In the three years since Black Mirror's previous (and somewhat disappointing) season, we've lived through a global pandemic, a US president triggered a mob attack on the Capitol, and AI has gone mainstream. We’re barreling toward the future faster than ever, but loneliness remains a key issue in modern life. What better time for Charlie Brooker to bring back his feel-bad series for another season?
In that piece published in 2019, I argued that Brooker was running out of things to say with the show, despite his deft ability to predict our tech-infused dystopia with Black Mirror's first few seasons. Something was lost with his transition to Netflix, which led to bigger budgets and more notable stars, but less of the sharp insight that made the show so memorable. (At least we got “San Junipero,” though.) Thankfully, a few years away from the project seems to have helped. Season six of Black Mirror, which hit Netflix on June 15th, is the series at its best: shocking, incisive and often hilarious. It also finds new life by looking back into the past frequently, as well as exploring horror more directly than before.
Minor spoilers ahead of Black Mirror season six.
"Joan is Awful" is the perfect way to kick off the new season – it's the most stereotypical Black Mirror setup. A disaffected big tech HR worker is surprised to find a show on Streamberry (an obvious Netflix stand-in) that recounts her daily life. That includes the cringeworthy layoff of a colleague (and supposed friend), and a therapist appointment where she reveals she's dissatisfied with her fiance.
It's a relatable story of millennial malaise, the sort of thing Charlie Brooker captured so well early on in the series. Joan, played by Schitt's Creek star Annie Murphy, says she doesn't feel like a main character in her own life, so she coasts through everything on autopilot, almost always taking the easiest and less confrontational option. You'd think that it would be illegal for a network to just recount her life for all of its subscribers. Turns out, she should have read the Terms of Service more closely.
I won't spoil where, exactly, that episode goes, or the familiar faces you end up seeing. But as the twists revealed themselves and it reached its inevitable bonkers conclusion, I couldn't help but smile. It was like Charlie Brooker shouting at me through the screen, "Black Mirror is back, baby!"
What's truly surprising, though, is that this season of the series also feels refreshing in the ways it veers away from what we expect. "Loch Henry" is a fascinating exploration of our obsession with true crime dramas, and the impact they can have on the people affected by those stories. But aside from the presence of Streamberry as a service thirsty for true crime narratives, the story is more cultural than technology criticism.
Sure, we have more tools than ever to make true crime documentaries – there's a drone being used to make sweeping aerial shots, and the digital cameras are perfectly suited to shooting in dimly lit basements – but the desire to tell and consume these stories is purely human. And when it comes to macabre drama we can't help ourselves.
Black Mirror also gains some fresh perspective by exploring the past — or at least, timelines without smartphones and ubiquitous fast cellular internet. “Beyond the Sea” is an elegant yet brutal story set in 1969, focusing on two astronauts on a deep space mission who also wirelessly control mechanical bodies back on Earth. The episode is less interested in how any of that tech works — just accept the mystery, folks — and more about how it affects those astronauts, their families and society as a whole.
It's not too surprising when deranged hippie cultists appear, believing that mechanoid people are an affront to humanity. Both astronauts, played by Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and former heartthrob Josh Hartnett, are also trapped by the societal norms of the '60s. They may be world-class astronauts, but they're also men who can't share their feelings properly, who hit their kids to "keep them in line," and who have rigid expectations from the women in their lives. Beyond the Sea may not fully earn its tragic conclusion, but the journey is certainly powerful.
I was surprised to see how much Black Mirror leans into pure horror this season: “Demon 79” is a direct callback to 1970s horror films, from its explosive score to its overall aesthetic. The story revolves around an immigrant shoe sales clerk who inadvertently summons a demon, and is tasked with murdering three people to prevent the apocalypse. There isn't a sliver of tech involved — perhaps that’s why the opening credits refer to it as a "Red Mirror" episode. But it's still a fun horror romp, with plenty of subtext around the South Asian experience in '70s London (thanks to co-writer Bisha K. Ali, who also served as the showrunner for Ms. Marvel).
“Mazey Day” also brings Black Mirror into fresh territory, but you're better off discovering how for yourself. I can reveal that its story of a young paparazzi photographer (Zazie Beetz) is a refreshing glimpse of the mid-2000s, filled with what was then cutting-edge tech (the square iPod Shuffle! Dashboard GPS!), but also plenty of old-school touches. You still needed big paper map books in that era, because GPS wasn't always reliable. And even though high speed internet was widely available, it wasn't unusual to find people still relying on dial-up in 2005.
It’s impossible for Black Mirror to feel as fresh as it did over a decade ago. Since then, the downsides of Big Tech have become impossible to ignore. But at least now, especially with some extra time to craft these episodes, it seems like Charlie Brooker has found something new to say with the show.