Netflix’s highly-rated science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror is back with its sixth season after a long break of four years. Episode 1, titled Joan is Awful, is a good return to the implementation of drama with the setting of sci-fi mystery, as it follows an ordinary woman named Joan Tate who suddenly finds herself and her life to have been turned into a TV show. While a significant portion of the episode deals with Joan struggling to cope with the devastating consequences of her situation, the end of Joan is Awful also brings in science fiction in typical Black Mirror style.
How Does Joan’s Day Turn From Ordinary To Bizarre?
Joan is Awful begins with Joan, played by Annie Murphy, waking up at her house and joining her boyfriend Krish for breakfast that he has prepared. The protagonist lives a normal life, with her driving to her office at the Sonicle tech company, where she works as the squad leader of a department. Joan soon has to meet with an employee named Sandy, and she has to deliver the difficult news that the company is letting Sandy off. Despite the employee’s best efforts to stress the importance of her current project, which will drastically reduce Sonicle’s carbon footprint in accordance with the company’s claims of being environmentally friendly, Joan cannot help the matter.
The protagonist then visits her therapist, where she talks about how her current relationship with Krish sometimes feels quite bland and monotonous to her, despite the boyfriend being a very stable and loving person. Joan recalls how her previous relationship with a man named Mac was so thrilling and adventurous before admitting that she has not been able to get over Mac yet. During this conversation at the therapist’s office, Joan also goes on to state that she doesn’t feel like the main character in the narrative of her own life and would like to change that.
Throughout the day, Joan keeps receiving text messages from Mac, who is in town for a few days and wants to meet with her. Although initially feeling against it, Joan finally decides to go in for a friendly chat, and the two meet at a restaurant. Here, Mac makes his feelings for Joan quite evident—he wishes she would get back with him and rekindle their thrilling relationship. The two kiss as well, but Joan stops anything further and returns home.
While having dinner, Joan and Krish decide to watch something on TV, and they switch on the Streamberry website to browse through the various contents. It is now that they suddenly see a new web series titled “Joan is Awful,” in which the main character is played by Salma Hayek, and she sports the exact same hairstyle as Joan. Intrigued by the whole matter, the couple plays the first episode, only to shockingly find out that the series is based entirely on the events of Joan’s current life, beginning from the very day that the protagonist had just lived.
How Does The Show Tear Joan’s Life Apart?
As the Streamberry version of “Joan is Awful” plays, the exact details of whatever Joan had done throughout the day come to Krish’s attention. Starting with her admitting to her therapist that she was not totally content in her current relationship, to then talking about Mac and even going to meet him, all of this takes an immediate toll on Joan and Krish’s relationship. The boyfriend is angered and hurt by what Joan has been hiding from him, and he decides to leave the house and end their relationship. Joan keeps claiming that the events were all just fictional things presented in the show and played out by Salma Hayek and not her, but when Krish asks her to show him her phone, she obviously cannot. This strikes the final nail in the coffin, and Krish leaves Joan forever.
Along with Joan and Krish, Streamberry’s new web series is also watched by the protagonist’s secretary, Eric, the recently fired employee Sandy, and the ex-boyfriend, Mac. All of them are startled to find characters based on their own lives on the screen, but none of them are really as affected by it as Joan. Interestingly, the Joan in the series also finds herself in the same situation as our protagonist, as Salma Hayek’s Joan is shocked to see Cate Blanchett play her character in a similar TV show based just on her life. As Joan watches Hayek also get left behind by her boyfriend in the series, she attempts to end the day and go to sleep but can hardly keep her eyes shut. The next morning, as she drives to her office, Joan realizes that almost everyone around her has watched the show, and they all hate her now for how awful she is. The next shock comes when Joan is informed by Eric that Sonicle is now firing her. The reason for this termination is that when she told Sandy about the company not really caring about the carbon footprint and environmental effects of their decisions, it was also shown in those exact terms in the Streamberry series. Sonicle was, therefore, under pressure now, and they immediately fired Joan for breaking her NDA and talking about company secrets in public, even though the woman had no idea that her life would become a public TV show.
As her life spirals out of control, Joan visits Mac in the hotel room where he has been staying and looks for some comfort there. She is clearly not in control of the earlier self-regulation, and soon she starts to make out with Mac, which results in the two moving to the bedroom for some more intimate lovemaking. However, Mac stops right at the most important moment, saying that the fact that all of this will be featured in the next episode of the Streamberry series really makes him nervous. The man then states that although he had earlier asked Joan to be a part of his life again, he did not know it would become such a public affair, and therefore, Mac also refuses to see Joan anymore. Having lost on almost all sides of her life now, Joan Tate decides to find some way to fight against the horrible TV show that is ruining her life.
How Does Joan Plan To Take Down The Web Series?
Resolute to take some action against Streamberry and their show, which is based exactly on her own life, Joan meets with her lawyer to discuss how to sue the company. However, the lawyer reveals that this is just not possible since Joan had already agreed to terms under which the streaming company could make any content based on her. She is shown a fat stack of paper, which contains all of the terms and conditions that she agreed to when first making an account on Streamberry, and in it is clearly an agreement to use her life’s events for any content. Joan’s next idea is to sue the actress Salma Hayek for playing a role based so much on a real person, and that would surely lead to an end to Streamberry’s series. However, the lawyer stops her plan right away, since this is not possible either, as it was not the original Salma Hayek who was acting in the series. Instead, the lawyer explains, the actress had sold the rights to her likeness in a digital format, which Streamberry was implementing to make the computer-generated show. The lawyer then also explains how the streaming company came up with a new episode so quickly, on the very same day that Joan was living the events. She states that all input, audio, and search data that is gathered by our phones at all times was being sold to Streamberry, who were then creating the episodes very quickly, as it was all just being made by a supercomputer.
