A show that ‘revels in its twists’

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(Credit: Netflix)

With high-tech dystopias and pointed satire, and a cast including Aaron Paul, Josh Hartnett, Salma Hayek Pinault and Kate Mara, Black Mirror season six aims high – but its two final episodes are heavy-handed, writes Neil Armstrong.


Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker could be forgiven for wondering if Netflix’s publicity team was behind some of the news stories that broke just before the latest season of his show was released.

Apple unveiled its first major new piece of hardware in almost a decade. Apple Vision Pro is a mixed reality device that is strapped to your head, looks like a pair of mutated ski goggles and will insulate you from the real world for the two hours that its battery lasts for.

It’s exactly the sort of high-tech contraption that might feature in a typical episode of Black Mirror, in a storyline that would explore the extremes of its dystopian potential and delve into any unforeseen or unwanted impact.

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And just a couple of days after the Apple launch, in an interview broadcast on BBC radio, Alex Karp, the CEO of data analytics company Palantir Technologies, dismissed the call for a pause in the development of AI, as voiced by many tech leaders, because “the race is on. There’s only a question of do we stay ahead or do we cede the lead”. The race was being driven, he said, by military applications for AI. Again, we seemed to be in classic Black Mirror territory.

It’s been four years since series five. The long gap was partly due to the pandemic. In 2020 Brooker said: “At the moment, I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart, so I’m not working away on one of those.”

He actually started writing this season in mid-2021, he told Empire magazine, with a feeling “that technology had slightly plateaued… So, I thought ‘I’m just going to chuck out any sense of what I think a Black Mirror episode is.’ There’s no point having an anthology show if you can’t break your own rules.”

So, we have new five episodes, two more than the 2019 series, and there’s as much of a focus on old tech – videotapes, digital cameras, an enchanted rune – as there is on new. However, some familiar themes are also present, such as AI, data harvesting and deepfakes.

In Joan is Awful, the titular character is shocked to discover that a popular streaming platform is carrying a dramatised version of her life, starring Salma Hayek. The show becomes a smash hit, having a huge impact on Joan’s life.

Loch Henry sees a young couple, Davis and Pia, stopping off in Davis’s rundown Scottish Highlands hometown on their way to the island of Rùm, where they plan to make a nature film. They are sidetracked instead into making a true-crime documentary, with disastrous results.

In Beyond the Sea, the central episode and, at 80 minutes, the longest, a pair of astronauts two years into a six-year mission in deep space are able to download their consciousness into android replicas of themselves at home on Earth to reduce the burden of their isolation and keep their families happy. Naturally, things do not work out swimmingly.

Mazey Day revolves around a troubled young film star hounded by a determined paparazzo who seems to be having doubts about the morality of her job.

And finally, in Demon 79, a quiet British Asian woman who works in a department store accidentally enters into a very binding contract with a demon.

Over the whole season, there’s a very starry cast including, among others, Aaron Paul, Josh Hartnett, Salma Hayek Pinault, Kate Mara, Myha’la Herrold, Annie Murphy, Rob Delaney and Paapa Essiedu.

Everyone will have their own favourite performance but, for my money, Aaron Paul is the standout as one of the astronauts in what is also probably the best episode, the retro-future Beyond the Sea. It’s not easy to convey emotion when playing a buttoned-up character who, for professional reasons, tries not to convey much emotion. Joan is Awful has the most Black Mirror-esque, mindbending story and Annie Murphy, from Schitt’s Creek, is good comedy value as the beleaguered Joan. Loch Henry is, arguably, the most disturbing and features a particularly bleak and troubling sequence.

Few series undergo the sort of obsessive analysis that Black Mirror is subject to

But Black Mirror is a show that revels in its twists, and Netflix asks that journalists don’t reveal much about each episode, giving lists of specific plot points – and even words – to be avoided. This limits what can be said here but it is fair enough – viewers like to discover the twists and surprises for themselves.

Few series undergo the sort of obsessive analysis that Black Mirror is subject to. Fans write pieces which aim to demonstrate that all episodes are set in the same universe or try to establish a definitive timeline of events. They exhaustively catalogue the connections between episodes and the intra-universe references.

There’s plenty in season six to pique their interest. In just the first episode, for example, Joan and her fiancé wonder whether to watch Sea of Tranquility – a fictional TV show referenced in several previous episodes. The next show they consider is Loch Henry, “the Scottish murder thing”, also the title of the second episode of this series.

Scrolling through his phone – which has a 7G connection! – one character sees a reference to protests over UK PM Michael Smart; an extremist politician called Michael Smart features in the later episode Demon 79.

Joan walks into a bar and the song that’s playing is Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) by Irma Thomas – see previous Black Mirrors. Joan’s lawyer works at Skillane Legal, Skillane being a name familiar to Black Mirror students. And so on. Whether these “Easter eggs” serve any purpose other than to give fans an excuse to deploy the “Rick Dalton pointing” meme is unclear. Actually, perhaps that’s exactly Brooker’s purpose.

But you don’t need to have watched previous seasons to appreciate the show. Indeed, if you have, you need to guard against spending your time trying to spot meta-textual references rather than simply enjoying the drama.

Fans also expect a certain amount of satire, and the first two episodes deliver here. Netflix is the target of some of Brooker’s gags, in much the same way that The Simpsons used to make fun of the Fox network. In Joan is Awful, the channel showing the Joan show is called Streamberry and has exactly the same iconography, sound idents and format as Netflix. And in Loch Henry, Davis’s friend asks him: “What was the name of that Netflix thing, about the guy that killed women?” “Maybe narrow that down,” says Pia, drily. It is Streamberry that ends up screening Davis and Pia’s true-crime documentary.

(Credit: Netflix)

The final two episodes are less successful than the others, hinging on the supernatural rather than technology (even if some of the supernatural elements are metaphorical). Both Mazey Day and Demon 79 take place in the past (or rather, “a” past) and the script is at pains to make this abundantly clear. In fact, in Demon 79 we never hear the end of it. A politician’s speech refers to the recent “winter of discontent”. The National Front marching in Southall is on the news. Boney M’s Rasputin is on the radio. Sapphire and Steel and adverts for Smash are on the TV. The pub juke box has I Don’t Like Mondays and Hit Me with Your Rhythm stick and – yes, OK, Charlie, 1979, we get it.

Meanwhile, the satire in Mazey Day, the weakest episode of the five and, at 40 minutes long, the shortest ever, is distinctly heavy-handed and the target at which it is aimed it is hardly new or unusual.

When it launched, in 2011 on Channel 4, Black Mirror was pretty much a lone explorer in uncharted territory, at least on TV, but a number of other shows now probe similar themes. Series such as Apple TV+’s Severance and FX’s Devs revolve around cutting-edge technology being used with terrifying consequences. This is one of the reasons for Brooker “shaking up what the show is a bit” – his words – in this season by setting more episodes in the past and taking some trips into the horror genre.

Another reason might simply be that technology is catching up with Brooker. Where once he used his black mirror to scry the future, like some sort of 21st-Century John Dee, it is now virtually a reflective rather than a predictive instrument.

Oh, and there’s another way in which the latest season is atypical. It includes an episode with one of Black Mirror’s rare happy endings. Well, happy by Black Mirror standards.

Black Mirror season 6 is on Netflix now.


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