Black Mirror, Season Five: A New Reflection

By Erin McDaniel

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Black Mirror, Season Five

A New Reflection

Whenever I try to explain Black Mirror to a friend who hasn’t yet watched Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series, the first thing I always say is, “It’s like a modern-day version of The Twilight Zone.” The second thing I always say is, “You’re gonna love it.” After watching the three most recent episodes of the series, though, I realize I may need to be more cautious about assuming my peers’ universal adoration.

Since Black Mirror premiered on Netflix in December 2014, I have loved the anthology series for its hard takes on what happens when we take today’s technology and stretch it to its logical limits. In Season 1’s “The Entire History of You,” for example, the show challenges our “document everything” culture by presenting us with eye implants called grains that can literally document and store one’s every move. The characters’ eyes fade into milky whiteness whenever they review the memories stored on their grains, foreshadowing the growing emotional distance and uncomfortable truths that will eventually shatter the lead couple’s relationship. Subsequent episodes of Black Mirror follow similar patterns, almost always ending with the weight of futuristic, yet familiar technology pushing characters apart rather than bringing them closer together.

After experimenting with an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure format in the full-length film Bandersnatch, showrunners Brooker and Annabel Jones released Season 5 of Black Mirror on Netflix earlier this month. For this viewer, the newest episodes signaled a distinct departure from the typical characters, conflicts, resolutions, and themes common to the series. Perhaps it was just because of all those dreamy California backdrops, but I’m inclined to think that the show leaned more toward the lighter side of things this season. Sure, the questions raised were still complex-- How does an annual night of VR pornography with your best friend compare to a once-a-year, “real life” one-night-stand? Who is ultimately responsible for the ways in which we misuse technology? Who controls your legacy, and what happens when their intentions are not so good?-- but the Black Mirror I’m used to is the one where the question I’m asking is, “Why shouldn’t the Prime Minister have sex with a pig on live television to save a princess?”, not the one where I’m weighing basic concerns about morality in the domestic sphere, and certainly not the one where the characters find closure, and a mostly happy version of it.

Yet, giving its characters “happy endings” is not entirely new to Black Mirror, as we witnessed in 2016 with the release of the critically acclaimed episode “San Junipero.” This episode features Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Yorkie and Kelly, two lovers whose devotion shatters the typical boundaries of time, space, and mortality in the way that only Black Mirror-universe technology can allow. After wrestling with the choice to spend eternity together in the titular simulated reality, Yorkie and Kelly both decide to upload their consciousnesses to the simulation. Rather than leave the viewer feeling sour, as if the cold hand of technology has once again frozen over the warmth of human emotion, the lovers show us the joy this choice has given them as they smile, kiss, and speed down San Junipero’s coast in a convertible, proving (as the soundtrack attests) that “heaven is a place on Earth.”

Perhaps it was the critical success of “San Junipero,” which won two Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017 for both Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special, that encouraged Brooker and Jones to feature “lighter” episodes like the ones we watched in Season 5. I wonder, though, if the show keeps moving in this direction, if fans will split into two camps: those who prefer the gritter, edgier, future tech-heavy face of Black Mirror, and those who prefer the more grounded feel of the newer episodes.

For my money, if this is the new direction in which Black Mirror is moving, I like it. While I’ll never stop enjoying being fooled into rooting for a teenage pedophile like I was with “Shut Up and Dance” in Season 3, I appreciate how the show has moved to take on the questions many people hold about the use of “normal” technology-- like virtual reality, social media, and the tools of music production-- in their daily lives, and how its shown us that the resolution of those conflicts isn’t always catastrophic.

By Erin McDaniel