"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Who needs Black Mirror when you have reality? – on Black Mirror’s Fifth Season

At its best, Black Mirror presents quietly tragic portraits of people trying to navigate life in high-tech societies. At its worst, Black Mirror is a crude parody of itself that comes across as a caricature of meaningful critique.

Unfortunately, Black Mirror is at its worst far more often than it is at its best.

To be fair, the first two seasons of Black Mirror (three episodes each), set a rather high bar for the program. And when they premiered there was still something refreshingly novel about the show’s willingness to defy the, at that time still dominant, attitude of unflagging technological optimism. But after two more (fairly mediocre) six episode seasons on Netflix, a bizarre “choose your own adventure” episode that turned the very viewing experience into an episode of Black Mirror, the three episodes of the show’s fifth season should be its last ones. This is not because the fifth season would allow the show to go out on a particularly high note, but because the fifth season has (particularly in one episode) brought Black Mirror full circle. And it would be better for Black Mirror to end as a flawed, but impassioned, warning, than for it to continue as a tired self-parody. Besides, it seems that society has successfully gotten ahead of Black Mirror – who needs to watch Black Mirror when you can read about how your smart speaker is always on? How facial recognition software is being rapidly deployed? How easily people can be manipulated through social media? How Facebook is launching its own currency? Or, to put it another way, who needs Black Mirror when you have reality?

Now, as much as ever, a serious critical conversation is needed about technology’s impact on society. But Black Mirror isn’t that conversation. Instead it’s the television show we watch to convince ourselves that conversation is happening even as the daily news makes clear that no such thing is occurring.

Season five of Black Mirror isn’t terrible, what’s terrible is that the content that Black Mirror once made seem pithy and confrontational now just seems banal.

[editorial note: there are spoilers for the episodes in season five ahead, consider yourself warned.]


The Fifth Season

In “Striking Vipers” two old friends reconnect over the latest installment of a fighting game, the catch being that the immersive VR of the new edition has them feeling as though they are actually in the game. What was once a fighting game quickly shifts in a different direction as the two men find that they’re returning to the video game to have sex with each other’s avatars. While one of the men’s preferred avatar is a female character, the situation forces both men to question their sexual orientation, causes havoc in their offline relationships (to what extent is this cheating?), and leads them to wonder if the video game has turned “I love you, man” into something much more.

While many episodes of Black Mirror are set at some indistinct point in the future, “Smithereens” is set way back in 2018. It captures the story of a morose former teacher, currently picking up riders as a driver for a Uber/Lyft stand-in from outside the UK headquarters of Smithereens (a Twitter like app). The driver kidnaps an employee of Smithereens, who it turns out is only an intern, in an attempt to be able to speak to the company’s founder and CEO. As the kidnapping quickly devolves into a police stand-off (complete with snipers and negotiators), the higher ups at Smithereens eventually put the driver in touch with the company’s founder. The driver does not want to extort the company, instead he feels a woeful need to confess to the company’s founder that he had been checking the app on his phone in the moments before a fatal crash in which his fiancée was killed (though the blame was placed on the other driver, who was drunk). After having spoken to the founder, the driver announces that he never had any intention of harming the hostage, but that he needed to confess before committing suicide.

A shy new girl, and ardent fan of the pop-star Ashley O, is transfixed when she sees her idol announce a new AI-virtual assistant (a smart speaker with more mobility and personality) modeled after her. Yet all is not well with the pop-star who is being controlled by a ring of figures who are clearly more interested in making a profit from her, than in her actual well-being. Fearful that the pop-star is about to breach her contract, she is drugged into a coma by her aunt/manager, and it is then revealed that Ashley O’s former associates are finding a way to extract new songs from her even though she is now in a coma. A reboot of the personal assistant leads the shy girl, and her punk sister, to discover that the personal assistant actually has all of Ashley O’s mind (once they, rather easily, delete a blocker program). Thus, the sisters and the personal assistant go on a quest that leads to the real Ashley O being woken up in time to thwart her evil aunt – and then Ashley O successfully pivots from pop-stardom to covering Nine Inch Nails in a small venue.

These three episodes show that season five, rather than explore new territory, is returning to the same themes (and technologies) that have been central to past episodes of Black Mirror. The questions “Striking Vipers” raises regarding who we are in video games were previously explored in episodes like “USS Callister” and “Playtest” – while the issue of virtual reality as a space to explore sexual identity was an important part of “San Junipero” (and arguably “Hang the DJ”).  The ideas of shifting a human mind, in all of its complexity, into a piece of technology that “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” explores as an odd sort of coming of age story had previously been treated as fodder for a more horrific consideration in “Black Museum.” While the matters of regret and responsibility which are central to “Smithereens” were previously at the core of “See You Later,” “Crocodile,” and “Be Right Back” – and the fact that “Smithereens” only uses already existing technologies places it in the same category as “Shut Up and Dance” as well as “The National Anthem.” Thus, the episodes in season five come up for comparison against some of Black Mirror’s most poignant moments (“San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” “The National Anthem”), and the season five episodes largely work to remind the viewer how the show has already handled many of these issues in much better ways.

