To his credit, Brooker treats the idea of two male friends hooking up virtually with an appropriate amount of nuance. It's even more interesting when you consider that their avatars are male and female, allowing the episode to explore how a masculine guy can learn to appreciate the experience of sex as a woman. But these elements tie together a traditional story of a middle-aged guy being dissatisfied with his cookie-cutter life (see also American Beauty and almost every cinematic depiction of suburbia). Perhaps if "Striking Vipers" had room to flesh out the story, we'd get something a bit more unique. But at the least, the ending shows a respect for nontraditional relationships: The two gamers are allowed to have their intimate get-togethers while the wife of Mackie's character (played by Nicole Beharie) is free to have flings of her own.
From there, the season gets messier. "Smithereens" centers on a disgruntled driver for a taxi app (Andrew Scott from Sherlock and Fleabag) who kidnaps a young tech worker (Damson Idris) at gunpoint. He doesn't want money or anything luxurious; his only demand is to speak to the head of a massive social network company (Topher Grace). The episode plays out like a modern Dog Day Afternoon, where the hostage situation gets worse by the minute. But even though Scott and Idris deliver some solid performances, the emotional climax lands without any impact.
The taxi driver blames himself for the car accident that killed his wife, because he couldn't help but check a notification from the Twitter-like social network Smitheeren. It's meant to be a commentary on our dopamine-driven social media addiction, something that's brought up directly when the driver and CEO finally get to chat. But there's not much for either character to do: All the driver does is unburden himself, and the CEO just has to listen. He half-heartedly mentions that his social network wasn't meant to be so addictive and attention-sucking, but that's hard to take seriously when he's a billionaire in a robe on a week-long silent retreat. (That's a nod to the vacation preferences of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and plenty of other Silicon Valley elites.)
"Smithereens" juggles some interesting ideas, especially once we start to see how a powerful social network could quickly learn more about people than the police through digital eavesdropping. But the episode ultimately feels like a turgid morality play. My God, we've forgotten how to be bored!
The Miley Cyrus episode rounds out the season, but aside from the surprising nod to Nine Inch Nails, it plays out exactly like you'd expect for Black Mirror. A lonely high school girl (Rachel, played by Angourie Rice) finds comfort in pop star Ashley O's music and personal robot toy, Ashley Too. But it turns out Ashley O doesn't appreciate her aunt's domineering management style over her career. After they fight, she's placed into a coma, giving her aunt the chance to create a virtual Ashley O that'll be completely obedient. As a plus, the virtual pop star will be able to play concerts all over the world simultaneously without ever getting tired.