Review by David J Howe
Thank goodness for Black Mirror. Just when you thought there might be nothing left to watch on Netflix, along come some more episodes of the best science fiction/drama/horror/fantasy series going!
Season five was some four years ago, so writer and creator Charlie Brooker has a lot of material to play with, and the opening episode is in many ways a typical Black Mirror scenario, concerned with technology, it’s rapid rise, and where this might all eventually lead. It’s one of the big strengths of the series that a simple ‘what if’ can launch you into some full blown horror scenario which still seems completely believable.
In ‘Joan is Awful’ we follow the character of Joan (Annie Murphy) who, with her distinctive white streaks in her hair is head of something or other at a large tech company. She has a bad day: she has to sack a colleague, sings in the car going to work, drops a cigarette on said colleague as they leave the building … just a general, normal bad day …
But when she gets home, she discovers that the streaming company Streamberry (a direct swipe of Netflix, even down to the onscreen visuals and sounds) has a new series on called Joan is Awful, and this follows the life of a lady called Joan, played by Salma Hyack, who looks exactly like Joan, and whose day unfolds in exactly the same way … even down to secret text from an ex-boyfriend …
As a result her current boyfriend (or husband, it’s not important) walks out on her, she loses her job, and her life becomes more and more a living hell … and of course the TV show matches this all beat for beat.
It transpires that, when Joan signed up for Streamberry, she ticked the box that said she had read and accepted the terms and conditions, and as a result, Streamberry was allowed to stalk her and to use her life as the basis for a TV show! Shades here of the South Park episode ‘Human CentiPad’ where one of the children, Kyle, is stalked by Apple as a result of not reading the Terms and Conditions when agreeing to download the latest iTunes update, and as a result he has actually agreed to be part of a horrendous medical experiment!
Anyway, Joan takes her complaints to Streamberry, but meets a frosty reception as this is all part of their global plans. Salma Hyack is also displeased as they are using her likeness via an AI to make the episodes – and she has no say and gets no fees … so she and Joan join forces to try and take Streamberry down!
The episode is a brilliant reflection on modern life where we’re expected to read many-page terms and conditions online in order to access services, and in reality have little idea as to what we are signing up to. Plus the ruthlessness and cold-heartedness of Streamberry is notable, moreso as Netflix are airing the series, and this seems to not reflect well on them at all … I guess someone there has a sense of irony or humour after all. I do wish they would agree to pay the writers fairly though 🙁
Well worth a watch, and a great start to a new series of Black Mirror.
The second episode is called ‘Loch Henry’ and is a complete change of mood and style. Here we’re with a young couple Davis (Samuel Blenkin) and Pia (Myha’la Herrold) who arrive at Davis’ family home by the Loch, looking to make a documentary about a couple who went missing there years ago. There’s various likely suspects, and we soon realise that this time we’re in murder-mystery territory as the culprits are revealed …
I don’t want to say too much here as the pleasure in this episode is watching it unravel before you, and realising who and how the murders happened. It’s a sad tale, and the ending isn’t all happy …
‘Beyond the Sea’ is a strange title for a character piece about two astronauts, Cliff Stanfield (Aaron Paul) and David Ross (Josh Hartnett) on a six year deep space mission.
What puzzled me a little about this episode was the time it was set in – apparently 1969 on Earth, but we’re in some sort of alternate universe as the two astronauts are in a space station-like craft, and take it in turns to ‘connect’ their minds with a robotic body back on Earth, who looks and acts just like them, and which, when their mind is in it, carries on their life as though they had never left.
The robotic ‘self’ seems to be made from some quasi-organic material and ‘bleeds’ a silver liquid when cut. So when the men visit their wives and family, they can interact and carry on as normal.
This is, until a crazed Manson-like gang infiltrate David’s home and viciously kill his family in front of him, objecting to his ‘non-human’ form.
David slips into depression, as he is now unable to take the breaks he would have done from the tedium of the space craft. But then Cliff has an idea, why doesn’t David take Cliff’s robot body for some periods … to give him relief and to try and keep him sane. Thus David does this, and meets Cliff’s wife Lana (Kate Mara) and son. David can paint, which Cliff cannot, and so David persuades him to allow him to continue to visit in order to complete a painting of the house …
As this is a Black Mirror episode, perhaps you shouldn’t expect happy endings, and here where the story goes and how it ends is maybe the darkest the series has delved so far. Ostensibly a science fiction episode, it’s actually a very dark treatise on loneliness, death, and the human condition …
‘Mazey Day’ follows the life of a papparazo photographer, Bo (Zazie Beetz), who picks up a lead on a celebrity Mazey Day (Clara Rugaard) who has not been seen for two weeks after she left a film set. Bo has been recently disenfranchised by her chosen career when one of her ‘subjects’ commits suicide … But the Mazey Day pictures are worth a lot of money, and so she sets out to try and find her, tracing her to a rehabilitation centre. She and some fellow ‘togs’ break in, and find that she seems to be being held captive there … but why?
As always, I’m not going to give the game away, but this is a great horror-based episode, with a neat twist that we certainly didn’t see coming … It’s television firing on all cylinders, and giving us science fiction, horror, thriller, drama and everything in between …
Finally in Season 6 comes ‘Demon79’, and Brooker’s penchant for humour comes right to the fore (the episode is co-written with Bisha K Ali). Nida (Anjana Vasan) is a mild manner worker selling shoes in a department store, and she experiences imagined flashes of extreme violence against some who cross her. She is forced to eat her lunch in the basement, because others have complained of the smell of her spicy food, and one day she finds a talisman, cuts her finger, and accidentally summons a demon Gaap (Paapa Essiedu). Initially appearing as a very horrific vision, the demon realises that if he is going to get anywhere, he needs to look acceptable so pulls an image from her mind as to who to look like. And he chooses Bobby from the band Boney M in the video for their single ‘Rasputin’! Thus he tells Nida that she needs to kill three people in three days or the world will end … but what will mild-mannered Nida do? Surely there’s some out there who deserve to die!
Thus the stage is set for a very entertaining episode, levened with humour and great characters, and with all the little touches that make Black Mirror so great. I loved Nida watching Sapphire and Steel one evening … and the use of Bobby off the Boney M video is inspired.
I have loved this season of Black Mirror which again proves that it’s one of the best shows on streaming. Every episode presents something new and different and we veer from science fiction to horror to comedy to thriller to drama and back again, and often all of them all at once. It’s inspired and accomplished writing, supported by great performances and direction. A note too for the design, which manages to make the settings look like the years they’re supposed to be – 1979 here in ‘Demon79’.
Do yourself a favour and dive in. If you’re not keen on a certain episode (we found the very first one in season 1 – about the politician and the pig – to be not to our taste) then go to another as there are sure to be some things here which will inspire and move you. For me, the best episode remains ‘San Junipero’, a superior treatise on love and death … but others may love other episodes.