Reactions to Black Mirror are always somewhat difficult to gauge – and it is unlikely that there is one definitive list of which episodes are best and which episodes are worst. Indeed, it may well be that the episodes of Black Mirror people find most disturbing and/or poignant says more about an individual’s hopes and fears regarding technology than about the actual episodes themselves. Even with that being said, there is something about season five that seems a bit staid. There is nothing inherently wrong with Black Mirror revisiting themes it had explored in previous seasons, but in season five it doesn’t seem to have much new to say. Though another criticism of season five may be that the show is moving further and further away from the program’s dystopian/vaguely horror tone, there is nothing wrong with this either (the show has had some of its most effective moments in episodes that eschew the “something terrible is about to happen” formula). What makes season five’s episodes unsatisfying is not that they aren’t grimmer and not that we’ve seen these themes before, but that the episodes themselves aren’t particularly satisfying. At one point, in “Striking Vipers” one of the characters argues that what they’re doing doesn’t count as cheating because “it’s like porn” – and by the episode’s conclusion what had originally seemed like it might be a thoughtful rumination on sexual orientation is reduced to a suggestion that VR games will result in new kinks (which they surely will). Tonally and narratively, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is simply a mess; it’s refreshing that the story wasn’t just another “here’s a lonely teen made lonelier by believing a machine is her friend” but instead of saying something obvious, the episode instead seems to say nothing at all.

The fifth season of Black Mirror continues another trend which has been common throughout Black Mirror, namely: not asking many questions about the episode’s central technologies (“Smithereens” is something of an exception to this). The issue of who made a particular technology, and why they made it, generally goes unacknowledged. And in season five this matter comes into particularly sharp relief as the technologies at the core of “Striking Vipers” and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” can make the viewer wonder whether the uses shown stretch the imagination a bit too far. There are many different kinds of video games, and there are many different kinds of video game environments, but what you can do in a video game is still constrained by the designers of that game. It’s certainly imaginable that a future video game would have a complex alternate mode that allows the characters to have sex instead of fight, but it’s still an element that conjures up a “really?” Especially when one steps back and thinks about the legions of video game designers that would have had to work to program all of those sensations. While in “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” the idea that the Ashley Too is a full copy of Ashley O’s mind (at one point the AI says “I am Ashley O”), goes beyond the question of “is that believable” to a more mundane “why?” After all, until Rachel and Jack delete the “mental block,” the Ashley Too wasn’t presented as doing anything that much more advanced than currently existing smart toys (or the early AI program ELIZA, for that matter). What’s more the Ashley Too, once the block is released, doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered about being a human mind trapped in a diminutive robotic body – and when Ashley Too meets Ashley O the encounter is reduced to some throwaway jokes about them knowing the same things.

Good science fiction often raises more questions than it answers, and there are many episodes of Black Mirror that fit that formula. The close focus that Black Mirror often places on small narratives around one or two people, often necessitates leaving larger questions about the rest of the world unexplored. But a problem arises when the audience is either bludgeoned with questions, or when they aren’t left feeling particularly interested in mulling over those questions. One of the things that has made many past episodes of Black Mirror so effective is how it unsettles audiences, forcing them to chew over what they’ve seen for hours, days, or longer. Episodes like “Nosedive,” “The Complete History of You,” and “See You Later,” (to name three particularly effective examples) don’t answer every question they raise, but they stick with the viewer long after the credits roll. Other episodes assault the audience with such a sustained “think about this!” onslaught (the best case of this being “Bandersnatch”) that by the end of the episode one is more annoyed than existentially troubled. To be clear, “Striking Vipers” and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” aren’t the sort of episodes that browbeat the viewer, but they don’t really have much lingering impact either. Like the bruises that the characters accumulate in a fighting round of “Striking Vipers” the injuries vanish as soon as one resets the game. What remains after these episodes is not a troubling consideration of what they’ve presented, but a shrug and maybe a vague memory of Miley Cyrus covering “Head Like a Hole” or the line in “Striking Vipers” about having sex with a polar bear.

It’s not that every episode of Black Mirror needs to be a stark warning, or an unsettling challenge, or wildly imaginative, or a farcical piece of delirious entertainment. But, given the reputation it has established for itself, it’s good for an episode of Black Mirror to succeed in being at least one of those things.

Which brings us back to “Smithereens.”


