Black Mirror Season 5 Review of Striking Vipers, Smithereens and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too | Fanboys Anonymous
Black Mirror finally returned to our screens on Wednesday, June 5th and the promise of a more hopeful, optimistic future was… sparse. Anyone who has seen the previous four seasons will know that Black Mirror has a history of making you question any seemingly positive new technology, whilst also being able to deliver a gut-wrenching revelation at the drop of a hat. Well, season five is pretty much more of the same. Brooker's promise of a change in approach, a more positive, or at least less negative, view of the future seems to have been a joke at our expense. I'm going to review each of the episodes individually, before trying to piece together an overall narrative, which I think exists within this season.


Striking Vipers

Striking Vipers tells the story of two friends, Danny and Karl, who in their twenties live together, along with Danny's girlfriend Theo. Danny and Karl play a Tekken-like game called Striking Vipers, where Danny regularly plays as 'Lance' and Karl regularly plays as 'Roxette'. 11 years later, at Danny's 38th birthday party, Danny and Karl are somewhat estranged, seemingly only seeing each other for Danny's birthday each year. Karl has bought Danny the newest edition of Striking Vipers, which has a VR capability to put you in full control of the characters, feeling every sensation in the game.

Later that night, Danny and Karl play as their usual Lance and Roxette. After a short fight, Karl (as Roxette) falls on top of Danny (as Lance) where they start to kiss. Shortly after realizing what was happening, both players leave the game.

Over the next few weeks, they continue to kiss, and even have sex, in the game, as Danny slowly becomes less interested in, now his wife and mother of his child, Theo. When confronted by Theo, Danny insists nothing is happening, before locking Striking Vipers away and messaging Karl to say that it has to stop. At Danny's next birthday, Theo invites Karl over for a meal so the two of them can catch-up after Danny complained that there wasn't the chance to do so the year before. Once Theo is out of the room Karl explains to Danny how nothing feels the same as their sex in the game and how he has tried to have sex with other players and even AI characters to no avail.

That night, the pair have sex in the game again, before Danny decides that they have to see if it is real, they meet in real life to kiss, deciding that if they felt something they would go ahead with a relationship, but if not, that would be the end. However, when neither of them feels anything Karl gets angry and they start to fight. The fight is broken up by the police and an angry Theo collects Danny, before riding home in silence. The episode ends at a future birthday, where there seems to be an agreement that every year, Danny and Karl can meet in Striking Vipers and Theo can go to a bar to meet a stranger.

This episode was my least favorite of the season, but it did kind of set the right tone. A very up and down episode where there are plenty of opportunities to go one way or the other, but there's not really a strong pull in either direction. All three characters seem to be somewhat unhappy, but still able to do what they enjoy. Danny is clearly happy with his life with Theo, but when confronted with a threat, he is able to give up on Theo, before easily returning to her fully once he questions his in-game relationship with Karl. Then once again, as soon as Karl comes back into his life, it seems like there is very little struggle internally before they come to an amicable agreement.

Theo is very much a supporting character, but even her arc throughout the episode only faces a slight hiccup, where she confronts Danny about how distant he is, before returning to a seemingly happy life. Karl faces the most turmoil though, but this is consistent throughout the episode. From the beginning where he lives with the happy couple, to the end where he lives alone with his cat, looking forward to that one day a year. Seemingly unable to truly live his life now that he has lost his best friend, but still relies on him for sexual pleasure. This episode was my least favorite of the three and didn't really feel like it added anything to the franchise.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too

In this episode, a young girl, Rachel, who lives with her father and her older sister, Jack, is a big fan of pop star Ashley O. Ashley promotes a new product called 'Ashley Too', an AI doll that is able to respond to people with Ashley's own personality. Rachel asks her dad to buy her an Ashley Too for her birthday, which Jack has to remind her dad is this Wednesday. The episode then cuts to Rachel opening Ashley Too, before she confides in the doll. Rachel begins to treat the doll as a friend, tells Ashley Too about her mother's death and the doll eventually convinces her to enter a competition, dancing to one of Ashley's songs, having learned the dance from Ashley Too.

After the dance goes wrong, Jack locks Ashley Too in the basement, having mocked Rachel for her obsession with the doll. After this, we find out that Ashley O writes her songs using her dreams and has a notebook full of ideas, but her manager and Aunt, Catherine notices that her notes have been getting more disturbing. She then discovers Ashley has stopped taking her pills and confronts Ashley about this over dinner.

Ashley says that she can break her contract, which isn't due to break until she's 25, because of the illegal pills, before Catherine reveals that she has put all the untaken pills into Ashley's food. Ashley then falls into a coma. Catherine goes on to blame the coma on a seafood allergy, before scanning Ashley's brain for more music and creating 'Ashley Eternal' a holographic version of Ashley, that is able to perform new songs, using sound recordings from Ashley Too and a lot of sound editing. Six months into Ashley O's coma, Jack finally gives Rachel her Ashley Too back.

When Ashley Too hears the news of the coma, it starts to malfunction and breaks. Jack and Rachel then discover that Ashley Too's capabilities were limited and that it actually holds a full copy of Ashley's mind, the doll is then able to convince the sisters to try to save Ashley O, after revealing the treatment she was subjected to by Catherine. After waking Ashley up from the coma, they crash into the venue where Catherine is revealing Ashley Eternal. The episode then cuts to Ashley and Jack playing alternative music together, as Rachel and Ashley Too watch on.

