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‘Black Mirror – Season 6’ (review): Charlie Brooker Goes Retro… and (Sort of) Nips the Hand that Feeds Him

Charlie Booker, the creator and principal scripter of Black Mirror, insists that the moral of his series isn’t that “tech is bad” but (as he told Games Radar) “people are f***ed up.”

Consequently, Season Six avoids stories about “people who find out they’re inside a computer” and seeks to return to the gritty, low-tech vibe of the series pilot, “The National Anthem.”

That’s too bad for a couple of reasons. First, those people-in-the-computer episodes are some of the best he’s ever given us. “San Junipero,” “USS Callister,” “Hang the DJ,” and “White Christmas” are memorable because they’re sympathetic to humans who are at the mercy of soulless technology… even if those “humans” are just software simulations, they still bleed when you cut them and they cry real tears.

Second, it’s hard to imagine most of the f***ed-uppery of the first five seasons without the one-minute-into-the-future technology that has become Black Mirror’s trademark. Take Season Three’s “Nosedive,” about a woman who gets locked out of her life after a barrage of one-star reviews. Sure, you could tell the story without referencing social-rating apps and China’s Social Credit System… but then there would be no point writing that story in the first place. As with Season One’s “Fifteen Million Merits” (in which the only alternative to mindless drudgery is prostituted fame), the best Black Mirror episodes aren’t about how technology enables our darker instincts but in the ways it actively inspires them… often rewriting our social DNA without our knowledge or consent. Very often the mirror’s blackest revelation is that what we call “consent” is only an illusion (check out 2018’s interactive Bandersnatch standalone for an illustration).

In that light, it’s significant that the Season Six Opener, “Joan is Awful,” is exactly the kind of episode that Brooker says he’s trying to get away from.

Art by Butcher Billy

You have a female protagonist (Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) who’s no better or worse than most of us… except that her private faults are instantly being streamed worldwide via an AI-generated show on “Streamberry,” a thinly disguised version of Black Mirror’s host platform Netflix. Some critics have interpreted this as a warning against AI, others as a swipe at the streamer’s well-documented habit of chewing up creators and spitting them out (Netflix does seem to be in on the joke)… but it seems to me that real villain is a social media landscape that thrives on our pleasure in tearing each other apart.

Is technology responsible for our being awful, or does it simply let the awfulness out of its cage?

We’ve heard this question before. In John Cheever’s 1947 short story “The Enormous Radio,” an ordinary couple discovers their new radio will let them listen in on their neighbors’ private arguments and infidelities… which is a lot of fun until they find out their misery is also being broadcast to everyone else. In the same way, “Joan is Awful” suggests that AI can only interpret what we give it: and if the input is fueled by our schadenfreude and mutual self-loathing, that’s what it’s gonna give us.

“Joan is Awful” feels like a nod to the first five seasons of Black Mirror. There’s a fleeting reference to San Junipero and a few bars of the show’s favorite R&B song, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” We even get one of Brooker’s favorite tropes, an infinite regression: just as the real Joan is played onscreen by Salma Hayek, the in-universe “Joan is Awful” contains its own “Joan is Awful,” starring Cate Blanchett. At times the script gets us so tangled in levels of reality that it could have been written by that other dystopian Charlie, aka Mr. Kaufman.

But, as I said, that’s pretty much the only Season Six episode that sticks to familiar Black Mirror territory. The other four stories lead us backward—back into retro-tech, even to the supernatural, and down into our basest instincts.

The second episode, “Loch Henry,” is set a week from today but looks back to events in the 1990s, when VHS camcorders were the affordable standard for video capture and you still had to worry about accidentally taping over your mom’s favorite cop shows.

Art by Butcher Billy

An ambitious young film student (Industry’s Myha’la Herrold) convinces her boyfriend (Samuel Blenkin) to make a documentary about a string of serial murders that devastated his Scottish home town. No points for guessing that this true-crime doc winds also winds up on “Streamberry”—or that the truth will land a little too close for our filmmakers’ comfort.

“Loch Henry” is a good episode. The ending is easy to predict if you’ve kept up with the show, and has a weirdly long coda after the big reveal. But it keeps the characters real and the performances are fantastic. Blenkin is perfect as the sad-eyed wannabe documentarian who just wants to make little films about a man who protects endangered eggs from poachers and winds up famous in a way he never wanted. His mother (Monica Dolan, a Black Mirror veteran from Season Two’s “Smithereens”) punctuates her mild homeyness with moments of unexpected fury. Herrold seems at first to be the perfect supportive girlfriend until she shows the razor’s edge of her ambitions. And Four Weddings and a Funeral’s John Hannah is virtually unrecognizable as a drunken, emotionally mutilated witness to the 1990 murders.

Is “Loch Henry” a Black Mirror episode? Sort of. The tech angle is missing (unless you want to count the suspense of waiting for a videotape to digitize), but the familiar swipe at the media is still present, and ultimately the finger is pointed at us: specifically, our less than healthy obsession with true-crime dramas that reopen the wounds of survivors for our amusement. As in previous seasons, there’s a brief crossover reference to this episode in “Joan is Awful.” When Joan suggests watching “Loch Henry” on Streamberry, her boyfriend idly replies that he’s tired of true-crime docs. The dialogue lands a little harder once you know the full truth and see that every frame of “Loch Henry” is drenched in pain.

