The magnetic appeal of the stranger here might remind us of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on the surpiring connection between the erotic and the anonymous. In that movie, an upper-class husband and wife who appear like the perfect couple both harbor secret fantasies of sleeping with other people. In “Striking Vipers,” though, the ultimate exciting taboo isn’t sex with a stranger, but with a friend. Danny and his best friend Karl discover a potent connection, but only when they’re outside their own bodies, role-playing (via virtual reality) other people. So the nuanced insight that comes through in this repetitive emphasis on “role-play” is that -- even if one of the problems of modern adult life is that we’re constantly pretending -- pretending also seems to be the solution to holding on to our passion. Mysteriously, the episode seems to suggest romantic excitement depends on this sense of escapism, and not feeling like ourselves.
Another guideline in our Twists video is to “focus on the people, not the tech.” We might get fearful when -- like so many Black Mirror characters before them -- Danny and Karl stick something in their temples. But the story isn’t about this game; it’s about the players. The video game is not creating a new need between Danny and Karl, it’s an outlet for a connection that was already between them, but they didn’t know how to express before,
“I tried it with real players. Other folks controlling Lance. But it didn't get me. It didn't get me, not like when we're in there” - Karl in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
Brooker has said that the episode is about, quote, “male friendship and the issues that men may have communicating with each other.” And he also said one of his inspirations was the, quote, “homoerotic nature” of fighting games like Tekken. This is underlined by the phallic name of the video game, “Striking Vipers” and the way that multiple scenes blur the line between fighting and sexual urges. So the episode gets us thinking about male intimacy and whether men’s passion for sports or other violent outlets reveal a desire to connect more deeply than socially accepted behavior allows. On some level the story is exploring the passion we have for our friends and how they may be the greatest loves of our lives. If we met them in a physical form that we found sexually attractive, these buried feelings might be expressed more dramatically.
When Karl comes to Danny’s barbecue and says,
“Oh, wow, handshake? What am I, like, infected or something? - Karl in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
This line might remind us of our rule to “Notice the things that seem off or disproportionate. Don’t brush them off.” Why does Karl use this sharp word “infected” - is there some kind of disease that these men are afraid of catching?
There's a fear of expressing their full feeling for each other, fear that it puts them into a category they're not comfortable with. But what's interesting and has a satisfying "Black Mirror" complexity about their connection is that it can't be defined by any common label. It might remind us of the series' other most iconic romances which also involve elements of virtual reality or digital copies of consciousness -- things that make us tempted to say "this isn't real" -- when in fact the episode is speaking to the way technology could increasingly become the most effective outlet for our realest emotions and sensations.
“Striking Vipers” raises the question of whether the two men are discovering homosexuality or whether it’s just about the virtual reality game -- but in typical Black Mirror fashion, the episode veers away from simple binary answers and instead gives us a more complicated explanation. Brooker himself said, quote, “Is it a homosexual relationship? In some ways it is, and in others it absolutely isn’t.” The episode channels Black Mirror at its best through the payoff. At Danny and Theo’s anniversary dinner, Theo describes commitment as sacrifice,
“It's part of being in a partnership, you shut the door on all that shit. You shut it out because you have committed. It's what a commitment is” - Theo in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Striking Vipers)
This suggests that Danny is going to have to give up either A) his video game romance or B) his marriage. But in the end there’s an option C -- he and Theo give each other a free pass to pencil in time for the passion that makes them feel alive. This ending is a surprising third path, just as the episode’s layered, ambiguous answer about whether Danny and Karl are in love stays with us more than a straightforward yes or no. And it’s spiritually bleak in a fitting “Black Mirror” way - representing the compromise of being an adult -- a conclusion that’s very sad, but which also captures something very true about our modern lives.
Episode 2: Smithereens
In “Smithereens,” once again the repetitions here are key clues helping us anticipate what’s coming:
“Is that where you work, where I picked you up? - Christopher in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Smithereens)
“At Smithereen?” - Woman passenger in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Smithereens)
“Do you work in that place?” - Christopher in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Smithereens)
“Smithereen?” - Jaden in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Smithereens)
But the biggest rule that leaps to mind is don’t trust your main character. Black Mirror protagonists are usually hiding something from us. Here, not trusting is easy because it seems clear from the outset that there’s something wrong with Christopher -- from his shifty eyes and awkward interactions with passengers, to the fact that he’s eager to drive employees of this place called “Smithereen” and a little too interested in it. And the way that he doesn’t share in his support group. At times, “Smithereens” feels like a Black Mirror spin on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Like in Taxi Driver, there’s a tension because the structure of the episode kind of forces us to identify with this questionable character, but our instincts resist this identification. Still, as in season three’s “Shut Up and Dance,” we’re kept in the dark about what exactly is driving our main character until late in the episode. So in classic Black Mirror fashion, the secrets come from within us (or the person we're identifying with).
