This article contains some spoilers.
It’s been a long wait for the latest season of Black Mirror. Bandersnatch, the interactive film, pushed back the release of season five but it finally dropped this week. It was definitely worth the wait.
This season had a few surprises, such as the inclusion of Miley Cyrus and Anthony Mackie, as well as the focus being shifted away from technology onto the people who carry the stories. This was a smart directional decision. Over the years, Black Mirror has become increasingly elaborate with its technology. This culminated in the inclusion of an interactive feature film which showcased that not only were the storylines cutting edge, but so was the way they were presented. The decision to strip back to basics came at the right time and allowed this season to feel fresh. Understated can sometimes be the bold choice.
Black Mirror is essentially a collection of short stories from one world. It isn’t necessarily ever trying to tell us anything new about technology – it just explores the potential of technology and, crucially, how people react to that potential. So many of the themes within each episode are topics already heavily discussed by science-fiction fans. The fun and complex look of sexuality in Striking Vipers isn’t anything a lot of geeks won’t have discussed before. Do virtual relationships count as ‘real’? But why Black Mirror works is that it’s not pretending its anything strikingly fresh. In season five, it’s firmly back at looking at humanity and how one marriage navigates this tricky question – where everyone in the world could come up with different answers. The technology is merely a writing prompt, as it should be with great scifi.
In Smithereens, we again see nothing new. There’s a touch on a very conventional issue which is who gets the right to access our social media after we die, when a mother struggles with the suicide of her daughter. However, the heart of the episode follows a man torn up with grief because his partner died in a car accident where he checked his phone while he was driving. It’s an everyday story – aside from the kidnap, of course – and something people might not necessarily associate with when they think of the show with killer bee drones. In the episode Cyrus stars, technology shares the centre stage alongside the exploration of an extremely broken family relationship where a woman is being exploited due to her fame.
Stripped back, Black Mirror reveals the poignancy of episodes like Be Right Back is still there. We’re used to the knock out blows in high tech episodes, but this series can adapt because it knows to build around the characters and their stories. It’s what allows the show to remain just as strong when its technological focus is diluted.