Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

'Black Mirror,' season 5: Everything you need to know before watching

The latest season of Charlie Brooker's sci-fi anthology is now streaming on Netflix

Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II square up on the older version of 'Striking Vipers'. Netflix
Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II square up on the older version of 'Striking Vipers'. Netflix

Season 5 of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ techno-noir anthology show, Black Mirror, landed on Netflix today in the UAE, and we’ve taken the trouble to watch it and answer your burning questions before you settle down to watch it yourself.

There may be very mild spoilers ahead, but nothing too bad, and no major plot points – after all, this is intended as a guide for before you watch, not a review or a plot outline.

How many episodes are there?

This season is somewhat shorter than previous incarnations with just three episodes, although each episode clocks in at over an hour, so they are slightly longer than most episodes in previous seasons. This is in part because December’s “choose your own adventure” Black Mirror film Bandersnatch was intended as a Season 5 curtain raiser and, with its multiple narrative possibilities and numerous alternative endings, was the practical equivalent of filming several episodes at once.

Do I need to watch the episodes in order?

Not necessarily, though it probably depends on how you intend to watch the series. If you plan to just watch an episode here and there a few days apart, there’s absolutely no need to watch in order. There’s no narrative link between the three episodes and they can all be viewed as a standalone entity.

If you’re planning on binge watching the whole lot at once, however, we’d recommend the order they’re listed in on Netflix. The series is quite an emotional rollercoaster and the episodes were presumably put in the order they were for a reason.

Episode one, Striking Vipers, will leave you feeling relatively warm and fuzzy inside, if a little unsure as to whether you really should be given the slightly unusual circumstances of the uplifting ending. Episode two, Smithereens, takes you to a much darker place and may well leave you welling up as it draws to a close. Finally, Episode three, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, is a bit more of a throwaway affair and will realign you after the bleak ending of the previous episode.

That 'throwaway' is not a slur, incidentally – the third episode is still tremendously fun, and a couple of noteworthy twists prevent it from being the pure bubble gum affair we may be expecting from the first 20 minutes or so, but it’s definitely not trying to play with our emotions as much as the first two episodes.

Is it up to the usual high standard?

Absolutely. The series starts on an absolute high with Striking Vipers, which asks, and possibly even answers some, fascinating questions about identity, sexuality, male emotion repression, infidelity, ageing, parenthood, friendship, and more. Thematically and tonally, it would compare favourably to previous episodes like Hang the DJ or San Junipero.

Smithereens is the opposite, following an eventful day in the life of a man with a serious issue with social media, and giving us all a useful reminder of it’s all-consuming influence on, and control over, our lives. Tonally you would sit this one alongside Shut Up and Dance or Metalhead.

Finally, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is the fun installment, complete with cute robot version of squeaky clean pop star and wicked aunt plot line. It could reasonably be compared to episodes such as USS Callister or Nosedive.

There's also some decent performances from big name stars, in particular the Striking Vipers lead trio Anthony Mackie, Nikki Beharie and Yahya Abdul Mateen II and Miley Cyrus as, what else, a squeaky clean pop star having a coming-of-age crisis in Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Fleabag's Andrew Scott, meanwhile, may be less well-known internationally than his American counterparts, but his heartrending turn in Smithereens is probably the best performance of the season.

Is Brooker still obsessed with screens?

Of course – the whole show is named after them, and he’s not stopping now. There’s rarely a shot where someone isn’t staring at their phone or a computer screen, typing on it, taking or sharing pictures on it, actually going inside it, and on the odd occasion even making a phone call on it.

There’s plenty of reminders of the pervasive nature of social media, the unknown quantities inherent in VR, and the weird and unexpected directions developing technologies like AI could still take us in.

There’s plenty of reminders of the pervasive nature of social media, the unknown quantities inherent in VR, and the weird and unexpected directions developing technologies like AI could still take us in.

That doesn’t mean the show is only for tech geeks though. Rather than making the show about the technology, Brooker, as ever, uses existing technology as a conduit for telling ultimately very human stories.

So should we still be scared?

It looks like it. This is the closest we’re getting to (mild) spoilers, so look away if you don’t want to know that in the show, we see how…

…social media companies can have access to a criminal suspect’s full details and life history before the police have even got as far as knocking on a door to make enquiries; AI could potentially completely replicate an existing human being, even to the extent of making life and death decisions for their human form; VR can play havoc with existing gender assumptions and real world relationships, and that we are being spied on, constantly, everywhere we go.

So in short yes, we should still be scared.

Updated: June 5, 2019 07:47 PM

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