Charlie Brooker’s mind-bending sci-fi anthology series returns for a fifth season on Netflix.
Back in December of 2018, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker blew our collective minds with his choose-your-own-adventure interactive movie, Bandersnatch. Brooker’s ambitious story featured dead-end choices, multiple endings, and enough narrative twists and turns to make your head spin. So, how do you follow up something as innovative as Bandersnatch? Well, Booker opts for the back-to-basics approach for the fifth season of his sci-fi anthology series. Season 5 only has three episodes (Season 3 and Season 4 each have six episodes), which is OK. The less is more tactic works in Brooker’s favor, resulting in a shorter, stronger, and more captivating season that should be binged in one sitting.
Brooker has written three very intimate and personal stories that don’t veer towards the “technology will destroy us all” motif, but instead focus on a few characters at a time, as their respective worlds slowly start to unravel. Sure, tech does play a role in the story, but it’s not necessarily the culprit. Season 5 feels like old-school Brooker, harkening back to his “Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back” days, when the stories were less about the mind-bending aspects of his Black Mirror universe and more about the underlying human condition that technology can bring into the light.
“Smithereens” is the most edge-of-your-seat episode in the batch, as it centers on a ride-share driver named Chris (Andrew Scott), who kidnaps a worker from a prominent social media company. It’s a pulse-pounding journey into Chris’ troubled mind. Scott, who’s proven he can play crazy with the best of them as the villainous Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, delivers an emotionally stirring performance. Most of the tension throughout is wisely kept in the confines of Scott’s car, where his prisoner (played by Snowfall’s Damson Idris) is just trying to stay alive. Topher Grace also joins in on the excitement in a subtle, yet memorable performance.
Netflix is keeping its synopses and even the three episodic trailers for Season 5 sparse in terms of plot details, which is a good thing, especially when it comes to “Striking Vipers,” starring Avengers: Endgame’s Anthony Mackie and Aquaman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. We’ll follow suit and avoid spilling any revealing plotlines here.
At its core, “Striking Vipers” is about an evolving friendship that ebbs and flows with the passage of time. Mackie and Abdul-Mateen II are excellent in their respective roles, with captivating chemistry that keeps the sometimes meandering story engaging. The two friends are reunited when one of their favorite video games from college gets a VR upgrade. The simulated game world resembles an old street fighter game with supporting cast members Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Ludi Lin (Power Rangers) acting as their respective in-game avatars. The in-game locations are beautiful, and the action scenes that follow are exciting to watch. By the time the credits roll, the episode feels like it has enough narrative meat for a few more episodes. But that’s what makes it good… “Striking Vipers” leaves you wanting more.
Last but not least in Season 5’s lineup is the Miley Cyrus led “Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too.” Cyrus is dynamic in her portrayal of Ashley O – a fictionalized version of the pop star, who struggles to deal with the pressures of trying to live up to the “perfect good-girl” expectations everyone places on her. Cyrus gets to play two versions of herself – the human version of Ashley O, and the voice of an Ashley O robot doll. The real Ashley O is an f-bomb dropping tempest of emotions, while her robot avatar is the kindest thing ever. Cyrus plays both versions of her character with such great effect that’s it’s easy to forget that it’s the same actress’ voice.
Cyrus’ story is supported by Angourie Rice’s Rachel and Madison Davenport’s Jack. Rachel and Jack are sisters whose relationship definitely needs a tune-up. When the two girls get an Ashley O doll at their house, let’s just say things don’t go according to plan. Of the three episodes, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too” is the most straightforward of the bunch, but there are a lot of heartwarming moments, plus it’s really fun to watch Cyrus play a foul-mouthed emotionally-troubled superstar.
Black Mirror’s fifth season is one of the series’ best, with a condensed batch of new stories that deliver great storytelling, interesting characters, and fascinating technologies that don’t overshadow Charlie Brooker’s deeply personal stories. After the success of Bandersnatch, it’s nice to see Brooker going “old school” for Season 5, and leaving the interactive space alone for now.