This is the final episode chronologically of the season, and by far the most optimistic in Black Mirror yet, but still leaves you with small moments of despondency, that makes it hard to feel too optimistic. The ending Is obviously very positive and paints a vision of hope, but the very core of the episode is about how people will go to further and further lengths for money, fame and to keep their glamorous life the way it is. Although the main arc of the story is one of hope, I think this episode has very little to feel hopeful about and instead represents a one-off vision of the future, where technology simply happens to result in a positive outcome by chance.

It almost feels like this is shoehorned into the series in order to not have everything go bad, but assuming the doll didn't malfunction in the first place, it was simply another mechanism to make fans want to be more like their favorite star, and to spend more money in order to do so. This episode also had somewhat odd timing, with the ending feeling rushed and as though there was a step missing somewhere. Well worth a watch, and a nice change at the end, but not the best we've seen from Brooker.

Smithereens


Smithereens is centered around Chris, a Hitcher (basically Uber) driver. A few minutes into the episode Chris is at a group therapy session, listening to a mother describing her emotions after her daughter committed suicide. The two then have a brief conversation where Chris reveals he hasn't yet found the right time to talk about his own reason for being there. The two then have sex before Chris discovers that she attempts to log into her daughter's Persona account every day, only getting three attempts before she is locked out, unable to obtain her daughter's password from the company themselves.

After this, Chris picks up Jaden, who is an intern at Smithereens, a large social media company, who is going to the airport to meet his boss. Chris lies about an upcoming traffic delay in order to take a diversion, where he holds Chris at gunpoint, moves him to a different car where Jaden has his hands tied together and a hood over his head. Chris drives past two police officers, who give chase after noticing the passenger with a bag over his head. Chris ends up veering off the road to avoid two cyclists, getting stuck in a field as he does so.

As the police approach, he waves the gun in the air, threatening to shoot Jaden if they come closer. At this point, Chris reveals that his intention is to speak to Billy Bauer, the CEO of Smithereens, and gets Jaden to put him in contact with the highest-ranking person he knows. After a small amount of time, Chris is speaking to Penelope, the COO of Smithereens who is based in America, and is reluctant to distract Billy Bauer from his 10-day retreat. Chris tells Jaden that the gun is fake, the police hear this as the call has been reversed so that Penelope, the FBI and the police at the scene are still able to hear inside the car, whilst Chris is on hold. But as they begin to approach the car, Chris fires a bullet into the air, revealing that it was a test to see if they were listening to him. Chris hangs up after saying they have 5 minutes to get Billy Bauer on the phone. Billy calls Chris, who reveals that his wife died in a car accident after he crashed whilst looking at a notification from the Smithereens app and that he hasn't been able to forgive himself.

Chris reveals that his plan all along was to kill himself and that he just wanted Billy to understand the addictive nature of the app, which Billy admits to, and says is out of his control. As a final favour, Billy contacts the CEO of Persona, who gives the mother her daughter's password. Chris then goes to release Jaden who, having heard the entire conversation with Billy, tries to convince Chris not to kill himself. They then struggle over the gun and police snipers take a shot at the car. The episode ends with people receiving a notification from Smithereens, reading it, then continuing with their life.

This is by far the best episode in the series and has everything we expect from Black Mirror. It is perfectly paced and has a twist just as everything seems to be going right, or even wrong. Everyone in this episode felt like a real person, and every twist was realistic enough that it didn't take anything away. Having him fire the gun, moments after revealing it was fake added new life to the episode, as the whole time there is doubt about how much danger Jaden Is really in. Chris' knowledge of police tactics, along with the revelation that he has been using someone else's Hitcher account to only take bookings from the Smithereens London office, suggests that this has been thoroughly thought through.

Even the emotional responses to Chris are hard to fully explain, with him seeming sadistic initially, taking this young guy by gunpoint just for the chance to speak to Billy Bauer, to realizing that he is so emotionally distraught by his wife's death, that he feels the need for some kind of closure, but not even he knows what he wants that to be. And the final few scenes that give no closure and leaves the audience with a painful want for more, not knowing why the daughter committed suicide, or even if the mother ever got the correct password, not knowing what the Smithereens notification said, and ultimately, not even knowing whether the shot hit Chris, Jaden or both of them, makes this an instant Black Mirror classic.

Season five of Black Mirror is very hit and miss, with Smithereens being must-watch and an episode that could easily be used to draw in new-viewers, whilst Striking Vipers is very skippable. Overall, season five does have a very different feel to the rest of Black Mirror, it has optimistic elements, with Danny and Theo seemingly having a very happy life, Ashley and Jack are able to perform like they want to, and Chris was never intending to hurt anybody. But there is still a very solemn feel to each episode, Karl is left in a strange situation, Rachel still, in a way, loses her idol and her sister to each other, and the ending of Smithereens leaves so much uncertainty and a feeling of the pain that social media can cause. So although this season is, overall, more optimistic than the rest of the Black Mirror franchise, it still manages to leave the audience questioning technology and how we live our lives, and even leaves you subdued, but yearning for more in a way that Brooker seems to have mastered.
THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY A GUEST WRITER

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