June 05, 2019
Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series returns more confident than ever, offering up an ambitious tale of sexual and gender fluidity and a barnstorming performance from Miley Cyrus
Black Mirror season five review: sweet, sadistic and hugely impressive
The Bandersnatch boy is back. After the innovative-if-not-wholly-unprecedented interactive standalone episode under the Black Mirror umbrella, Charlie Brooker’s anthology series (created with co-producer Annabel Jones) has returned for a proper run. Season five comprises three episodes – each a discrete story set five minutes from now – that continue in Black Mirror’s lightly terrifying dystopian tradition of asking not what is the worst thing that could happen but what is the worst of the most likely possibilities. Like a sweetly sadistic scientist, it delights in shaving off slices of our collective psyche and sliding them under an unforgiving microscope to examine our most current concerns.
The first episode, Striking Vipers, is – lightly, obliquely – a meditation on sexual and gender fluidity, via the story of old college friends Danny and Karl. The pair meet up together again a decade on and find out that, as online avatars in a wholly immersive video game (discs are stuck to temples and the players zombie out on their respective sofas, their minds literally in the alternative world), they have – despite Danny’s happy marriage to a woman and Karl’s string of young girlfriends – an overwhelming attraction to each other. Mind-blowing online sex between them (or their male and female avatars – discuss) ensues and suddenly every boundary is porous: real and online life; fidelity and infidelity; heterosexuality and homosexuality; and lust, love and friendship.
Black Mirror season five review: sweet, sadistic and hugely impressive
It’s one of the most tender episodes of Black Mirror, whose reputation for bleak nihilism is overstated but not entirely undeserved given how often it prefers the pursuit of a good idea to its extreme end rather than following up on its emotional impact.
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The second episode, Smithereens, is the slightest and perhaps least successful of the trio. The story questions our powerlessness in the face of tech developed to keep us addicted, but doesn’t twist and turn as much as the best of them. It is largely held together by Andrew Scott’s uniquely potent and peculiar energy (whether he’s hot priesting or Moriartying it), perfectly channelled into the role of a grief-stricken, increasingly desperate taxi driver who kidnaps an employee of an Apple-esque company in order to force its CEO to speak to him. Things, inevitably, spiral out of control.
Black Mirror season five review: sweet, sadistic and hugely impressive

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is the barnstorming finale – fast and perfectly-paced, a mass of ideas entwining with masses of action, and still with enough heart to keep you watching in more than awe. It is the one that has grabbed most of the advance headlines because it stars Miley Cyrus, the singer and former child star who became famous playing the character Miley Stewart, ordinary schoolgirl by day and recording sensation Hannah Montana by night in the Disney show Hannah Montana. What attracted her to the part of Ashley O – a denatured recording sensation controlled in every aspect by her manager-aunt, and whose real personality is eventually unveiled to one of her adoring fans via a malfunctioning robot intended as an anodyne piece of merch – we may never know.
It’s a grand caper, involving a daring break-in to a celebrity mansion, anaesthetising syringes stabbed in necks, a mouse-brain laboratory in a basement and a disastrous talent contest, but it also provides plenty of mental meat to chew on. It ruminates on the power of celebrity and AI to fill in the cracks of lonely lives, seeming to mend them but ultimately only alienating us further from each other. But it’s also about the endless differences between the sanitised images we see everywhere and the brutal realities behind them, and the drive towards homogeneity in all things – from insecure adolescent teenagers seeking safety in the crowd until they figure themselves out, to the people who just want to make the biggest buck from the widest possible demographic.
Miley Cyrus gives a great performance as a star hovering on the border between depression and rebellion. But a shout-out too for the quieter but equally sterling work from Angourie Rice – absolutely convincing as a shy, awkward teen for whom no Hollywood transformation beckons.
The three instalments vary in mood, genre and just about everything else (as anthologies are designed to do) but they share a new air of calm authority. There’s an unhurriedness to each, a greater willingness to linger and develop moments that might have passed as a single beat in other seasons that perhaps bespeaks an increasing confidence of Black Mirror’s creators in their product. If so, it’s been well-earned.
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