Reactions to Miley's episode have been "mixed"
Black Mirror was once invincible. Its 2016 debut on Netflix increased accessibility to the Twilight Zone-esque anthology, which debuted on Channel 4, propelling the series towards global recognition and critical praise for its shadowy vision of the future. That is, until the release of the brand new season five.
It’s only been a week since Netflix put out the newest episodes, but the reviews are already in – and the knives are out, from professionals and fans alike. Critics are calling the season “exquisitely dumb”, many fans are disappointed, and most of the backlash is falling on the episode Rachel, Jack, And Ashley Too.
Critiques range from the delivery being corny and childish to the plot being a straight-up mess. On Twitter, the episode has been compared to a bad Disney Channel movie. While ‘the Miley Cyrus one’ consistently ranks in the worst six Black Mirror episodes (Rotten Tomatoes deemed it “the absolute worst episode”), NME raved about it. But what would be the point of Black Mirror if we all agreed?
The episode starts out in classic Black Mirror fashion. The dialogue is serious, the colour grading desaturated, and the audience sits in quiet horror as we watch a girl substitute a best friend for a robot. Meanwhile, pop princess Ashley O is under strict management by her aunt, a nod to countless tightly controlled IRL pop stars. But it’s in its third act that the episode shines or falters, depending on who you ask.
Suddenly, our protagonists, featuring a foul-mouthed AI sidekick, are thrust into a comedic caper sequence evocative of Spy Kids, conjuring an out-of-left-field and out-of-character act that ended up leaving a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths.
Fans and critics alike were quick to discredit the episode due to its adolescent nature, but I think they’re missing something. The episode comes in the same pop packaging that Ashley O does. By degrading the episode, we’re doing to Black Mirror what Jack did to Ashley O – writing the episode off as ‘bad’ rather than taking the time to think about what it’s trying to say.
Ashley’s “Head Like a Hole” renditions present the perfect parallel. The song Ashley sings in the beginning (‘On a Roll’) and the one at the end are both based off the same song, by Nine Inch Nails, yet one is deemed trash by Jack, while the other has Jack playing bass and singing back-up. This begs the question: if the episode were carried out in signature Black Mirror manner, would the reception be warmer? And if so, is that valid?
Critics boiling the episode down to cutesy and poppy treats not only the genre of teen movies, but also pop, with disdain that reinforces the narrative that pop culture is for teenage girls, is worthless, and is to be used as a comedic punching bag. In 2019, we have enough pop artists pioneering in the genre (Charli XCX, SOPHIE, Rina Sawayama) that ‘pop’ is no longer synonymous with ‘bad’ or ‘shallow’. So how come we’ve yet to reach that ground with television and film?
From Rachel’s dance montage to the striking dichotomy between the two sisters, not to mention the bumbling single father, pop-turned-rock story arc, and Rat-Mobile laughs, the episode fondly draws inspiration from and subverts the teen movie genre. Many cited this episode as incohesive due to the large breadth of topics touched on, yet little depth explored through the concepts, but maybe that’s the point.
Not every question Black Mirror brings up has to be elaborated on, and, just like a teen movie, not everything that happens has to make complete sense. Black Mirror has almost conditioned us to analyse each episode too closely, searching for the meaning behind slight interactions and character dialogue.
In this departure, Black Mirror almost dares us to do the opposite, as if by examining the episode on a minute scale, we miss the bigger picture, losing the magic that once came to us so easily in ’80s capers, coming-of-age montages and – yes – happy endings.