Both “Joan is Awful” and “Loch Henry” are basically shows within shows, streamed in-universe on a fictitious platform modeled on Black Mirror’s Netflix. This makes it impossible to ignore the suspicion that these episodes aren’t just commenting on popular entertainment but commenting on themselves, the culmination of five seasons of tearing human lives apart for our amusement. We can keep watching the degradation because we know the characters aren’t real. But what if they were?

This is the focus on the next two episodes, “Beyond the Sea” and “Mazey Day.” The first of these could perhaps be described as retro-futuristic. It’s set in the 1960s, except there’s deep-space NASA probes in which the astronauts can beam their consciousness across vast distances into perfect android bodies, allowing them to have dinner with (and, yes, sleep with) their wives at the end of a working day.

This being Black Mirror, and this being the ’60s, something truly dystopian has to happen. One of the astronauts (Josh Hartnett) suffers a home invasion from a group of spaced-out, Mansonlike hippies while he’s in his android body. First they mutilate his artificial body—can’t feel pain if he’s not “real,” right?—and then they force “him” to witness the murder of his wife and child. This is a brilliant riff on history (the Tate-LaBianca murders happened in the same summer as the Apollo 11 landing, after all), and sets us up for a story that’s a lot less about androids and a lot more about PTSD. The other astronaut’s wife (played by House of Cards’s Kate Mara) convinces her husband (Aaron Paul, who sadly does not say “dude” or “science” once, despite many opportunities) to let his grieving friend borrow his body to keep him from going over the edge. This plan merely succeeds in sending him over a different edge. “Beyond the Sea” reminded me a lot of hard-bitten realist stories by Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce. Except for the body-transfer setup, it could easily have been set in a mining camp in the 1860s. No spoilers here, but it’s safe to say that, as in every Bierce short story, the dead don’t go easy and no good deed goes unpunished.

Art by Butcher Billy

Just as “Beyond the Sea” gives us murder-hippies who don’t think astronauts deserve mercy because they can’t feel pain, the fourth episode “Mazey Day” centers on celebrities who are treated as less than human by the paparazzi and folks like us who can’t avert our eyes. Appropriately, the story is set in the early 2000s, when events like the death of Diana were making us all too aware of the dangers of our celebrity obsessions. Our protagonist (Atlanta’s Zakie Beetz) is a paparazzo with a conscience—she walked away after one of her celebrity subjects killed himself—but also with a seriously empty bank account. She has no choice but to jump at an assignment to get pictures of our title character (Clara Rugaard), who disappeared after a drugged/drunken bender in the Czech Republic and is rumored to be in rehab.

Our photographer soon turns from hunting Mazey down to fearing for her and, ultimately, fearing her. This is not the first time that Black Mirror has dealt with parasympathetic relationships with celebrities (see Season Five’s “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”) but it definitely takes it in a different direction. It’s hard to explain what this difference is without giving away the twist, but it’s fair to say that a force other than technology is responsible for unleashing the darkness. Poor Mazey is not to blame.

Art by Butcher Billy

“Mazey Day” is taut and tense. The season ender that follows it, “Demon 79,” is much less so. This seems to have been a deliberate attempt to create an anti-Black Mirror episode (it’s actually presented as “Red Mirror” in the retro-70s titles), in which the supernatural stands in for tech. Set in Thatcher’s England, a Singaporean retail employee named Nida (Anjana Vasan) has to suffer daily with thinly disguised racism in the form of a jealous colleague and a would-be M.P. (David Shields) who’s equal parts Tony Blair and Donald Trump (this actually works). Brooker loves skewering politicians, and much of “Demon 79” traces Nida’s downward spiral into Travis Bickle territory (except that Taxi Driver did it funnier). She’s assisted downstairs by a demon named Gaap (Paapa Essiedu), whom she accidentally unleashes during lunch break, and who hilariously takes the form of 70s funk star Boney M. Gaap is basically an inversion of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Clarence, seeking to earn his horns by tempting Nida to murder three people in three days. If she doesn’t, the forces of darkness will end the world and Gaap won’t get to be a demon.

Art by Butcher Billy

Like Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Nida reconciles herself to the job by killing people who deserve it—a passerby who’s revealed to be a child molester, a slovenly neighbor who got away with killing his wife—before turning her sights on the politician. This would be a great episode, except for two things: one, it goes on forever (a leisurely hour and fifteen minutes); and two, it’s hard to figure out just what the black mirror is supposed to be reflecting. Anti-racist revenge? Funkadelic-inspired violence? There is one theme that seems worth reflection, which is the theme of false choice that so many Black Mirror episodes revolve around. Just as the title character of “Joan is Awful” ticks the terms and conditions without reading them, and just as “Mazey Day” is transformed into something horrible against her will, Nida is forced to make a choice that isn’t a choice: she can kill three people or she can end the world. She’s playing God, and yet she’s completely powerless.

It’s been four years since we last had a season of Black Mirror, and Charlie Brooker is giving strong signals that he’s ready for something else. This isn’t bad news—Cunk on Earth is an absolute good—but it seems like he might be leaving the party just as we’re finally ready for what he has to say. Just as Cunk on Earth is a wonderfully lighthearted meditation on human ignorance, Black Mirror is still the most watchable warning we’ve had about human weakness.

We create technology and tell it what to do. Allegedly it exists to serve us. It couldn’t harm us if we stopped using it, and yet we keep using it. We think we’re making an informed choice to use it, and yet it rewires us in ways we’re barely aware of. We have a choice. We don’t have a choice. This is the eternal paradox of Black Mirror. And while this season doesn’t hit the heights of its predecessors, it’s still the strongest warning we have about the dangers of learned helplessness at the feet of our own creations.

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