In our twists video we advised you to look out for red herrings that are there to throw you off. Here, the way that the episode encourages us to distrust our main character is a red herring. This leads to our first twist -- that Chris is not a villain, but a victim. We start to put together the pieces that -- given Chris’s insistence on speaking to Billy Bauer -- maybe this guy is the one who violated Chris in some way. But something is still off -- it’s hard to see how the founder of this tech company is connected to the car accident Chris was apparently the victim of. So the next twist is that -- even though the drunk driver was officially at fault -- Chris in fact caused the crash, because he was looking at his phone. So it turns out that Billy was in some sense the villain or to blame for doing something to Chris -- but not in the big, personal, specific way we expect. Only in the small, everyday, universal way that social media victimizes all of us daily, by addicting us, clamoring for our attention, to suck up our time with meaningless nothings.
To avoid getting distracted by all the red herrings along the way, as we talked about in our twists video, we have to try to zero in on the thought experiment at the center of the episode. “Smithereens” gives subtle hints that it’s going to be about the destructive power of our social media addiction through its emphasis on the way technology overtakes and mediates the social interactions we see. Christopher is a driver for an Uber-like ride share app. He sits in a cafe and can’t stand the sight of everyone on their phones. He criticizes Jaden for being so wrapped up in his phone that he didn’t notice he was being driven out to the middle of nowhere.
The small yet insidious way that Billy has violated Chris connects to the episode’s title, “smithereens” -- a word meaning fragments or bits, which we most often hear in the expression “blown to smithereens.” It’s significant that the Twitter or Facebook-like company at the center of the story is called “Smithereen” singular (a word that you don’t actually hear in common usage, since smithereens is a plural noun). This highlights the thematic interest of this episode -- technology is leaving us fragmented. The story following Chris captures what this feels like for each of us as individuals -- as we’re each isolated, turned into one lonely smithereen -- something that should only exist in the plural. Watching this episode we might think of our rule: look at the people, not the tech. Black Mirror usually makes the point that the problems in our technology, come from the humans who design it and use it in ways that reflect our most sinister motivations. Here that’s the case, too. But this episode has a slightly different takeaway, as it underscores that we can’t really blame ourselves for what we do “under the influence” of our phones. The technology is now so addictive that social media is essentially our society’s new substance abuse problem. It’s intentional that this episode connects using a phone while driving to drunk driving -- and according to the Brain Injury Society, texting while driving is basically equivalent to getting behind the wheel after drinking 4 beers.
This episode is grappling with the question of who’s to blame for our tech addiction problem -- every twist invites us to guess who’s going to be the villain or victim here. Yet the “answer” to this blame question is appropriately unsatisfying -- there are people at fault but it’s impossible to really hold them responsible, as so many are complicit. In Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer, Brooker carefully avoided the easy caricature of the tech founder as a shallow bad guy-- although he did say the idea of Billy being on a silent retreat came from the story that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey did exactly that. Overall, Billy is portrayed as a sympathetic figure who’s out of his depth and can’t reign in the monster of his own making. At one point Billy compares himself to God,
“Tipi, really the only good thing about my position is every once in a while I get to invoke God-mode” - Billy in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Smithereens)
But this God has no real control anymore, reminding us that there is no savior who can rescue us from this situation. We’re too far gone in our addiction. The other important rule to keep in mind for Smithereens is to ask: where’s the humanity? Black Mirror usually warns us to be wary of our tech-driven world and start valuing each other more. But “Smithereens” tells us it may be too late for human empathy to make much of a difference. Christopher adored his fiancee, but his addiction to his phone made him her inadvertent killer. Billy’s attempt to relate to Christopher is futile. Jaden leans into his humanity when he chooses to stay in the car and try to talk Christopher out of committing suicide. But this ends in shots fired at the car, implying that probably Christopher, or possibly both men, don’t survive.
And the ending montage shows people getting a notification about what happened, as we hear the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Brooker said that this scene was about how, quote, “this massive drama — this most important day in several people’s lives — was reduced to ephemeral confetti that just passes us by.” So in other words, this really important event is just another “smithereen” vying for attention along with the latest cute photo of a dog. Which forces us to wonder, how much of our humanity have we already lost when this profound human suffering no longer touches us? “Smithereens” is the rare Black Mirror episode set in a world that feels pretty much like our present day, with today’s or near-future technology. Thus this episode is a warning: maybe our world has now passed a tipping point and become Black Mirror. Our technology usage has already gotten to a place of being seriously creepy. We are living in this cautionary tale, and the scary future this show has been depicting for five seasons is fast becoming our present.
