REVIEW: Black Mirror Season 5 hits on some provacative points in Striking Vipers, but provides overall mixed bag of social commentary in Smithereens and Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too.


The latest season of Black Mirror hit Netflix on Thursday, June 5th with three new and highly anticipated episodes in a truncated fifth season. This season was something of a surprise as most of us thought that Netflix’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Black Mirror movie, Bandersnatch would be this year’s only Black Mirror entry. Thankfully, we got three new hours of the acclaimed series which looks at the intersection between technology and humanity in an almost Twilight Zone/Outer Limits sort of way. How do these stack up in the current phase of the golden age of television, where Jordan Peele has taken the mantle of Black Mirror not only in his work as a producer on The Twilight Zone, but in his films like Get Out and Us?


Looking at the season’s first (and best) episode, Striking Vipers, Black Mirror is still challenging social conventions in interesting ways. Namely, the very strong stigma males place on being open about their homosexuality among minority groups. Being a Latino, this is an issue you see in that culture very prominently. Not that long ago, Vice did a big feature on the Latino “cholo goth” band Prayers where the bulk of the piece was around the lead singer Raphael Reyes stating that even though he wore makeup and women’s clothing, it didn’t make him gay and that his gang lifestyle was a sign of his strong masculinity. A decade ago, The Boondocks also took on this issue with The Story of Gangstalicious Pt.1 and 2, dealing with the issue of Riley not being able to come to terms with the possibility of his hero being a gay black man and being able to reconcile that with his sense of personal identity.

That idea, being able to reconcile your sense of self with what attracts you is the crux of Striking Vipers. The episode is largely about the friendship between Danny (Avengers: Endgame’s Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Aquaman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen). The episode starts when the 2 are in college and their close friendship, where Danny neglects his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie) to stay up all night playing Striking Vipers. Striking Vipers is a thinly veiled parody of Street Fighter 2, with Danny’s main character being Lance, a Ryu proxy, against Karl’s favorite, Roxette, the show’s take on Chun Li.

Jump forward in time to Danny’s 38th birthday. He and Theo are married with children, but trying to conceive a child it seems to help their shaky marriage. Karl stops by, having been a year since they’ve seen him and reconnects with the 2 and gives Danny a cool present, an anniversary edition of Striking Vipers with a VR simulation that puts you in the game. In this simulation, Danny is literally embodied as Lance (Ludi Lin), while Karl is still using his main character Roxette (Pom Klementieff). After a pretty cool realization of an actual fighting game in 3D, the two tussle and in a moment of joking around, the two’s avatars start making out, as the game emulates all physical sensation (you can fight and feel the pain and alternatively also pleasure). This realization shakes Danny and Karl as the two joke around about being drunk. They play again weeks later and the use their avatars to engage in intercourse, using the game as a proxy to carry around an emotional and physical affair between their avatars, but act as if the game’s sensations are what is triggering it, not any underlying physical affection.

The episode is largely a meditation on emotional affairs and the barriers one puts up to keep your sense of self intact despite the deeper meaning your actions say about you. Danny’s wife realizes what’s going on after the 2 of them resort to a physical fight to air out what this affair means and whether they’re gay or not. The episode’s realization and ending are pretty thought-provoking and overall this is really the only episode that feels like a Black Mirror episode this season.


The second episode. Smithereens, written by Charlie Brooker and set in England, deals with Chris, a driver for an Uber-like service who purposefully waits outside of a Facebook-like company called Smithereen every day hoping to capture someone of importance to get a direct line to the company’s founder, a Zuckerberg-like figure named Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). He captures an intern, Jaden (Damson Idris) and the situation begins to scale as the episode here largely becomes a commentary on how social media shapes the narrative around events and life. This turns out to largely be the reason why Chris wants to talk to Bauer. We find he wants to say his peace and then plans on killing himself, as he blames himself for the death of his wife because he checked a notification that led to her death and that of the other driver, who was drunk, which absolved him and drove his guilt. At the plot’s denouement, Jaden tries to stop Chris from shooting himself as the police try to snipe him and we’re never told what happens, only reaction shots of people checking their phones. This is the most heavy-handed condemnation or point Brooker has made about technology on the show and it largely fails because of how heavy-handed that point and its illustration are. Moreover, the episode feels largely like Taxi Driver with cellphones which doesn’t help in grounding it, despite the revelation about Chris’s wife.


The final episode in the season, Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too, feels the most of a departure. In many ways, it feels more indebted to something like ET or Gremlins than being in the vein of the Twilight Zone or making a big commentary on technology. It also follows most heavily of Black Mirror continuity, making heavy use of the neural clone technology featured in the White Christmas special. The episode largely revolved around a pop star named Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), a bubble gum princess who is very successful with her empowering pop anthems aimed at tweens. On a subversive note, all of Ashley O’s songs are actually Nine Inch Nails songs with rewritten pop-friendly lyrics done with Trent Reznor’s approval, possibly the most clever and unique thing about this episode. From here we shift to the Goggins family, inventory dad Kevin and his 2 daughters, Jack and Rachel. They have moved to a new town, while Kevin works on building a better mousetrap based on mouse thought patterns. The girls struggle with the recent death of their mother, as awkward Rachel is a huge Ashley O fan and wants an Ashley Too doll for her birthday. The doll is based on Ashley’s thought patterns and utters pro girl phrases and songs ad nauseaum. Meanwhile, the real Ashley struggles to break free of her image, as we find she’s being drugged and controlled by her aunt Catherine, who controls her via a strict contract which Ashley hopes to break. Instead, Catherine places her in a chemical coma, while she and her team conspire to steal her career from her by building a holographic replacement for her called Ashley Eternal that will perform her songs and keep Catherine in charge of Ashley’s career forever. They don’t count on the fact that the doll is a neural clone of Ashley which the girls realize after removing a limiter on her programming once the doll hears of her original’s situation and the 3 then conspire to help expose her aunt’s schemes.

Largely, this episode is a play on personas and touches on many of the same themes as the classic anime Perfect Blue, on the difference between an idol’s persona and the real person behind the mask. The rest of the episode is largely an Amblin adventure with a wisecracking, foul-mouthed ET in the form of Ashley Too. The episode’s casting of Cyrus is also a play on this persona vs person formula given most of Cyrus’ career has been about this dichotomy in the Hannah Montana series. The easiest way to digest this episode as The Punch-Drunk Love version of Hannah Montana. In the real world, it’s pretty creepy. The episode’s happy ending tends to undercut the points the episode makes in favor of a joke about tweens not being able to handle change.

Overall, the season is a mixed bag, but an interesting one. Striking Vipers is the episode that most will be discussing long after this season as its the most original and thought-provoking, while Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, seems more akin to Season 3’s Nosedive, cute but essentially stunt-casting for the season. Brooker still has things to say, but overall this season is not as strong as the last.

  • Daniel Monster Davis

    Solid review.

    Is it just me, or is Black Mirror softening in the storytelling dept?

    Smithereens felt a bit muddled. Striking Vipers was decent, and had more clarity. I need to go back to Seasons 1 & 2 again, and rewatch them.

    • yeah, I feel like Striking Vipers would’ve been a middling episode in an earlier season of Black Mirror – now its the best of 3 and 2 of those just have too much stunt casting and Smithereens is just bad. I would rather they developed some of the shorts from the Christmas Episode into full episodes rather than make stuff like this which is just kind of bleh.