There is superficially so little connection between each episode of Black Mirror that when Andrew Scott (the main star in the new episode Smithereens) asked the producers about the role Miley Cyrus was playing in another episode he was met with blank stares and poker faces. He even left a journalist on a press call unsure as to whether he was actually in the series at all. And there lies the beauty of Black Mirror.
Three new episodes of Black Mirror, released on Netflix on June 5th, tell discrete stories that are nevertheless linked by the way they comment on how social media and the addiction of immersive entertainment interrupt and eventually supplant reality. These episodes are about how human relationships are both created by technology in Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too and Striking Vipers, and upended or destroyed by it – in Striking Vipers too and Smithereens.
While this theme has featured in past seasons, in Season 5 it is illustrated in clearer and more precise terms. Striking Vipers follows Danny and Karl, two close friends who discover surprising chemistry while fighting as avatars in a virtual-reality video game. Their connection in the virtual world jeopardises their relationships with their partners in real life.
Chris, the protagonist of Smithereens (played by Andrew Scott) accidentally kills his fiancée Tamsin by crashing his car when checking a notification on his phone from a social-media network. He then kidnaps one of the company’s employees in an attempt to force Billy Bauer, the CEO, to “have a conversation” about how the addictive control of the platform ruins lives.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too tells two overlapping stories: that of a lonely teenage fan of Ashley O, a purple-haired popstar, who asks for a smart “Ashley Too” doll for her birthday; and that of the real Ashley, abused by her management staff.
Each episode looks at how technology interrupts and intrudes upon daily life. Both Danny and Karl drift through their days at work or with their families in a disconnected haze, until they receive a notification that the other is online and they can slip into their engrossing shared fantasy. By contrast, the AI doll that lonely teenager Rachel is given for her birthday becomes a friend, actually having a positive impact on her real life. The doll Ashley Too convinces her to dance at a school talent show – urging her supportively to “come on!”, “don’t give up!” and “you can do it, Rachel!”
In Smithereens, the strongest episode of the three, Chris blames his addiction to his phone and to social media for the death of his loved one. He watches and rages as all the people around him are glued to their phones, impervious to what they stand to lose. And yet with all his rage he seems lost as to how to carry out his hostage plan properly, clearly feeling intense guilt over his treatment of Jayden the intern, who he knows is just an innocent pawn. Even while armed with a gun and tailed by police, all he wants is a short phone call. Eventually, amid the chaos of the hostage situation, Chris does have a meaningful conversation with the boss of Smithereen (the social-media network in question)—a nervous, emotional but at times light and funny interaction as they bond over how social media has gone beyond their control. The viewer almost forgets that one is a multi-millionaire CEO and the other a deranged gunman.
Dystopias usually end either with an uncertain glimpse of hope, or with a bleak statement of finality. Black Mirror has toyed with both options. San Junipero (an Emmy-award-winning episode from season three) and Hang The DJ (season four) offered a lighter take on what it means to love in a world with technology, while Shut Up and Dance (season three) and White Bear (season two) offer no such promises.
At the end of White Bear the girl evading capture, for whom we have been rooting, is revealed as a murderer and child abductor whose fate is to endure daily psychological torture. The last minutes of those episodes grew darker and darker right up until the credits rolled. But now, though each of these new episodes is dark in its own way, none have the all-encompassing nihilism of earlier seasons. Black Mirror is most effective when it frustrates the viewer, refusing the characters the ending for which they have been striving, and any sense of narrative closure. Though Smithereens ends with a gunshot and no clear victim, Chris gets the catharsis he so desperately wants after talking to Billy Bauer on the phone. “I just wanted to say my piece” he tells Bauer. “Gonna go now.”
In Striking Vipers, Danny manages to salvage his marriage to Theo, and they both make peace with the online chemistry of his friendship with Karl. The story of Ashley and Rachel and Jack is one of self-discovery and connection. In terms of the consequences of technology these all offer a light at the end of the tunnel. But perhaps if Brooker wants us to take heed of his warnings, it would be more effective to deprive the viewer of these satisfactions.