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Let's Unpack Black Mirror's 'Anti-Streaming' Episode

Charlie Brooker's satire of Netflix is at once incredibly blunt and subtle.
  • Annie Murphy stars in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix)
    Annie Murphy stars in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix)

    Ahead of the show’s June 15 return, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker promised an installment unlike any other, telling Netflix’s Tudum site that he began “the season by deliberately upending some of my own core assumptions about what to expect.” The architect of the popular techno-thriller claimed the five episodes that make up Season 6 would “stretch the parameters of what ‘a Black Mirror episode’ even is” — an exciting prospect, even if (or perhaps because) Black Mirror Season 5 displayed the limits of the format.

    The Season 6 premiere “Joan Is Awful” is the high note this time around, though it doesn’t mark as big a departure from the show’s form or tone as Brooker might want us to believe — not at first, anyway. The production design adheres to the Black Mirror house style: glass offices, boxy silhouettes (the near-future is Everlane), and slightly sleeker gadgets than the ones we hold in our hands as we watch his dystopian visions unfold. The impetus for the chaos that follows — and Brooker and director Ally Pankiw do deliver giddy thrills with this premiere — is an ordinary person’s desire to have more control over their own life.

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 6. Turn back now if you must.]

    It’s the kind of monkey’s paw premise that was often central to the show’s spiritual predecessor The Twilight Zone, but is also at the core of Brooker’s anthology, for how often do technological advancements represent dreams that might be better left unfulfilled? The “grain,” the Arkangel system, the MASS augmented reality implant — all proved more destructive than helpful in the end. “Joan Is Awful” introduces a quantum computer that allows a streaming platform to produce prestige-tinged dramas in real time that star the digital likenesses of actors like Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett, Rob Delaney, Himesh Patel, and Ben Barnes, all through the “magic” of CGI. These shows are hailed by the fictional streamer’s CEO as “the most relatable content imaginable,” because they draw directly from the lives of their subscribers (read your terms and conditions, people!). The name of this fearsome platform is Streamberry, and it’s a stand-in for Netflix.

    That particular detail is no spoiler: Brooker joked about it in a recent interview with Empire. When he made his plans clear, Netflix didn’t even flinch: "They went away and came back quite quickly — weirdly quickly — and said, 'Yeah, okay.' There wasn’t any resistance to it, that I could tell. Which is a bit disappointing, because it would be good to be able to say 'I just did it anyway, because I’m an anarchist!' But no.”

    The fact that Brooker didn’t have to go rogue dulls the sting of the parody somewhat, as does Netflix’s blithe promotion of existing technology that hits a little too close to Streamberry home. “Joan Is Awful” still offers plenty of laughs and solid digs at the streaming landscape, and Annie Murphy and Hayek make a great comedic duo as they join forces to defy a media conglomerate. But the real commentary may actually be hidden in the episode’s many Easter eggs, some of which foreshadow other Season 6 episodes. The Streamberry landing page that promotes the eponymous show within a show that unravels Joan’s (Murphy) life also features thumbnails for documentaries like The Callow Years, a nod to the Season 1 episode “The National Anthem,” and Mad Mind: The Jerome F. Davies Story and Finding Ritman, which both reference characters from the interactive film Bandersnatch.

    There are several others, which we’re sure you can find cataloged elsewhere, but the one that stands out most is HotShot, which was a show within a show in the Season 1 episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” Written by Brooker and Konnie Huq, “Fifteen Million Merits” remains one of Black Mirror’s most devastating and acerbic entries, depicting a world in which everyone is first and foremost a consumer. People like Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) ride stationary bikes for “merits” that are used for everything from food to accessories for their avatars (or “doppels”), and they’re surrounded by screens that constantly display exploitative content. HotShot, itself a parody of shows like Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, seemingly represents a way out for riders like Bing and Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), but it’s really just a place where these consumers are consumed, commodified, their righteous indignation turned into content. Sound familiar? And, as if that weren't enough, "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)," the Irma Thomas song that Abi performed in "Fifteen Million Merits," plays over Joan and Mac's (Delaney) reunion. 

    As the satire becomes increasingly overt in the main action of “Joan Is Awful,” Brooker subtly builds to a much bleaker conclusion: that no one, not even an Oscar-nominated actor or an Emmy-winning TV writer, has complete control of their own story. A fake streaming company can license your image to depict you losing your bowels in church, and a real streaming company can undermine your parody by being too much like the fake one.

    This interpretation starts with the casting — as a fictionalized version of herself, Hayek bemoans the way she’s lost “control over my own image,” not long after invoking Frida, the 2003 biopic that made her an Academy Award nominee. Hayek has certainly had her own struggles, but Frida Kahlo’s image has been so thoroughly commodified that a show like Only Murders in the Building can comment on said commodification while essentially perpetuating it. In interviews, Brooker’s said that Murphy’s time on Schitt’s Creek — a show he binged on Netflix, naturally — inspired him to cast her in his anthology. But it was as the lead of the genre-straddling Kevin Can F*ck Himself that Murphy wrested the narrative from the chokehold of TV tropes.  

    The Emmy winner fares just as well in “Joan Is Awful” once her character and her real persona merge, and the premiere ends on a happy note, but not before revealing the source of all this “trouble”: the real Joan, played by Kayla Lorette. Streamberry’s machinations aside, the episode’s denouement suggests that it was Source Joan’s fear that she isn’t “the main character in my own life” that set things in motion. That feeling of being alienated from your own life runs through much of Season 6, even as it jumps between genres and time periods. The second episode, “Loch Henry,” points to the treacherousness of nature, as the Scottish wilderness claims a life. But in his search for the truth behind a series of local murders, aspiring documentary maker Davis (Samuel Blenkin) uncovers his own disturbing family history. He tries to resolve his feelings by turning the revelations into a documentary, i.e., content, but despite his personal connection to the story, he’s pushed out of the way by the production company he teams with. Even undesirable truths aren’t our own province.

    Though it’s set in 1969, the third episode of Season 6 only furthers this line of thinking. Starring Josh Hartnett and Aaron Paul as astronauts on a six-year mission, “Beyond the Sea” takes the classic Black Mirror approach to scientific advancement, treating it as both a blessing and a curse. The technology that sends the two men into outer space also allows them to remain at home via the use of incredibly human-like replicas. But when tragedy leaves one man bereft, the other is forced to realize that he checked out of his life long before embarking on this mission. He didn’t lose control of his story so much as forfeit it.

    The final two episodes of the season represent much bigger swings for Brooker, as he leaves the sci-fi genre entirely. But the celebrity being hounded by paparazzi in “Mazey Day” knows all too well the feeling of having others tell your story, whether it’s tabloid journalists or managers or fans. And if anyone is a second-billed character in their own life, it’s Nida (Anjana Vasan) at the outset of “Demon 79.”

    With Season 6 of Black Mirror, Brooker hasn’t completely diverged from the path he first set in 2011, which was now 27 episodes, two production companies, one channel, and one streaming platform ago. Familiar tensions arise, episodes run long, and the quality is hit or miss. What is unconventional is the greater sense of continuity or complementariness, and the way Brooker uses trifles (Easter eggs) to convey an innate fear and a classic storytelling theme: that control is an illusion, especially if your place in the hierarchy still requires you to look up.

    Black Mirror Season 6 is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Black Mirror