Black Mirror, season five launched this week, and like the previous seasons in the series, the level of provocation is high. The basic human condition is deconstructed, and examined with regards to its relationship to the tech we live our lives with. There are very few aspects of life that, in the west, don’t intersect with tech in fundamental ways. From how we communicate with each other, experience reality, experience our sexuality, work, or keep ourselves company, tech is ubiquitous, and its influence on our interface is increasing.
Virtual reality has the potential to open the door for a lot of new experiences, but the one that will be the most lucrative is probably virtual sex. In “Striking Vipers,” best friends Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen) and Danny (Anthony Mackie) try the latest, VR version of their favorite video fighting game, Street Viper. Karl takes the avatar Roxette (Pom Klementieff), and Danny plays as Lance (Ludi Lin). They end up fucking instead of fighting.
For both of them, ensconced in avatars of Asian kung-fu fighters, the sex is transcendent. Danny is married, and as his interest in Karl’s buxom avatar grows, his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie), notices how removed he becomes from their domestic life. What Black Mirror does so skillfully is what The Twilight Zone, a show to which it is oft compared, did so well before it. It asks direct questions about who we are and what we want to be.
Is it cheating to fuck your best friend’s avatar in a virtual reality simulation? With so many new and varied ways to semi-cheat, the question of what constitutes adultery is front and center in culture. Maybe a VR affair is less an affair and more a video game? Something closer to a chat line? What about sex dolls, is that cheating? Maybe any emotional pull from a primary relationship a cheat, unless all partners are ethically non monogamous or poly.
In the end, all parties involved, including Theo come to an agreement, and decide that passionate, transcendent, VR sex is okay, sometimes, once a year. What remains unexplained is how the trio deal with the mental pull of attraction during the rest of the year. Having a cheat day once a year doesn’t relieve the fantasies of chocolate cake the rest of the time.
Virtual life conflicts with reality again in “Smithereen.” Chris (Andrew Scott), a driver for hire, makes it his mission to take contact the founder of Smithereen, a Facebook style social media site. He takes an employee hostage, and uses that leverage to get Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), the Mark Zuckerberg of Smithereen, on the phone. For most of the episode, there’s no real understanding as to why Chris is doing this. We know he has nothing to lose, his fiance and mother have both died, and he has nothing to live for. His entire motivation is to have this man listen to him, to have the attention of the man who runs the website that is the interface to reality. Smithereen was how they connected to the world.
Bauer is on a tech-free retreat, and is interrupted to take Chris’ call. Instead of the typical Silicon Valley douchebag portrayed in entertainment and media, Billy is a human being, who is as desirous of honest connection as Chris is. It’s somewhat absurd that they try to connect to one another, but it’s a hopeful statement, that two individuals can cut through the typical bullshit of status and social hierarchy to achieve an understanding. This is the weakest link of the three episode season, primarily because it talks about tech and the downfalls of being constantly interfaced instead of showing it.
In “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” Miley Cyrus stars as pop star Ashley O who sings super life affirming positive message songs to the tune of Nine Inch Nails Head Like a Hole. Her story runs parallel to the story of a die-hard fan, Rachel (Angourie Rice), a teen girl who is lonely and vulnerable to influence. What she doesn’t realize, in her adoration of Ashley O, is how similar they are, and how similar their struggles are.
But Ashley O is more than a singer, she’s a brand, and when she launches a new AI doll, Ashley Too, Rachel gets one for her fifteenth birthday. Her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) hates the doll, finding it trite, overly poppy, and inane. But the doll is uncanny, bearing a striking similarity to the real Ashley, who Jack, steeped in 90’s alt rock, also hates.
The real Ashley is under the thumb of her Miss Hannigan style aunt Catherine (Susan Pourfar), who wants all the money her niece’s pop stardom generates without any of the hassle of the real woman she’s become. When Ashley O threatens the spunky poppy brand with some Sonic Youth style realness, Catherine won’t have it. She contrives to sink Ashley into a coma, and extract songs from deep within her brain, to have them performed live in concert by a hologram.
Our outcast teen heroines will have none of it. After gaining the help of Rachel’s hacked Ashley Too, they undertake a rescue mission, saving the real Ashley, crushing the ambitious auntie, and freeing themselves from their own fears.
In the end, when Ashley gets to give voice to the darkness inside her, Head Like a Hole gets Trent Reznor’s lyrics back. Also it’s probably time to give that whole record a new listen. Just ask Ashley Too to play Pretty Little Hate Machine.
What Black Mirror does so well is ask the questions that play at the edges of our consciousness, those concerns we don’t want to give voice to, about who we are in light of this nearly seamless technical integration with machine and machine reality. The answers it offers are divergent, and somewhat relativistic. The power struggle between tech and humanity can go either way, and it depends on how comfortable we are in giving up our autonomy to our own avatars, splicing ourselves into fractals for the convenience of a multi-player experience on a platform that remakes us more quickly than we can construct it.