After several years, Black Mirror is back with its sixth season, and the very first episode has quickly become the talk of the town. Futuristic devices and systems that make humans rely on machines and thereby experience various horrible situations are synonymous with Black Mirror. The first episode of this season, titled Joan Is Awful, takes a common question—how private are our private lives?—and makes an entire episode out of it, and it’s meta. So meta that the actors are making references to themselves and Netflix is being parodied severely. The episode raises many themes, so let’s try to make sense of some of the messages the show intends for us, the audience.
How Private Are Our Lives?
The idea that your privacy is no longer yours has been promulgated quite widely, and shows like Black Mirror have made it a point to showcase that in the technological dystopia, there’s a high chance that your life might not just be yours. Joan is a corporate woman who drives an expensive Kia and is particularly opinionated against bad coffee, but overall, she’s not a cruel or evil person. However, the dystopia of Black Mirror makes it so that the events of her entire day are portrayed on a Netflix-like streaming service. The worst part is that it’s being presented as a show where Joan’s whole personality is presented with a cold and evil twist, where she’s shown to be apathetic to the pain of others. Salma Hayek has been brought in to add an extra layer of coldness with the Latina swag, but Joan can’t understand why her life is being stripped bare for the entertainment of millions.
This forms the theme of the first episode of the season, and it’s a very important question that we all should be asking ourselves. How safe are we in this world where all our connections are at the tip of our fingers and we can access any amount of information just by asking a device out loud? Even Joan’s lawyer in the show refers to how talking out loud about a product with a friend in the vicinity of your phone leads to an influx of ads catered to that particular product. What does that mean? Someone is always watching, and someone is always listening. What Joan finds out the hard way is that our lives are not really just ours when we hit “I Accept” while signing into any website, device, or form. Nobody wants to or cares to read through the pages upon pages of fine print, and we all just give into the good will of the website we’re consenting to to not use our consent against us. However, how long can we hold out hope that one of these days, we, the consumers of their content, won’t become content for others as well? As the CEO of Streamberry, the Netflix lookalike complete with the dark red S and famous “tudum” sound, says, they’ve got a show based on each one of their customers.
There’s a quantum computer—a quamputer—that takes real data and translates it into stream-ready content on the go, so that a person’s life can be uploaded for streaming the very moment they’re experiencing something awful. How many movies and TV shows have you seen where a person’s personal life becomes content for the rest of the world and people watch someone’s life falling apart as content? You can’t keep count because that’s how common the trope is, but Black Mirror brings an added twist where the consumers are content themselves. You’re always being watched, and your every move is being tracked. Perhaps that’s what the show wants you to remember the next time you need to sign up for a website and hit that big, red “I Accept” button.
The Sadistic Joy Of Watching Others’ Miseries
The Streamberry CEO says in an interview that they’ve noticed that the userbase enjoys watching content where a person’s life is being torn apart and their life is being destroyed. There’s apparently something inherently sadistic within humans where they enjoy watching the pain, suffering, and destruction of others, as long as it happens to someone else and is miles away from their own living room. The episode takes this idea and turns it on its head when the CEO says that each person will have a show about themselves where everyone is awful. Now, no one can just sit on the fence and play the violin as someone’s life burns down, like Nero did.
Clearly, this is directed towards the people who curl up on their couches with hot chocolate as true crime documentaries show how a maniac murdered innocents. There has been a massive growth in the viewer base of people who love those series that showcase how people have suffered. With content becoming available at the press of a button, somewhere down the line, humans have become insensitive to such a degree that they will watch an actual serial killer commit atrocities on TV and roll over to sleep 15 minutes later, as if they didn’t just watch a human being die. Joan Is Awful is trying to present this very sentiment to its audience: that you can no longer keep others’ downfall at arm’s length, and it’s going to affect you too. By making a show about every customer of Streamberry, the show tries to propagate the theme that nobody is better than the people they’re laughing at on the screen.
Does Joan Regain Control Of Her Life?
The first time Joan goes to a therapist, she says to her that she doesn’t feel in control of her life. In the end, Joan—Annie Murphy’s version—takes an ax to the quamputer and destroys it completely, thereby destroying every layer of fiction that the show was happening on. Yes, it’s a lot to wrap your head around, but imagine it like a show within a show within a show, kind of a metaverse. The reason that the show’s Joan is able to destroy the quamputer is because the real Joan, the woman that Annie Murphy is playing on “Fictive Level One,” had smashed the root of all evils, the supercomputer. However, true control over one’s life doesn’t come through destroying things; it happens when we accept our reality instead of fighting it.
Joan, the one living in our world, had been fighting everything that “Fictive Level One” had thrown at her, but it’s only after she destroys the computer that she realizes she can’t keep chasing a pipe dream. Instead, she starts a café, finds love once again, and keeps her spirits up despite being on house arrest for the mess she’d caused. She’s even joined in by Annie Murphy, who comes in for a visit. This is how Joan regains control of her life by moving on from a Sisyphean hardship and starting from scratch. This is the final message the show gives you: when you find yourself at rock bottom, the only place you can go from there is upward.