Episode 3: Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too
Notice what seems “off” in each episode -- don’t brush it off -- as this is a hint the show is giving us. In “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” we immediately get a strange feeling from Ashley’s aunt Catherine. You could rush to explain away Catherine’s dismissing Ashley’s true artistic persona as no more than the expected cynicism of the savvy businesswoman. But the “off” feeling we pick up on is revealed to be more than justified,
“I powdered your pill stash and put it in your food” - Catherine in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too)
This reveal is the first twist. But, we should know that more twists are coming. The Ashley Too doll tells the girls that it needs their help gathering evidence against Catherine, only to pull the plug on Ashley instead. And, in the final twist, Ashley wakes up after all. So this episode lives up to the Black Mirror promise of multiple turns to the story. The key rule for this episode is don’t buy into the social hierarchy -- question the values. Here, we’re meant to focus on the values of our culture of fandom. Brooker has said he was inspired by star Miley Cyrus’s real-life experience doing a cameo with an act aimed at an older demographic. He said, quote, "she went on stage and looked out into this massive auditorium and no-one was filming it on a phone, they’re all looking at her, and she hadn’t seen that for about ten years, it was just like a sea of human faces and that had affected her quite a bit.”
So this reminds us that fans often aren’t really seeing this person they claim to love so much. The story here has a number of eerie parallels to the Free Britney movement. The Ashley Too doll and the giant hologram at the end are two fake versions of Ashley that people get to connect with, never knowing the real Ashley. And we too may be using our favorite performers, demanding that they fit our image of them -- just as the “limiter” on the Ashley Too doll ensures that fans interact only with the fake, sunny persona the star uses in press conferences. In recent years we’ve seen the hologram trend take off with late artists like Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston. Brooker has said, quote, “It’s notable that a lot of these people who are being regurgitated by the industry as holograms are people who met very tragic circumstances, and you feel that the industry possibly hasn’t looked after them correctly.” The episode suggests that audiences want someone who doesn’t show any messy complexity or genuine emotion -- essentially, an artist who isn’t really human.
“Never exhausted, never sick, always pitch perfect, bringing her A-game” - Catherine in Black Mirror, Season 5 (Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too)
Even at the end of the episode, when Ashley is finally free to perform the kind of music she wants to, it’s in a smaller venue -- so Catherine was right that this kind of honest material isn’t as appealing to a mainstream audience. The two sisters are also mirrors of the two sides of Ashley. Jack is the dark, angry internal self who’s in pain and likes alternative music. Rachel is the sweet, people-pleasing self that aligns with Ashley’s public persona. Rachel, Jack, and Ashley are all motherless young women. The episode shows how when a parent is absent, the art and celebrities we idolize can take a central role in raising us.
Yet there’s an interesting critique here of our culture’s assumption that positivity and wholesome empowerment messages are good for young people. Rachel eats up the empty, sugar-coated platitudes that Ashley Too feeds her. But the doll’s simplistic advice, applied to a harsh high school environment, just leads Rachel to embarrass herself and feel cut off from actual other students. For both sisters, and for Ashley, what really helps them is communicating with their dark feelings, finding outlets to express what’s raw and real, even if this isn’t what most of the consuming audience wants to hear, this is the true human value that the arts can offer.
So the message here fits very much with the Black Mirror rule that we should always ask “Where’s the humanity?” In the end of this episode, humanity is restored, and while the ticket sales are down, these teens have learned to process and work through their pain. While the set-up of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is very Black Mirror, there’s not a big payoff that offers a surprising answer to the “question” at hand -- it’s pretty clear to see who the villain is and where the message is going. And the episode’s sunny, unambiguous conclusion lacks the dread, creepiness and uncertainty that tends to be present, at least subtly, even in installments with happy endings.
Taking all this together, we’d say “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is the least Black Mirror of season 5’s episodes. And our selection for the most Black Mirror episode is, drumroll please, “Smithereens.” Episode 2 not only puts into practice the most of our “black mirror” rules and embodies the Black Mirror tone in characteristic ways, but it also lives up to the show’s promise in a new way -- by revealing that no futuristic sci-fi embellishments are needed to make our present day look like a dystopia. In “Smithereens,” the mirror isn’t black anymore, it’s just a mirror.
The throughline in all three episodes is addiction or obsession. And the undercurrent of that obsession is loneliness -- as underlined by the song in the trailer for season 5, “Lonely Feelings.” Notably, all of these episodes feel like they’re in worlds pretty similar to our times. So there’s a message coming through that, already, our current emphasis on tech-enabled communication is making many people feel horribly disconnected and alone. Ultimately, while it’s important to channel that classic Black Mirror magic, this series is at its best when it also tries new things to surprise us, to question our assumptions, and to remind us to look before we leap. In this season, the central thought-experiment did that, by asking the scariest question of all: what if we’re already in Black Mirror?
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Stern, Marlow. “Inside ‘Black Mirror’s’ First Porn Episode: ‘It’s a Sexual Playground.’” The Daily Beast, 5 June 2019.
Hibberd, Janmes. “Black Mirror creator explains that 'Smithereens' ending.” Entertainment Weekly, 5 June 2019.
Masters, Jacob. “Texting While Driving Vs. Drunk Driving: Which Is More Dangerous.” Brain Injury Society, 27 Oct. 2013.
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