Of the now 49 things currently ranked on the Week I Review leaderboard, Black Mirror’s semi-interactive cinematic experience Bandersnatch remains just above the bottom slot, where it has been ever since I reviewed it and Bird Box back in January.
It really felt as though series writer Charlie Brooker just didn’t have anything new to say and was using a gimmick in a failed attempt to cover that up. Which seems inevitable when you have a single man responsible for pumping out more than a dozen disconnected, feature-length scripts over the course of just a few years. The first two seasons, aired on Channel 4 in the UK, had three episodes each, and Netflix doubled that output for its next two. Quantity over quality, it seemed.
But I wanted to believe that Season 5 having just three again signaled a shift back in the other direction: that they would be the three best ideas and not the three only ones.
The show typically sets itself in a vaguely-near-future that is the same as the present but slightly higher tech: things like extremely thin/folding smartphones or translucent computer monitor are common. Really good virtual reality plays a pivotal role in many episodes, but there is usually a more overtly “sci-fi” technology that really drives the story: memory recall devices, human cloning, implants with live brain filters, etc. Whether these things ever happen – some probably will, others probably won’t – isn’t the point: it’s about seeing how technology changes the world.
Unfortunately, this tends to be pretty surface level, so I am typically more interested in the implications of the stories than the stories themselves. My enjoyment of an episode is directly tied to how interesting I think its use of technology is and how it’s integrated into the narrative – even if that narrative is dumb or bad. Because what else is there? So many episodes don’t actually have anything to say about Society – they just want to remind you that everything is bad, you’re going to die, and the internet is going to make that death so much worse.
But that isn’t Season 5, which doesn’t have much of the more fanciful stuff and isn’t there just to cause pain. Indeed, two of the episodes are actually pretty optimistic, and most of its technology exists already. And what doesn’t exist yet isn’t really new, even to this series; indeed, all of it can be found in Season 4’s opener: USS Callister. The high-end VR tech in Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” is the exact implementation seen in that episode. The user puts a little circle on their temple, starts the game, and then their eyes cloud over and they fall back in their seat as they enter the digital world.
But in USS Callister, this was part of the set dressing – existing the same way as all of the other not-quite-real tech but not itself being the driving technology like it is in Striking Vipers. Instead, the Big Thing We Have to Be Worried About is a machine that creates a perfect in-game copy of a person using their DNA, which brings up a lot of interesting questions about consciousness that are… completely ignored.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too – Season 5’s final episode – also has a person’s consciousness perfectly recreated, though this time it is added to an robotic home companion instead of a digital crew member of a Star Trek-analogue. And guess what: they don’t do anything with it there either…
Virtual reality is kind of Black Mirror’s bread and butter, which makes sense, because it’s something everyone has dreamed about at some point, and it’s a dream that feels closer and closer each year. So there’s a lot to think about and that is worth thinking about
Striking Vipers might raise some interesting questions about how virtual reality affects real-world relationships, but it doesn’t because the whole thing is just a metaphor for suppressed passions. I mean, the actual message of the episode is Maybe Try Open Relationships. And, like, fine, that’s a message. But it has nothing to do with technology. This is Black Mirror, dude. Compare that to Season 3’s San Junipero, where virtual reality allows for people physically incapable of anything at all to live full lives – have romances that would be literally impossible otherwise. It is why San Junipero is often held up as the best episode of the series, because it is the only time that the show has ever truly woven technology into its thematic fabric while remaining optimistic about that technology. That episode makes good on Black Mirror’s promise.
Striking Vipers does not. As an episode of television, it’s fine. The performances are good, the use of Tetris Effect as a representative of video games in the future is something I found hilarious (and a massive missed opportunity for Danny, since that game is best experienced in Virtual Reality).
But the technology merely offers two characters the means to have an emotional affair. That it’s this tech in particular is not really relevant. It’s missing that integration that I crave.
By the same token, Smithereens must be a failure, because it does not use any new technology or even have a new use for an existing technology. It harkens, then, all the way back to the first episode – also about a hostage situation that was always going to end in with one person free and the other dead. And you know there’s not going to be anything new from the outset, because onscreen text tells you that it’s 2018. We’re talking now about the recent past, not the near-ish-future.
Smithereens takes aim at technology now, at Twitter and Facebook specifically. It’s something of a power fantasy, where the fantasy is finally getting to tell Mark Zuckerberg directly that the thing he made Is Bad. And sure, who hasn’t wanted to have a private audience with Jack Dorsey to go off about how much worse the world is because Twitter exists? Billions of people would jump at the chance. And it is genuinely cathartic to hear Billy Bauer get shut down when he starts to whine about his own problems, though that is undercut slightly by the cop-out that is having him refuse to stand behind his own company.
A generous interpretation is that this represents the constant buck-passing that goes on at the highest levels of these corporations. Nothing is ever their fault, etc. And there is a lot of that to go around in this episode, but the specifics of Bauer’s complaints complicate that cartharsis.
