Black Mirror – Season 6 Episode 1 “Joan Is Awful” Recap & Review

Joan Is Awful

Episode 1 of Black Mirror Season 6 introduces us to Joan. She lives with her partner Krish and works as an Orange Squad Leader at Sonicle, a big tech company. Unfortunately, she’s forced to give bad news to one of her workers, Sandy, as she’s laid off. In the wake of this, Joan also receives messages from her ex, Mac, who’s back in town. She’s engaged to Krish though, so it makes the whole endeavour a bit risqué, especially as Joan is having second thoughts.

After working, Joan heads to see her therapist, bemoaning that she’s on auto-pilot and doesn’t feel like the main character in her own story. She wants that to change so she can be in control of her destiny, so after her session, she decides to take a big step… and that comes from seeing Mac.

While out having drinks, Mac encourages Joan to up and leave her job and head back to San Jose with him. Joan isn’t sure it’s a good idea but she kisses Mac in view of everyone. Joan realizes what she’s doing and starts to get cold feet. As she leaves, Mac reminds her that he’s in town for 3 days incase she changes her mind.

That night, Joan decides to go and check out a brand new drama on Streamberry with Krish, called “Joan is Awful”. It’s a new drama starring Salma Hayek and it’s all based on Joan’s life. And it includes everything, including her reaction to Krish’s food, firing Sandy and everything in between. There’s even scene for scene re-enactments.

The thing is, it’s not just there for Joan, the drama is available for everyone in the area, including Sandy, Mac and even her parents! After seeing all her secrets come spilling out, Joan’s evening is made all the weirder as the TV Joan sits down to watch TV, turns on Streamberry, and sees Cate Blanchett playing the lead role in Joan is Awful.

Krish decides to leave that night, knowing that his partner has been unfaithful and unable to trust her as a result. Joan wakes up alone and goes about her day. Unfortunately, everyone in town is incredibly frosty toward her. They’ve all seen the pilot episode and believe she’s an awful person. Eric catches up Joan in her office and breaks the bad news; she’s being fired. Joan broke her NDA agreement by discussing sensitive work issues with Sandy, and the board want her out.

Joan packs her things and leaves, just like Sandy did, and she eventually heads back home, wallowing in grief over what’s happened to her life. That’s made all the worse when Joan visits her lawyer and finds out that Streamberry are well within their rights to exploit her life and turn it into her drama. All of this is part of Streamberry’s Terms and Conditions that she accepted when she signed up. So really, there’s nothing she can do.

Joan can’t even sue Salma Hayek either, given she’s agreed to a digital likeness of herself being used. Oh, and through clever use of AI and the various different computers dotted around, they know exactly what Joan’s been doing and there’s no way out of this.

Joan shows up to see Mac that night and bursts into tears. Those tears inevitably turn to them kissing and… not much else. In bed, Mac gets uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be a public figure, believing that it’s all going to be on the show and it’s killing the mood.

Joan loses control and decides to gorge herself on fatty foods and laxatives, heading off  to a church wedding and defecating all over the floor. She intends to absolutely smear Salma Hayek’s name, and it actually works pretty well. Salma Hayek is not happy, but similarly, her lawyer points out that it’s all in the contract she signed too.

Believe it or not, Salma Hayek shows up at Joan’s house and wants to talk. The pair discuss their issues with the drama, including how they’re both being screwed here. Joan comes up with an idea of taking out the physical server and ripping it apart. Our Joan can’t do that as she doesn’t have the prestige and power to get in the building… but Salma Hayek? Yeah, she can head to Streamberry HQ no doubt! Joan shows at reception and asks to see Mona Javadi, the CEO.

Mona is busy giving an interview about their new AI algorithm; a quantum computer able to create fully-edited show right off the bat. They intend to launch unique, tailor-made amount of content to each individual in the database, all 800 million of them. The most relatable content imaginable. So why negative connotations like awful and terrible? Why not awesome and amazing? Well, they tried that but Mona shrugs, pointing out that it drives better engagement.

Salma and Joan head into the office, where things get even weirder. It turns out our Joan isn’t even the real one. There’s actually “Source Joan” who’s the real one. And none other than Michael Cera is the person to reveal all this. Our Joan is just a version of herself played by a digital likeness of Annie Murphy, the actress from Schitt’s Creek. Source Joan lives in reality. When Source Joan watches the TV show Joan is Awful, she sees our Joan playing her.

What we’ve been seeing is essentially another fictive level, like when you look in a set of cleverly placed mirrors and see numerous reflections of yourself. It’s not the true version of yourself but a reflected version of your reflection. So the Joan we’ve been following has essentially been “level 1” and that means Joan is actually in a TV show and these are just coded versions of  characters, with various “levels” depending on how deep into the system you get.

When “Source Joan” defecated in a church, the most unsavory thing to do imaginable, it set off a chain reaction whereby all these characters, played by digital likenesses of different actors, realize their image and character is being tarnished and want to take action.

With an axe in hand, Joan contemplates destroying the quantum computer completely. The Streamberry CEO and the security are there, trying to stop them, but it doesn’t stop Joan from taking action, as this has already happened. “Level 1” Joan doesn’t have any control over this and the real Joan destroys the computer and tries to get her life back on track.

As the episode closes out, we see that she’s still on house arrest and watched, but at least her entire life isn’t made into a big drama. And even better, she has a new friend in Annie Murphy too!

The Episode Review

Black Mirror is back with a meta episode to kick things off. There’s a great deal of intrigue with this one, especially given the direction AI and algorithms are going, along with digital likenesses of actors that allow these corporations to use them in different movies and TV shows.

The meta way everything comes together at the end is a nice touch, especially with the revealing interview featuring Streamberry’s CEO. With those different floors in the building we see AI prompt writing rooms, deep-fake casting and probabilistic format generation, to say the least. Is this the future of creating TV shows?

Although there is some comedy here, the episode does miss a trick by not pointing out that the characters in Joan is Awful are different to their “real-life” counterparts. It would have been a great way of commenting on current concerns with switching ethnicities of characters, although seeing the interface of Streamberry, complete with Bandersnatch on there too, is a nice way of delivering a meta episode that talks of our continued desire for tailor-made content and the concerns for runaway AI algorithms.

There’s plenty of food for thought with this and it also brings up that age old adage of reading the terms and conditions for everything. After all, who knows what we’ve all agreed to through signing up to Netflix and the plethora of other subscription services we’ve got on our devices! It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a good episode.

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You can read our full season review for Black Mirror season 6 here!


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