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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lucy Mangan

Black Mirror season six review – prepare to convulse in horror on the sofa

‘Full of great performances’ … Paapa Essiedu in Black Mirror series six, Netflix.
‘Full of great performances’ … Paapa Essiedu in Black Mirror series six, Netflix. Photograph: Nick Wall/Netflix

In a world in which the creator of the Oculus headset claims to have invented a new virtual reality system – called NerveGear – that kills players for real when they are bumped off in a game, it is clear that Black Mirror has its work increasingly cut out. NerveGear is similar to the premise of Playtest in season five of Charlie Brooker’s tech dystopia magnum opus, in which Amazon is promising to enable Alexa to speak to you in the voices of dead loved ones – see season two’s opener for how that works out – while digital recreations of celebrities a la Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too are becoming increasingly common and China runs a credit scoring system one notch down from the one Bryce Dallas Howard navigates in Nosedive. And the less said about the whole prime-ministers-interfering-with-pigs prescience, the better.

Season six opens in another avatar-based nightmare with Joan Is Awful. Joan, a mild-mannered, mildly depressed HR manager (Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy), settles down with her boyfriend to watch a new series of the same name on “Streamberry” – a platform that looks remarkably similar to Netflix, home of Black Mirror since 2016 – only to find that it is a dramatisation of that day in her life. It stars Salma Hayek Pinault (getting a chance to exercise her comedy chops on the small screen for the first time since her glorious turn in 30 Rock) as an awful version of Joan. Every new episode recaps that day’s events. Life becomes unbearable as people in real life assume the awful Joan’s personality is hers, her secrets are revealed to everyone and nightmarish layer is laid upon nightmarish layer until the denouement.

This is satisfying in narrative terms but, in that patented Black Mirror way, ruthlessly mines the seam of existential dread within the viewer that most of us would generally prefer to stay undisturbed. Especially, this time round, this applies to anyone involved in the creative industries. And you realise, as you look at the many reasons the Writers Guild of America is striking, that the distance between Brooker’s vision and reality is growing shorter.

Loch Henry is a much more retro affair – almost standard gothic horror that exploits more ancient fears of how little it is possible to know someone, and how effectively monsters can hide in plain sight. Beyond the Sea, set on Earth and in space, puts a technological gloss on an oft-told story of marital temptation that doesn’t quite obscure its predictability. I am a little put off by the pat resolution and its focus on the suffering of the surviving husband rather than the victims of a savage outburst that offers a textbook study of male violence and might chime better with the times had it been interrogated rather than simply accepted.

The penultimate episode looks at a recurring Black Mirror concern – how we feed on celebrity and humanity’s propensity to destroy what it loves. Or, at least, what it loves and hates. Anyway, this is full of rabid paparazzi, some of whom get their comeuppance and others who make their fortunes instead. In the finale, Demon 79, a cowed shop assistant is told she must commit terrible crimes to prevent a catastrophe, which – regardless of the quality of the execution – is always the set-up most guaranteed to have me convulsing with horror on the sofa while it plays out, and for many hours afterwards.

It is, overall, a fine collection of new episodes. Whether any will stick in the mind and become as revered as Hated in the Nation or Be Right Back, or as loved as San Junipero, I doubt. That is not to say the newcomers are anything less than fun or thought-provoking (or not full of great performances from well-known players such as Hayek, Murphy, Josh Hartnett, Paapa Essiedu, John Hannah, Aaron Paul, Kate Mara and Rob Delaney, and as yet lesser-known faces).

But nothing quite stands out as the best Black Mirror has to offer – nothing that really unbalances the viewer, nothing that quite lays a new stretch of awful, unconsidered possibility bare and makes you desperately try and right your internal moral gyroscopes or grasp for certainties that are no longer there. On the other hand, if you feel robbed of your dose of spiralling despair and frantic recalibration of reality, there is a fresh batch of news headlines for your perverse delectation every day. Enjoy.

• Black Mirror is on Netflix now.

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