Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Black Mirror Season 6

Netflix’s self-aware exploration of all the ways we are awful.

Season 6 of Netflix’s Black Mirror has a unifying theme: we are all awful. The stories use a cleverly introspective technique to show society’s obsession with negativity and to acknowledge Netflix’s own role in supporting that obsession. The opening episode Joan is Awful is a mind-bending story on its own but, as Joan scrolls through the Netflix-style catalog onscreen, it serves as a set up for the increasingly dark episodes which follow. When Loch Henry (episode 2) pops up on the screen, Joan’s fiancé declares that he doesn’t want to watch another true crime show. But Loch Henry is coming at us anyway.

Season 6 has top notch casting, including Salma Hayak, Zazie Beetz, Kate Mara, and Josh Hartnett. The acting across the five shows is compelling, making each episode hard to turn away from once you start watching. The storytelling mostly succeeds, with the notable exception of Beyond the Sea, a plot which is so strangely and inexplicably misogynist that I spent days trying to figure out if I misunderstood some aspect of the story or the delivery.

Joan is Awful - The first episode of season 6 is the only one without extreme violence. However, it is Joan’s dissatisfaction with the normalcy of her life that foreshadows the descent into negativity in the stories that follow. Joan is an ordinary company boss who has a comfortable but unexciting relationship with her fiancé Krish. Joan feels like she is “going through the motions” on her job and that her relationship with Krish is, as she describes it, “vanilla.” After a stressful day at work, she watches television with Krish and discovers that the events of her day have been turned into a true life drama on Streamberry, their streaming service that looks suspiciously like Netflix. Everything she does appears in the next episode of the show but in a more extreme way. Joan is horrified and confused as to how this humiliating public replay of her life is happening and struggles to find a way to stop it.

The use of Netflix itself as the villain (under the pseudonym “Streamberry”) is an interesting, self-aware choice. The episode explores our society’s obsession with negative programming, especially those involving real people. It also addresses the way our many devices leak information about ourselves into corporations. Annie English and Salma Hayek are both funny as mirror images of Joan. The story progresses through an Inception-like journey for Joan to find answers and truly understand herself. As she does so, her understanding leads to our own.

Loch Henry – In Loch Henry, Davis, a film student, brings his American girlfriend Pia to visit his rural hometown in Scotland on their way to film a nature documentary. But Pia discovers his quiet little town has a dark secret involving the gruesome murder of a newlywed couple decades ago. Instead of being repulsed, she is intrigued and persuades Davis to change focus and pursue a film on the murders instead. The episode uses elements of horror film style storytelling along with salacious true crime obsession. Davis’s hesitation and fear at exploring the town’s ugly past, is contrasted to Pia’s intrigue and Davis’s friend Stuart’s flippancy. The big twist is as terrifying and upsetting as the underlying crime. It underscores the season’s theme of contrasting the mundane and the horrifying, as well as Netflix’s own introspection on its role in fueling this type of obsession.

Beyond the SeaBeyond the Sea is set in alternative version of 1969, where two male astronauts on a six year mission are given replica bodies that remain on earth with their two families. Although the astronauts are stuck in space they can download their consciousness into the android bodies for a limited period of time and spend time with their families in the lifelike replicas they inhabit. Cliff lives with his wife Lana and their son in a mostly isolated rural area. As a result, their son has no friends and Lana spends most of her time alone reading various novels. Lana has no autonomy and her existence is tethered to Cliff’s rules and choices.  In contrast, David lives in a big city with his wife Jessica and their two children. David is outgoing and enjoys his celebrity status when people encounter him in his android avatar. Cliff is quieter and more serious. He seems indifferent to his wife’s unhappiness with the family’s isolation. However, Lana does her best to tolerate the quiet existence. Things take a turn when a horrifying tragedy strikes David’s family leaving him emotionally devastated and largely unable to pull his share of the weight on the space mission. David is also no longer able to teleport his consciousness back to earth to escape the monotony and confines of the small space station. When Cliff’s attempts to comfort David fail, Cliff and Lana agree to let David borrow Cliff’s body to spend time on earth with Lana and their son. What could go wrong?

The story takes toxic masculinity to a new level. Although the original premise is intriguing, the ultimate story of Beyond the Sea is about treating women as property and the lengths to which both men will go to assert their property based claim. To say the episode is disturbing would be an understatement. The best thing about Beyond the Sea is the outstanding acting by each performer. Every moment is played with quiet intensity and smoldering terror. The story is problematic not because of the violence itself but because of the way it treats violence. As a tale is set in an alternative version of the sixties, it feels like what we would get if the unapologetic sexism of Mad Men were played out in a disturbed rival astronaut story. The answer is not a happy one.

Mazey Day – Bo, played by Zazie Beetz, is a paparazzi photographer who begins to question the morality of her work, especially after her choices have unanticipated, lethal effects. But her decision to try to do better quickly gives way when she needs cash. Mazey Day is a popular actress with a secret. She leaves a film shoot suddenly and becomes a recluse. That drives the paparazzi to pursue her in the hopes of a big payout from the newspapers. Bo’s hesitation to join in the hunt is contrasted with her odious colleagues who seem to revel in being jerks. But when the rent is due, Bo’s pragmatic side takes over. Mazey Day is a traditional chase / thriller with an outrageous twist that levels up what we think we know. Like Davis in Loch Henry, Bo is a stand-in for the viewers who know they should look away but can’t quite succeed in doing so. And the consequences are sobering.

Demon 79 – In Demon 79 we come full circle on the theme of awfulness. Although this episode has the most on-screen violence, it is surprisingly my favorite of the five stories. In 1979 England, Nida is a quiet shoe clerk in a middle class department store. Her life is bleak and lonely and she deals with daily racism varying from small microaggressions at her job to outright vandalism at her home. She endures all this with meekness but occasionally fantasizes about bashing people’s heads in. In a particularly humiliating moment, she accidentally triggers a mystical contract with a demon named Gaap. Gaap tells Nida she must murder three people in three days as a sacrifice or the world will be destroyed in a fiery apocalypse. Additionally, since Gaap is bound to her, if she fails, he will be cast into oblivion, alone for eternity.

Given the grim premise, the episode is surprisingly intriguing, as Gaap tries to persuade Nida to kill and Nida learns to find her voice. With Gaap’s flippancy and Nida’s anger, the tale leans into dark humor and sarcasm even as it deals with troubling and upsetting themes. The set design for the episode is perfect, complete with a retro opening title screen and muted brown and tan colors. We feel as if we are watching an old movie on the streaming service from Joan is Awful. In a particularly poignant scene, Gaap explains his fear of the loneliness of oblivion and Nida tells him she has already been living that kind of invisible existence. Demon 79 manages to nail the ending and give us a fitting conclusion to the overall journey.

Season 6 of Black Mirror is not for the squeamish but the messaging, for the most part, is meaningful. The cautionary themes are delivered by actors whose performances are riveting, and, hopefully, that  strong delivery will motivate us to eventually turn off our devices and go get some fresh air.


Nerd Coefficient: 8

  • Strong acting
  • So much violence
  • Problematic episode 3

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris -- Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.