Black Mirror, Joan Is Awful Explained - Did Netflix Just Admit It Sucks?

Black Mirror’s Most Meta Episode Yet?

Black Mirror Season 6 comes out of the gate swinging, going after the very platform that’s airing it. Creator Charlie Brooker centers the first episode “Joan is Awful” on a streamer called Streamberry, which has Netflix’s exact branding and sounds and is developing endless content that’s even ruining its viewers’ lives. The Black Mirror episodes that follow continue to take digs at Netflixwith the second episode unpacking the questionable value and assumptions of Netflix’s popular true crime genre via another Streamberry production. All this is more than just a few playful nods. “Joan Is Awful” suggests Netflix’s style of content is making people today… kind of miserable. So, how, exactly? Most of us can agree Netflix’s quality has declined as they’ve gone after a high volume, throwing everything at the wall to hook every possible demographic approach, but it’s still just watching TV right - so what could be that harmful? Well, this episode has some answers to that question:

How Mindless Content Rots Our Brains

In the season’s first episode, Joan has an impressive-looking job and a fiance, but early in the episode, she tells her therapist: “ I feel like I’m not the main character in my own life story.” In the last couple of years, Tiktok blew up with people claiming they had main character syndrome, but here Joan is claiming the reverse – she doesn’t feel she has agency; she speaks of a sense of passivity. Her points are likely relatable to millennials entering middle age yet still not feeling totally convinced they’re “adulting” the right way, or making choices that are leading to the most authentic expression of themselves. Ironically, though, Joan is the main character in both this episode and a show she discovers that night on Streamberry. And unfortunately for her, she’s a main character being portrayed as an antihero, or even a villain protagonist. So, interestingly, there’s a suggestion that if we tell ourselves that we’re passively pushed along with no main character energy, we may end up (unintentionally) acting with villainy. Because when you’re not taking responsibility for your behaviors, and when you’re not actively caring about whether your choices reflect the authentic you, how likely is it that you’d be proud of what you see on a televised rehash of your day’s events? The opening episode of the meta “Joan Is Awful” may be exaggerated but all of the events portrayed did happen. She did go meet her ex and kiss him, then lie to her fiance. When her employee she just fired walks out, she’s standing on the above tier thinking about texting a guy, not even thinking about this girl who thought they were friends or offering her the basic respect of an honest conversation.

It actually turns out there’s a substantive reason Joan doesn’t feel like an active man character controlling her story; she’s not. She’s an “actress” (or likeness of an actress) portraying the Source Joan in an adaptation of events that have already happened. Still, is this kind of… how a lot of us feel in today’s society? Like we’re aping the behaviors we think a respected adult should while lacking any deeper control? Imposter syndrome has perhaps long been a problem, yet it’s heightened more than ever in a culture where we’re confronted with constant entertainment and social media filled with hyper-curated self-presentations. People’s narratives of themselves feel so self-conscious as to erode any unshakeable sense of authentic behavior. It’s even a thing that insecure millennials don’t seem to look like or have the physical mannerisms of real adults

So how much does this passive living and non-Main character syndrome truly stem from the content we’re watching? Well, “Joan is Awful” is linking that mindless way we binge mediocre streamer content we don’t really care about, with an approach to our own lives where our choices feel indifferent and random.

A Constant Barrage of Media

A lot of people have been baffled in recent years by Netflix’s commitment to quantity over quality. As FX Executive Jonathan Frank put it, “They clearly have a lot of good shows, but they have way more ‘not good’ shows. It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall…, ‘sure, there could be 80 shows that we are embarrassed by, but as long as there are 20 that really stand out, that’s fine.’”

It already feels like there are far too many shows. But “Joan is Awful” suggests that – with the rise of Generative AI (something Netflix is reportedly exploring) – this could just be the tip of the iceberg. The Streamberry CEO reveals that Joan is Awful is just a test case, and the plan is to roll out shows tailored to all users using AI, deep fakes, and licensing actors’ images – and a quantum computer that can actually generate multiple realities rather than just producing TV shows. It’s a clever reflection of how so much of what we consume now feels like endless variations on a few stock formulas. Similar to how AI mish-mashes together inputs to create an approximation of other content, there are ways to endlessly generate stories and entertainment that are superficially different but possess no unique thought or insight. The episode even has a nod to this with its easter egg referring to the true crime episode Loch Henry. While Streamberry’s team tries to stop Joan from destroying the quamputer by claiming all these realities are populated by beings who believe themselves to be real, the “happy ending” of this episode comes when Source Joan destroys all the endless variations. Because what she (and everyone) needs aren’t endless stories. They just need a good one. As Bob Dylan put it, “If something’s not right it’s wrong.” In the episode, this is signified in Joan’s job – in the beginning, she has a “desirable” role, but she’s unhappy because it’s meaningless and not what she wants to do. In the end, she’s running the coffee shop. It might not be the thing that’s going to be super impressive or important or enviable to everyone, but it’s an ending she could be fulfilled by. Finally taking on the agency of driving a story that fits her has made Joan feel like the main character.

Likewise, when it comes to creating entertainment, it’s important to be producing stories that you’re proud of. Joan complains that her fiance (and by extension, it’s implied, the life she’s living) is: “vanilla.” This is likewise a common critique of so much content on a platform like Netflix today – often it’s not terrible, but it’s not great. And even if it gets cheaper and cheaper to make more shows, just because we can create near-endless volume, doesn’t mean we should. Charlie Brooker went viral for saying he tested out ChatGPT writing a Black Mirror episode and found the results to be “shit”. Like a mash-up of previous episodes without any original thought, the AI script in fact gave him a reminder, he said, of how not to write a good episode. And Streamberry’s plan to roll out identical shows that just replicate each user’s daily life, while amplifying the negative aspects, doesn’t depict any creativity or insight. It doesn’t add artistic or emotional value to viewers’ existences – it merely hooks them with negative emotions.

How Viewers Get Mesmerized

The Streamberry CEO explains that each show is about the main character being “awful,” because negativity drives engagement. It’s documented that negativity and controversy do work to drive views in media and social media. But this bland, regular negativity Joan feels in her life (which is what we’re receiving from so much of today’s media) is not serving her well. It’s making her dissociated, thereby contributing to why she acts “awful.” Interestingly, once the show confronts her with this and makes her lose everything – and she leans into awfulness going full antiheroine – she’s liberated and starts to become a real person again. Not having anything to lose galvanizes her to channel some main character energy – to take control of the narrative she’s writing.

Joan’s…Happy Ending?

What’s interesting about this whole Netflix critique is of course that Netflix is perfectly happy to release it – and sure, it’s their way of being a little tongue-in-cheek, but it also underlines that Netflix hardly feels threatened by scathing commentary (even featuring it on their own platform). The episode itself makes the point about how “users” today are mindlessly signing away their rights in the “terms and conditions” to streamers like Netflix and other technology companies.

Tech companies know their users are so hooked that – while there’s concern about competitors – there’s little fear of these “users” taking back control of their own time and attention.

Yet that’s pretty much what Joan is Awful is urging us to do. Maybe if we’re on “autopilot” with “non-main character syndrome” like Joan at the beginning, we could be acting more “awful” than we realize. Consuming endless mindless content that has no value beyond mesmerizing us with low-key horror, can’t be doing good things for any of our brains.

Black Mirror’s aim has always been to wake us up so we pay more attention to the relationship we’re sliding into with technology: so if any of us have fallen into Joan’s traps, it’s time to turn that ship around and start rewriting that story so that it feels like your own.