The Moral of the Story

Insofar as “Smithereens” has a clear message it is “don’t be distracted by your phone when you’re driving.” Yes, this message is wrapped within the woeful story of a man whose decision to check his phone, while driving late one night, resulted in the death of his fiancée and another driver – an occurrence that led to him having the breakdown which is at the core of this episode. Yet, on a surface reading, “Smithereens” cautions against letting your phone distract you. This is a point which the episode brings home in its credit sequence which shows several people being pulled away from what they were originally focused on by the pinging of their phones. This is the sort of crude finger-waving that often makes episodes of Black Mirror seem tedious and annoying – provoking the viewer to roll their eyes and groan “I get it.” And, at risk of being crass, one can easily imagine the basic story of “Smithereens” as a real life PSA in which a sullen individual stares into the camera and notes how texting while driving/checking apps while driving resulted in the death of a loved one.

“Smithereens” isn’t the first time this topic has been touched on either. In “Be Right Back” (which is one of Black Mirror’s highpoints) it is strongly implied that the death that is so central to that episode’s narrative  is the result of driving while distracted by a phone, but in its portrait of grieving that episode swiftly shifts from the smartphone as the technology of interest to a sort of robotic-cloning experiment. Also, in “Be Right Back” the mourning character is not the one whose actions resulted in the death, while the main character of “Smithereens” is the one responsible. Granted, the driver in “Smithereens” is able to escape accountability for his actions as the other driver (who also was killed in the crash) was driving drunk – the viewer is never told “how drunk” that other driver is (and that drunk driver likely also shares some level of responsibility), but it is made painfully clear that the distracted driver blames himself. Like the other episodes in season five, “Smithereens” is well made and features some very strong performances, but unlike the other episodes in season five “Smithereens” seems to scream the moral of its story at its viewer.

And yet “Smithereens” presents a much more interesting, nuanced, and troubling portrait of life in a high-tech society than the other episodes in season five – and arguably than many of the other episodes of Black Mirror. The simplistic moralizing of the episode may prevent “Smithereens” from being deemed one of the shows “best” episodes, but “Smithereens” is in many ways a reminder of how good Black Mirror can be, and how often it fails to reach that level.

Black Mirror rarely tells the viewer what year a particular episode takes place in, which allows many episodes to be set at some indistinct point in the future. Yet, “Smithereens” opens by informing its viewers that the year being portrayed is 2018. Thus, the technological picture it draws is quite familiar. Yes, in typical Black Mirror fashion, Facebook is called Persona, and Twitter is called Smithereens – but the viewer immediately recognizes which apps the fake ones are meant to stand in for. The picture that “Smithereens” draws of 2018 shows a tech company able to cobble together a picture of a culprit quicker than the police can, and similarly shows that same tech company being able to listen in on that same culprit through his phone – in other words, an unsurprising picture of 2018. And though the driver has taken a hostage, who he threatens to kill at multiple junctures, as the episode continues it is heavily suggested that the hostage is at greater risk from trigger-happy police snipers than the driver himself (who it credibly seems, never really planned on hurting the hostage). The driver’s goal in the episode is to use kidnapping an employee of Smithereens as a way of securing a conversation with the company’s founder. And what makes “Smithereens” worthy of consideration is the conversation that takes place when the driver is ultimately connected to the company founder.

In speaking to the founder, the driver tells his story: and weepily confesses that he blames himself for the deaths of two people (his fiancée, the other driver) because he had checked Smithereens on his phone while driving. What makes the confession striking is that the driver does not really blame the founder, nor does he rage against him. Rather, the driver accepts responsibility. True, he has kidnapped at gunpoint a member of Smithereens’s staff, but this isn’t an episode depicting a man who blames a company and decides to go on a murderous rampage. The driver accepts responsibility, and then he makes a slight pivot: for while talking to the founder, he also notes that he’s read things about the way that Smithereens was designed to be addictive. Vitally, noting this does not lead him to pivot from taking responsibility, but it shades his responsibility with a troubling shadow: he’s responsible for his action, and yet in the background there’s a chain of murky technical decisions that had been made to prod him into making that decision.

The founder, played as a white-robed man-bun-having quasi-bro who is disturbed from his 10 day off the grid mediation retreat in order to handle this crisis, reacts to the driver with a somewhat surprising empathy: rejecting the urging of his underlings not to speak to the driver, but also clearly demonstrating that he does not know what to say to console the driver. Where the driver had confessed to the founder, this eventually prompts the founder to give his own confession to the driver; however, as the role of confessor flips the matter of responsibility also changes. The founder repeats a line that is heard all too often from the heads of major tech firms: he discusses how when it started it was supposed to be fun, to bring people together, and to change the world for the better. But then the founder pivots and his tone darkens as he talks about the teams of people who eventually came in to make the platform more manipulative and to ensure that people kept using it (the “addictive” element the driver had referred to). The founder notes that he wants to be done with the platform but that he somehow can’t walk away, but the key line the founder speaks is this:

“I started it, there’s nothing I can do to fucking stop it.”