But the real issue is that everything is text: a man is angry that everyone is always on their phones. He wants to yell at the CEO of a technology company to explain why he is angry that everyone is on their phones. So he does that. His story is sad, sure, but it’s really just another excuse to rant about how awful it is that these companies prioritize engagement at the expense of their users’ actual happiness.
Years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I did so because I, like Charlie Brooker, played Bioshock in 2007 and wanted to be able to engage in a conversation about how it followed the Objectivist themes of Rand’s magnum opus. Near the end of the book, the narrative stops so that a character can give a speech that condenses the previous 900 pages into about 80. And you have to wonder: why wasn’t this just an 80 page Manifesto? Why the hell did I just read this? And then you want to burn the book in a fire.
Smithereens is kinda like that except, ya know, shorter and with a less garbage philosophy. Charlie Brooker used to have a series of cultural review shows: Screenwipe, Newswipe, Weekly Wipe. This speech seems like it was intended for a monologue to be used if any of these were still on air, and since they’re not, he decided to put it in his much more popular show and built an entire narrative that would justify someone saying it.
Also, the cinematography is obnoxious.
One interesting question that Smithereens ever-so-briefly raises plays a much larger role in Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, which is widely considered the worst of the season but also happens to be my favorite, and it’s not even close. My my main reason is as superficial as any episode of Black Mirror: I really liked Miley Cyrus-as-Ashley O’s song “On a Roll.” If none of these episodes are going to say anything new about technology, I’m gonna gravitate towards the one with the jams.
But seriously, I do think it’s the one that has the most interesting implications, though before I explain why, I want to acknowledge music site Pitchfork’s review of the episode. They weren’t fans for entirely valid reasons – what it has to say about pop-star-as-prisoner is both well-trodden ground and also something that *is* being changed by the rise of acts like Billie Eilish, who, love her or hate her, is nothing like the perfectly manufactured pop star Ashley O represents – even if the experiences were inspired in part by Cyrus’s own struggles.
But where I think Pitchfork et al don’t give this episode enough credit is the way it captures something profoundly sad about the relationship between celebrity and fan, exemplified by the moment when the titular Rachel, upon seeing pop star Ashley O come out of the coma forced upon her by her evil aunt/manager, cannot think to say anything but “I’m a huge fan.” It’s maybe intended as a joke, but it’s not really fun. Separate from issues of expectation – ya know, Ashley is not allowed to make the music she wants to make because her die-hards will abandon her – those fans don’t see her as a human person with human feelings.
It reminds me of what happens when kids show up at the homes of YouTubers, those YouTubers say, “Please leave me alone,” and then actual adults who somehow were allowed to become parents chastise those YouTubers for wanting to be seen as humans.
And that inhumanity is key to the bigger ethical question of the episode, which has nothing to do with music and everything to do with life after death.
In Smithereens, Hayley struggles with the aftermath of her young daughter’s suicide and has become obsessed with accessing said daughter’s social media, which she wants to see in order to find some kind of closure. This is like a D-Plot, but it raises interesting questions about what we leave behind when we die and whether we should be allowed to control that.
Of course, there will only be more pain on the other side of that log-in – itself the type of thing that this show would make an episode about (in some ways, season 2’s Be Right Back is the logical Black Mirror conclusion of the premise).
But is her daughter owed privacy? Is her grieving mother owed access?
And so we get back to Ashley O, who is intended for replacement by Ashley Eternal, a perfect holographic representation. More than a perfect replication, in fact: the idealized version of the pop star.
Last month, Philip Defranco’s Rogue Rocket posted a video about the future of the holographic concert as more and more late acts are, uh, touring again. It’s a big deal and only getting bigger, and it’s fraut as hell with ethical issues. Unfortunately, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too sidesteps them entirely by making Ashley Eternal the product of a monster.
As mentioned earlier, though, that’s not the big tech we as a society ought to be concerned about. *That* is Ashley Too, a robot doll that has the entire consciousness of Ashley O herself embedded in it, just limited by software to be more like what we think a digital assistant would be. Removing the limiter – an almost hilariously simple process – brings out the “real” Ashley with all of her actual emotions and memories and everything else.
So, that’s kinda horrifying. This is the thing that ties it back to USS Callister: Is a perfect recreation of a consciousness actually conscious? Is it human? Should it be?
And even if not, it has human-born thoughts and feelings and memories and… we actively limited all of that. What are the ethical implications there? Is this some kind of digitized slavery?
And how far away are we, the actual world, from opening that Pandora’s Box?
Honestly, Black Mirror provides valuable material for an ethics of technology course that every single person in Silicon Valley should be forced to take. Because I would be surprised if in my lifetime we as a society don’t have to reckon with what Siri actually is, and I would like for the people who do that reckoning to have spent some time thinking about it.
Black Mirror is asking some big questions, important ones that we may not need to worry about quite yet but are coming up faster than any of us want to believe.
I just wish it cared more about answering them.
Six Point Two out of Ten