In the final three episodes of its sixth season, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror stretches itself in new ways, finding beauty, horror, and existentialism in the specificity of each story’s uniquely tailored time and place. The result is a slew of episodes that may not always fit readily into the established parameters of a Black Mirror story and are all the better for it.
The third episode of the season, “Beyond the Sea,” is the most overtly science-fiction rooted stories of this entire season, and Brooker and co. have ensured that their one tried-and-true swing at bat is a homerun. Directed by John Crowley, “Beyond the Sea” tells the tale of two astronauts in an alternate version of 1969. While astronauts Cliff (Aaron Paul) and David (Josh Hartnett) are deployed in space, they have been given ‘replicas,’ completely lifelike android versions of themselves, which remain on Earth and which they link up to live through. All is well until tragedy befalls one of the replicas and endangers not only the astronauts and their missions but their families on Earth as well.
The central hook of “Beyond the Sea” plays out like Ridley Scott’s Alien (Complete with sound design cues straight from the Nostromo) meets the Manson Family, and Brooker’s script takes it in fascinating directions. More so than any of the other episodes this season, it is a foundationally-rooted character piece, one whose high concept carves out an intimate and deeply personal space that the characters and their performers explore. The actors here are terrific, with Hartnett, Paul, Kate Mara, and scenery-chewing Rory Culkin all doing great work. Aaron Paul, in-specific, delivers an exceedingly nuanced and multi-faceted performance that is restrained and frequently mesmerizing.
Crowley’s direction is also worthy of praise, as he, cinematographer Stuart Bentley, and editor Jon Harris deliver a fantastic visual work in which every shot, every camera movement, and every cut feels ruthlessly motivated. “Beyond the Sea” has the longest runtime of any Black Mirror episode this season, and it’s an immense testament to the craft on display that it more than earns this runtime.
The fourth episode of the season is “Mazey Day,” directed by Uta Briesewitz and written by Charlie Brooker. Whereas “Beyond the Sea” is so vividly entrenched in the specificities of its 1969 setting, “Mazey Day” is set in the year 2006, and it captures this in unique and unexpected ways.
“Mazey Day” tells the story of a paparazza named Bo (the incomparable Zazie Beetz). Bo is freshly retired from the game of snapping shots of starlets for trashy tribunes but is pulled back into the game when actress Mazey Day goes missing, and publications offer thousands of dollars for a picture of her. Inevitably, the disappearance of Ms. Day is not exactly what it appears to be, and Bo finds herself biting off a story that is much larger and more gruesome than she can chew.
The thing about “Mazey Day” is that it’s an episode of Black Mirror whose entire entertainment factor is predicated on the surprise and enjoyment of its twist. The twist at the center of its story is wildly entertaining and leads to some joyously constructed setpieces that Briesewitz and her crew stage with infectious glee. But even with the shortest runtime of any episode this season, it can sometimes feel spread thin, biding its time waiting for the reveal to land.
The larger issue at the heart of “Mazey Day” lies with its characters. With its ping-ponging structure, it feels like Brooker’s script can never quite settle into any character to flesh them out properly. Beetz is endlessly compelling to watch as Bo, giving real credence to her identity crisis, but the rest of the characters just kind of fizzle out. Having said all of that, huge props to Uta Briesewitz for absolutely sticking the landing, delivering a perfectly succinct final shot for the episode that ties a nice bow on top of the gory festivities
The final episode of this season of Black Mirror, “Demon 79,” is a thrilling and fitting culmination of the season as a whole. Directed by Toby Haynes and written by Charlie Brooker and Bisha K. Ali (the only time this season in which Brooker shares scripting credit), “Demon 79” is set in the English town of Tipley in 1979. As prior episodes did with ’69 and ’06, respectively, “Demon 79” is propulsively driven by the anxieties, fears, and aesthetics of its own setting of both time and place.
Haynes is a television veteran with roots in British television, making him an ideal choice to bring this delicately indulgent presentation of ‘70s British horror to Black Mirror. The very opening shot of the episode, from its aspect ratio to its film grain to its titling, immediately sets the exact right tone for this story, and it’s wonderful.
“Demon 79” is about Nida Huq (Anjana Vasan) and Gaap (Paapa Essiedu), a retail worker and a demon, respectively. When Nida accidentally engages in a pact with Gaap, she is forced to commit numerous murders to stop an impending doom. Both Vasan and Essiedu are truly exquisite in their respective roles, bringing charisma and chemistry to their every scene together. Despite its vast stakes and grisly subject matter, “Demon 79” is also immensely funny, which is where Bisha K. Ali’s writing truly shines through. Ali so wonderfully brought her perspective to prior acclaimed works such as Ms. Marvel, and she does similarly great work in “Demon 79.”
Ultimately, not unlike “Joan is Awful” or “Mazey Day” before it, “Demon 79” is an episode with a killer central hook but one that feels like it stalls out before the episode reaches its climax. The central relationship gets bogged down in ancillary details and perfunctory legality that neither informs the narrative nor the theme in any meaningful way, detracting from the very strong episode.
Overall, this season of Black Mirror is very good. Full of bold ideas and phenomenal filmmaking craft, Charlie Brooker and his collaborators have assembled a veritable cavalcade of immensely entertaining episodes of television.