Those are serious words in an episode that is so concerned with the matter of responsibility. And they make the founder out to be one of the descendants of Doctor Frankenstein: he created something powerful and dangerous because he could, and now that it’s on the loose and wreaking havoc he has realized that he has lost control (if he ever had it in the first place).

It’s not so much that “Smithereens” is trying to have it both ways on responsibility, as that it contains a sort of argument that we have to have it both ways. The driver really is responsible, but at the same time he was distracted because the app was designed to distract him (yes, even while driving). The company founder really is responsible for starting the company, but at the same time his power over the company has been diluted such that now he can’t really stop it. To be clear, this is not to give the driver or the founder a pass for their actions, but what “Smithereens” manages to wrestle with in the brief moments when the driver and the founder are on the phone is that our responsibility in regards to technology is rattled when those technologies are carefully designed to push and pull us in particular directions.

The consequences of people’s decisions regarding technologies, and their level of responsibility, has been one of the dominant features of Black Mirror. And it is common for those who are responsible for actually creating the technologies to be hidden from the audience. To a certain extent it feels like this has been the question that Black Mirror has been wrestling with the entire time. And with “Smithereens” it has arrived at an answer, unsatisfying though it may be, namely: we are responsible, but this responsibility occurs in a context designed to limit our range of choices. Thus “Smithereens” succeeds in saying something important and challenging about present life in high-tech society, and it does this without presenting a pat solution. Rather, it says “this is where we are, whether we like it or not.”

That is the moral that genuinely underlies most episodes of Black Mirror. And it is a much more troubling one than concluding that the only message of “Smithereens” is “don’t check your phone while you’re driving.

Granted, you really shouldn’t let yourself be distracted by your phone while you’re driving.


Full Circle

Black Mirror has never needed futuristic high-tech gadgets to have an impact. The program’s first episode, “The National Anthem,” relied entirely on technologies that were already old hat by the time that episode aired. And the same is true of “Shut Up and Dance” as well as “Smithereens.” Black Mirror has had some haunting moments sparked by new sorts of gadgets, but if one looks back at that first episode now it seems like one of the things it was saying was “this isn’t a warning about the future, it’s a warning about today, actually – it’s a warning about yesterday.”

To the extent to which the creators of Black Mirror had hoped the show would change attitudes towards technology (and it’s not clear that was their hope), it seems that Black Mirror hasn’t really had the desired effect. When Black Mirror premiered, its dark take on technology was refreshing at a cultural moment when it was still verboten to criticize the tech companies. And for a moment Black Mirror opened up a cultural space in which people could openly discuss their anxieties around new technologies without having to worry that they’d be labeled a technophobe or a luddite for doing so. While reports of a “techlash” seem overblown, at the present moment it seems that the romance with the tech giants has ended – even as people remain in thrall to their platforms and devices. Like the woebegone driver in “Smithereens” it has become clear to us that we are responsible for our uses of these platforms and devices, but at the same time it’s become clear to us that these platforms and devices are manipulating us constantly. Thus, it’s not so much that Black Mirror has run out of ideas, but that the cultural moment has moved past the point at which Black Mirror is effective. Every day the tech press (and the non-tech press) is riddled with stories about tech company malfeasance and/or disturbing new technologies that are just around the corner.

Or, to put it another way, who needs Black Mirror when you have reality?

Black Mirror has had some genuinely excellent moments over its five seasons, but it is time for the series to end. True, by ending after its lackluster fifth season, the show will not be going out at the height of its power, but it allows the show to end before it becomes even more of a caricature of itself. As each episode of Black Mirror tells a self-contained story, there is no grand narrative that it needs to conclude, no pesky subplots it needs to tie up. But with “Smithereens,” Black Mirror has brought itself back to where it started, with the message that the high tech dystopia is already here if you just squint and tilt your head properly. As a wry shorthand for discussing the daily news “this episode of Black Mirror looks terrible” has a useful function, but that is diminished significantly when “this episode of Black Mirror looks terrible” becomes a fitting description of actual episodes of Black Mirror.

Like “The National Anthem” before it “Smithereens” brings the viewer back to the point where the viewer is reminded that what they see in the turned off screen is the real black mirror. And at this point Black Mirror is no longer helping us to see the reflection, if anything it is distracting us from it.

After five seasons, and two specials, we still spend too much time staring at our black mirrors – but we’ve also spent more than enough time staring at Black Mirror.


Comments on the previous seasons of Black Mirror

On seasons one and two

On season three

On season four

On Bandersnatch

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Who needs Black Mirror when you have reality? – on Black Mirror’s Fifth Season

  1. Pingback: Who Listens to the Listeners? | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2019 by in Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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