The journey of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ Orwell-inspired anthology series, from a Channel 4 Sunday night serial to the Netflix-owned global phenomenon it has become, has reached what might be its logical conclusion.
Stars of the new fifth season, released all in one go next month and comprised of three sixty-minute episodes, include Miley Cyrus, Anthony Mackie, Topher Grace and Fleabag’s own Andrew Scott. And if season four’s distinctly American flavour wasn’t indication enough, we wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect an even chirpier set of stories this time around. (But don’t fret: it’s still Black Mirror.)
This is a creative decision Brooker insists was motivated by a desire to keep the show fresh, rather than a sop to its American backers and increasingly global audience. “Sometimes we want to be the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but sometimes we want to be Pixar”, he said at a preview screening for the press in Soho on Thursday. Warning – we will be looking into, but not spoiling, the episodes from here on in. If you’re all about preserving the purity of expectation then stop reading now.
The comparison to Pixar isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”, screened on Thursday, is as much about the inanimate-but-alive objects we surround ourselves with as it is about the struggles of stardom. Cyrus plays ‘Ashley O’, a major popstar who releases a line of AI gadgets bearing her resemblance – known as ‘Ashley Too’ – which vow to be their owner’s “best friend.” We follow Rachel (Angourie Rice), a teenage ‘O’-bsessive (sorry) who rushes to buy one, setting in motion a chain of events that sees her experience a slice of her idol’s life – just not the one she expected.
You wouldn’t believe me if I said it’s “A Star Is Born” crossed with “Toy Story” but, well, it sort of is. Though unlike “A Star Is Born”, there are none of Jackson Maine’s stone-cold bangers to balance out the derivative dance-pop – the semi-original soundtrack is exclusively ‘sell-out bops’ which are, remarkably, adapted from Nine Inch Nails songs. It’s in these classic-era Hollywood elements where Cyrus seems the perfect choice to pay Ashley. In truth it’s as if the part was written for her. Showrunner Annabel Jones said: “Her whole career has been as the Disney popstar trying to assert her own identity, so naturally she related to a lot of what the episode explores.” Booker seconds this, explaining that Cyrus relished being part of a series still unmatched in its ability to provoke: “She said in our first conversation, ‘It’ll piss people off – and pissing people off is kind of my thing.’”
If that makes “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” sound bleak, it really isn’t. The episode benefits from its shortened runtime, zipping along at a good pace but never feeling rushed. And in its second half, too, it becomes something of a heist film, putting light-hearted humour tone right next to an unexpectedly caper-ish tone. It’s not what we’ve come to expect from the series, but it’s by no means a step backward. If the rest of the series can sustain this caliber alongside its irreverent subversiveness, viewers of Black Mirror will once again not be disappointed.
Black Mirror resurfaces on Netflix on Wednesday, the 5th of June 2019 with a slightly shorter season of three episodes.