‘Black Mirror’ season six review: A mixed bag of supernatural and sci-fi madness
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‘Black Mirror’ season six review: A mixed bag of supernatural and sci-fi madness

'Black Mirror' - Charlie Brooker

The acclaimed anthology series Black Mirror, known for its thought-provoking and often dystopian tales, has set the bar very high when it comes to mind-bending stories that lie at the cross-section of the human condition and technology. Our expectations are so high, in fact, the show is pitted against itself and often struggles to match the success of the past.

After a four-year wait, the Charlie Brooker creation, which he has co-written with Bisha K Ali, has finally returned with its highly-anticipated sixth season with plenty of explorations of alternate pasts rather than futures.

This time we have a collection of five episodes that try to return to Black Mirror’s roots, focusing on fucked-up human situations more than the nasty side effects of scientific progress. Which isn’t a bad thing. As much as we have loved the dystopian futures presented in the world of Black Mirror, the chaotically gruesome explorations of the human psyche in episodes like ‘The National Anthem’, ‘The Waldo Moment’, and ‘Shut Up and Dance’ has sometimes resonated and horrified viewers.

However, while attempting to push boundaries, the sixth season falls short of the high standards set by its predecessors. With a strange mix of supernatural themes and only occasional glimpses of Black Mirror’s signature darkness, the season is tepid at best and so uneven that it is hard to pinpoint a single episode that is a real standout. ‘Demon 79’ is the nicest of the lot, even though it isn’t very Black Mirror-esque; followed by ‘Joan is Awful’ and ‘Loch Henry’, which fit the bill better.

Since its debut in ​​2011, television has come far when it comes to telling twisted tales about the human mind. So retaining that same level of shock, depth, and even freshness is a difficult task. While the season six episodes aren’t awful, they lack the same beat and vibrancy that we have come to expect of Black Mirror.

The first episode, Ally Pankiw’s ‘Joan is Awful,’ introduces us to Joan Tait (Annie Murphy), who struggles to find her place in her own story. In short, she does not quite have any ‘main character’ energy. With odd nods to being trapped in a matrix, the episode touches on a wide range of topics, including accountability, the importance of reading contracts, terrors of deep fake technology, and even gender pay disparity in Hollywood that hasn’t spared the great Salma Hayek either.

This episode is full of meta-commentary about the world and Netflix itself. Someone actually watches the Netflix counterpart on the show, Streamberry, while on the toilet. This episode is more comedy than bone-chilling terror and is delightfully unhinged in parts. We have Annie Murphy’s charisma to thank for that.

One key theme explored in this episode and a few of the later ones is how obsessed we are with our own “neurotic view” of ourselves and how it puts us in a state of “mesmerised horror”; themes that have been articulated with more finesse in earlier seasons.

After ‘Joan is Awful’, the fifth episode, Toby Haynes’ ‘Demon 79’, is the most fun even though it might fit more seamlessly in the world of Good Omens than Black Mirror. It tackles themes of anti-immigration sentiments and sexism in Northern England in 1979 when the threat of nuclear apocalypse loomed large.

Paapa Essiedu plays the dazzling demon Gaap, who styles himself after the infectiously energetic Bobby Farrell. Gaap teams up with sales assistant Nida Huq, played by Anjana Vasan, who gives a quietly captivating performance as the perfect foil for the disco demon. It is amusingly cosy and oddly heartwarming to watch a brown girl and a black demon set off to slay and save the day to some of the grooviest music on display this season, from Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ and ‘Ma Baker’ to Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’. I would not mind a spin-off with Gaap and Nida on more adventures across the cosmos.

Veering towards darker territory, the second episode, Sam Miller’s ‘Loch Henry’, takes a more atmospheric approach, set in the picturesque Scottish moors. It is reminiscent of classic suspense stories, replete with mystery meat cooking, diabolical shots of vegetables being chopped, and deranged machinations of the human mind. This story also goes meta, where art imitates life imitates art.

Depending on your appetite for deviant debauchery, this episode may or may not have the same gut punch as the makers intended. You won’t be very fazed if you’ve devoured episodes of Mindhunter, True Detective, or every other true crime show. But tune in for the performances, especially by Monica Dolan with her tremendously measured acting, and the rising character star of the moment, Samuel Blenkin.

The most star-studded of the episodes, John Crowley’s ‘Beyond the Sea’, is disappointingly dull despite having an interesting premise. Set in an alternate past co-adjacent to the far more interesting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this episode is based in the 1960s when two men are sent on a high-tech space mission. It delves into classic body swap tropes, with lonely suburbia, replicas, and cults thrown into the mix. While a Josh Hartnett comeback is always welcome, and I enjoyed Aaron Paul in his relaxed yet revelatory avatar—after all, he has had the role of a lifetime with Jesse Pinkman—this episode is a veritable popcorn sci-fi. Not bad, not great, kind of middling.

The biggest letdown of the season has to be Uta Briesewitz’s ‘Mazey Day’. The focus here shifts to paparazzi culture, the ethics of ghoulishly preying on celebrity misdeeds and misfortunes. It is a weirdly juvenile and unimaginative attempt at it. Zazie Beetz is wasted in her role as the pap who grows a conscience after sending one celebrity to drastic ends. 

Even this episode is set in the past, a more recent one, somewhere in the early 2000s. But the purpose of that plot choice makes very little sense unless you count the inclusion of the Muse song ‘Supermassive Black Hole’—together all of which harks back to the moody, supernatural teen romance Twilight (which was released in 2008)—and read too much into the possibly nonexistent subtext.

Overall, Black Mirror season six struggles to recapture its original brilliance, delivering a mixed bag of episodes that lack the beguiling cohesiveness, pin-sharp storytelling, and nuanced foreshadowing that have made the title a hallowed name in the world of television. Maybe they set their standards too high, or maybe the show’s quintessential quirky darkness has been caught up and rendered insignificant by our increasingly shadowy world.

Black Mirror season six is streaming on Netflix now.