After several years away, writer and producer Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series Black Mirror has returned. While the anthology series began in 2011 as a production for the British television network Channel 4, in 2016, Black Mirror’s back catalog moved to Netflix and became an international sensation. Netflix ordered more of Brooker’s trademark blend of science-fiction, horror elements, and darkly humorous satire, where the show has remained a critical darling and financial juggernaut for the streaming service ever since.

With the release of its previous fifth season back in 2019, the question loomed: what does Black Mirror look like in a post-COVID world? In a world in which so much of what was once the speculative technologically-fueled paranoia that drove the show has become a reality and so much of what was once dystopian farce has been aired on the nightly news, does Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror have anything new to say?

Judging from the first two episodes of the series’ sixth season, “Joan is Awful” and “Loch Henry,” the answer is a ferocious yes. These episodes see Brooker and Co. refining their anthology approach and digging to the core of some of the most pressing anxieties of this moment in a fundamentally compelling form.

Joan is Awful

“Joan is Awful,” as directed by Ally Pankiw (director of other streaming sensations such as Feel Good and The Great), is an incredibly fitting opening salvo for the season. Telling the story of a woman (the titular Joan) who realizes that her entire day-to-day life is being used as source material for a slightly fictitious dramatic recreation on the world’s most popular streaming service, “Joan is Awful” plays out as a self-aware mixture of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Whereas Welles weaponized the medium he was working to infamously and controversially incite a tremendous response from the audience, so too are Brooker and Pankiw weaponizing their own. “Joan is Awful” is an episode where subtext threatens to overtake the text, as Black Mirror explores the parasocial relationships between streaming services and their audiences, and by extension, the relationship between Black Mirror and the audience member watching it.

It is a heavily metatextual episode that speaks to anxieties of ownership/authorship in the age of A.I. and ChatGPT. It is both a farcical thumbing-of-the-nose at Netflix and other studios and brands currently repackaging ‘content’ rather than fairly compensating the creators of said programming and an existential meditation on what privacy can even mean in such an invasive age of technology. Pankiw’s direction is terrific, mainly how she visually tackles Brooker’s ever-escalating levels of artifice as Joan’s life is adapted and re-adapted into increasingly clichéd and trite versions of itself.

“Joan is Awful” is a solid episode, with Pankiw’s direction and incredibly engaging performances by the likes of Salma Hayek, Annie Murphy, and Rob Delaney being its strongest suits, but it does feel like Brooker ultimately leaves some of the inherent drama and existential horror of the story’s hook on the table in favor of maintaining a more broad approach to the humor and resolution.




Loch Henry

The second episode of Black Mirror’s sixth season, “Loch Henry,” uniquely builds upon the metatextual foundation established by “Joan is Awful” and delivers a much more precise, haunting, and ultimately damning takedown of the carnivorous hunger of both streaming services and their audiences. But whereas “Joan is Awful” painted it in much broader, humorous strokes, “Loch Henry” is a decidedly more horrific affair that does not buffer its most devastating blows with easy resolutions.

Directed by Sam Miller (co-director of the phenomenal limited series I May Destroy You with Michaela Coel), “Loch Henry” is about two romantically involved filmmakers, Davis and Pia, who travel to Scotland to film a documentary. However, upon arriving in Loch Henry, Davis’ childhood hometown, the pair uncover an infamous tale of horror right in his backyard that becomes the focal point of their documentary instead.

It’s a fantastically thematically-loaded scenario, and Brooker’s script sculpts it wonderfully into a taut, suspenseful, and supremely thrilling journey into the sins of the past. As Davis and Pia dig through the town’s history and Davis’ own, Brooker highlights the lengths the pair are willing to go to occasionally exaggerate or dramatize these actual events for the sake of their film. This pays off in spades when the ultimate irony becomes that the truth they find swallows them as individuals whole while making their film more successful than they could have possibly imagined.

It’s a moving and often harrowing look at the relationship between art and the artist, and one that Miller visually crafts with aplomb. Miller’s direction is articulate and fantastic, maintaining clarity, geography, and legibility at all times to fantastically build suspense in truly classical Hitchcockian form. Like Black Mirror at its best, “Loch Henry” plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone, whose themes are firmly rooted in the present day but whose filmmaking craft is indelibly indebted to the past.

Between Miller’s fantastic direction, Brooker’s excellent script, Mark Davies’ phenomenal editing, and standout performances from everyone in the cast (especially Myha’la Herrold as Pia, who is a genuine revelation), “Loch Henry” is an excellent work in its own right as well as being a perfect addition to the Black Mirror canon.