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By: MRT Desk

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Preparing for a New Season of Black Mirror

Preparing to review a season of Black Mirror is like dealing with fickle weather. One moment you’re basking in the sun, the next you’re drenched in rain. When Charlie Brooker’s speculative anthology series so closely tied to our technological future first aired in 2011, it was hailed as both brilliantly trenchant and powerfully prescient. But as the years passed, and as the series moved from Channel 4 to Netflix with more and more American stars participating, the quality became more variable. Like the weather.

Four years after the premiere of the fifth season (which suffered a significant drop in critical reception), Black Mirror returns with a five-episode season. Tackling topics ranging from artificial intelligence to automata clones, across genres from dark comedy to supernatural horror, the new series is influenced by classic Black Mirror tropes, but also brings something new. For the first time, Black Mirror shows not only the damage caused by technology, but also the self-inflicted wounds of society. The resulting hodgepodge proves that the best Black Mirror episodes will always be dystopian, and it’s foolish to experiment with that winning formula.

Joan is horrible

‘Joan is horrible’ is, in many ways, the most classic Black Mirror episode this season. High concept, addresses the effects of custom content, invasion of privacy, and deep fakes. “I feel like I’m not the main character in my life story,” Joan exclaims, before her reality begins to unravel. It is also the episode that best reminds viewers that Black Mirror began with a story about a prime minister who gets affectionate with a pig on live television. Irreverent, scatological and stormily claustrophobic, ‘Joan Is Awful’ is an excellent installment in Black Mirror’s catalog of Orwellian farces.

Annie Murphy as Joan in ‘Joan Is Awful’ (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Loch Henry

‘Loch Henry’ first appears as an option in Streamberry during ‘Joan Is Awful’. “I couldn’t see anything other than true crime,” exclaims Joan’s fiancé. The true crime in question is the historic murder of newlyweds in the Scottish Highlands, a subject Davis (Samuel Plenkin) and Pia (Industry’s genius Myha’la Herrold) decide would be appropriate for their graduate documentary project. Of course, this being Black Mirror, all is not as it seems, and an excellent cast (including Monica Dolan, John Hannah, and Daniel Portman) bring a growing sense of unease to this excavation of past trauma.

As a one-hour standalone piece of true crime meta, ‘Loch Henry’ is effective. Plenkin and Herrold stay, almost, on the right side of the fastidious personality (“I thought you were in London studying progressive film theory,” questions the humble judgment of the Portman publican). As the plot progresses, hints of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo appear, and ‘Loch Henry’ frequently seems on the verge of morphing into horror. Whether through restraint or a lack of ambition, that generic metamorphosis never happens, and ultimately the episode gets a bit limp. There’s a vague underlying comment about the commercialization of the tragedy (a criticism that feels very contemporary and not at all speculative), but not much to root it in the traditions of great Black Mirror episodes. “That’s real,” Davis laments, of his family history. “That’s not content, f***!” Well, it wouldn’t be Black Mirror then, would it?

Myha’la Herrold as Pia in ‘Loch Henry’ (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Beyond the Sea

David (Josh Hartnett) and Cliff (Aaron Paul) live very separate lives in 1960s America. David and his handsome brood live in a modernist home in California, and he struts around like an American hero; Cliff, his wife Lana (Kate Mara) and his son have just moved into a rural idyll where they chop wood and fish for trout from the babbling streams. These men, however, are “replicas,” perfectly-functioning robots controlled by the consciousness of the real David and Cliff, serving a six-year mission on a space station. But the show turns out to be controversial. “A man sleeps in heaven while the mechanical image of him walks the earth,” says Rory Culkin’s meek hippy, who breaks into David’s house and kidnaps his wife. “And do you share your bed with this abomination?” From this central tragedy, the drama unfolds in two places. The men, trapped in their canister, floating hundreds of miles from Earth, and the robot Cliff, at home on the ranch, and now operated remotely by both men.

Like the best Black Mirror episodes, this is grim, high-concept stuff, and the all-star cast excels in this 80-minute character study, essentially devolving into a very human trio between David, Cliff, and Lana. The “Hartnett Awakening” (also due out in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer this summer after a quiet second decade in his career) is truly underway, as Paul and Mara crackle as a brittle couple struggling with their, um, long-term relationship. distance (though Mara’s agent should keep in mind that she’s in danger of being typecast as an adulteress). In essence, ‘Beyond the Sea’ holds the key to a great Black Mirror chapter: slow dread and a myriad of shapes in that things can go wrong. Already almost a feature length, the episode could easily have used an extra half hour to come to a boil (the climax is a bit abrupt), but it tackles big sci-fi themes, the kind that movies like Moon and Sunshine tackle, with superb confidence.

Aaron Paul in ‘Beyond the Sea’ (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Mazey Day

Mazey Day (Clara Rugaard) is a young actress struggling with the pressures Hollywood franchise life. On location in the Czech Republic, she gets high and runs over someone with her car. Back in Los Angeles, Bo (Zazie Beetz) is an invasive paparazzi whose snooping has just led to the suicide of a minor TV celebrity. “Half these assholes would kill themselves if we didn’t take a picture of them,” a cynical colleague tells him. She is able to compartmentalize the blame, as she is tasked with tracking down Day’s whereabouts after the actress is thrown off the set and she disappears from public view. With a $30,000 bounty placed on a photograph of the troublesome star, Bo sets off, hot on her trail.

In every season of Black Mirror, there’s an episode that feels like utter chaos. ‘White Bear’, say, from season 2, or ‘Smithereens’ from season 5. ‘Mazey Day’ fills that role in the last stretch of episodes and proves that Brooker is as capable of inanity as he is of depth. Set in the mid-1990s (Suri Cruise’s birth is announced on the radio in the opening sequence) and taking aim, in rather clumsy fashion, at celebrity-bashing tabloid culture, ‘Mazey Day’ is the pinnacle. of the matter with these last episodes: it has nothing to do with technology, nor is it making a substantive dissection of the modern moment. Putting aside the fact that the episode dissolves into a mash-up of horror-fantasy tropes, the portrayal of paparazzi culture here seems like a 1990s-2000s haunt. Short (it’s only 40 minutes long) and sparse, it’s also a rare Black Mirror episode that seems to actively look back.

Zazie Beetz on ‘Mazey Day’ (Netflix)

Demon 79

It’s 1979 and the winter of discontent has left Britain on a political tightrope. Callaghan’s government is in crisis, and right-wing agitators swarm the north of England, inciting racial unrest. Nida (Anjana Vasan) lives in a house that is painted with National Front graffiti and works in a shoe store where her colleagues victimize her all the time. When she finds a talisman in the basement and accidentally impregnates it with her blood, she inadvertently summons the demon Gaap (Paapa Essiedu) from the bowels of hell. He tells her, taking the form of the lead singer of Boney M, that she must make three human sacrifices, over the course of three days, to save the world from burning in the fires of…

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