Realizing how helpless her situation was, Joan decides to make Salma Hayek raise an issue against Streamberry, as she realizes that she is now truly in control of the narrative. Whatever Joan would do in a day would then be shown in the series’ new episode, with Salma Hayek’s digital version playing out her role. Perhaps knowing how religious the famed actress is in her personal life, Joan visits a church during a wedding and publicly defecates there, causing a huge scene. Surely enough, this event is shown in the new episode as well, and now Salma Hayek obviously raises objections against it. The actress now visits her own lawyer to find ways to sue Streamberry, but she is also told that the agreement she signed while selling her digital rights to the streaming company did cover and allow for such blasphemous content as well.
The resemblance to the real world and the somewhat tech-horror element of the episode lie in this very trap that Joan finds herself in. Just like any of us average users, neither Joan nor Hayek had read through the entire terms and conditions presented in their user agreement and contract, respectively, and had no idea what they were essentially signing up for. The fact that our mobile phone devices constantly hear or at least track our texts and searches to personalize advertisements is a fairly accepted matter by now. But there has also been a real scare as to what other uses this personal data might be used for, and Joan is Awful plays on that very fear. The sale and use of digital likenesses of actors and performers for deep-fake videos and content is also a real possibility in the modern world. The concept of Streamberry, which is exactly like Netflix except for the name, with the web layout, logo design, and even the iconic “tudum” sound all exactly the same, is also interesting. This adds to the meta-narrative side of Joan is Awful, which is amply present here. Salma Hayek mentions her work Frida, and Schitt’s Creek is referred to for Annie Murphy, making it quite clear that the actresses are, after all, their real selves and not just the roles they are playing. Hayek even talks about how Streamberry has just reduced the splendor and magic of cinema that developed for over 100 years to just a lowly mobile app, which is a common criticism against Netflix and other streaming platforms.
What Does Joan Find Out In The End?
After all their plans to sue Streamberry fail, Joan and Salma Hayek decide to end the devilish TV show by infiltrating the streaming company’s head office and destroying the supercomputer that was generating all this content. Hayek walks into the office without any trouble, owing to her A-list actress status, and she then manages to sneak Joan in. Together, the two women reach the office of the CEO, Mona Javadi. In an interview with some reporters, the CEO of Streamberry explains how the company designed the supercomputer, which is loosely called the “quamputer”, to collect personal data from individuals and automatically create episodes of content based on their everyday lives. Joan was just an experiment, and the company was soon to launch innumerable other similar TV shows named “X is Awful,”, X being the person whose data would be used. Mona then also clarifies that the shows would all be stressing the negative elements of the characters’ lives because negative things simply have much more viewership than any positive content.
Now fully determined to destroy the quamputer, Joan and Hayek find and break into the server room, where Joan finds out a shocking truth about the whole show and even her life. The tech expert who explains all of this is played by Michael Cera, and this also becomes significant to the plot. The young man explains that the Joan we have been following, played by Annie Murphy, is not the real Joan; she is a character living in the first level of the fictional world of the show. In actual reality, Joan is an ordinary woman (played by Canadian actress Kayla Lorette) who signed up on Streamberry and then suddenly had her life made into a TV series. The “Joan is Awful” show that this real Joan was watching featured the digital likeness of Annie Murphy playing the role, just like the series that Murphy’s Joan was watching featured Salma Hayek as the protagonist. This is almost like a never-ending loop, with Hayek watching Cate Blanchett play Joan in the series in her world, and so on. While we had been made to believe that we had been watching the real, or base-level, Joan for this long, we had instead been seeing the first-level of the fictional TV show. The tech expert had therefore been made with the digital likeness of Michael Cera, as Streamberry had bought the rights to his digital likeness as well.
Although Annie Murphy’s Joan realizes that she and Salma Hayek will not exist as they are essentially just digital likenesses, she still decides to destroy the quamputer machine. The fact that she was present in the server room of Streamberry meant that the real Joan must have tried to do it, too, as the episodes were all based on the real Joan’s actions. As soon as the supercomputer is destroyed, the real Joan, Kayla Lorette, is seen on the screen along with Annie Murphy. Just as Murphy had convinced the Joan above her, Salma Hayek, to help her stop Streamberry, Lorette had also convinced the Joan above her, Murphy, to do the same. In this way, the entire loop of Streamberry’s “Joan is Awful” is destroyed, along with the content-generating supercomputer.
Like in the real world, though, the uneasy possibility that a big corporation like Streamberry will soon again create a similar machine is also felt at the end of Joan is Awful, even though the Black Mirror episode does not directly hint towards it. But before any such life-wrecking content can be made again, Joan and actress Annie Murphy strike up a beautiful friendship, even though they are both still under police monitoring for having broken into the Streamberry office and destroyed the computer. Joan has now started her own dream business, a coffee shop, which she had always wanted to run, and she feels much more at peace in her life. In a mid-credits scene, Joan is seen visiting her therapist, to whom she admits that she now definitely feels like the main character in her own narrative. The episode also features a short and comedic post-credits scene in which the real Joan is seen excreting inside a church, which had basically triggered Annie Murphy’s Joan to do the same.