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Annie Murphy on the Prescience of Her 'Black Mirror' Episode, 'Joan Is Awful'

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 16, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 16, 2023 |


Spoilers for the first episode of season six of Black Mirror

Annie Murphy stars as the title character in “Joan Is Awful,” a fairly clever and funny Black Mirror installment. The episode explores a compelling theme about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and, honestly, the importance of reading terms and conditions before signing a contract.

Joan is an ordinary woman working in an office, where she reluctantly has to fire an employee. Later, she confides in her therapist about her dissatisfaction with her fiancé’s cooking and her longing for the unpredictable but antagonistic dynamics of her past relationship. Afterward, she meets her ex-boyfriend and kisses him, before breaking it off. Little does she know that her seemingly mundane life is about to take a dark turn.

Upon returning home, Joan discovers a new television series titled “Joan Is Awful” on the Streamberry streaming service. To her astonishment, the series mirrors her own day, with Joan being played by an AI-generated likeness of Salma Hayek Pinault. Everyone in Joan’s life becomes engrossed in the show, making it a living nightmare for her. The repercussions of her actions within the series start to affect her reality: she gets fired due to the way she handled the employee termination, and her fiancé leaves her after learning about her therapist’s revelations and her kiss with her ex-boyfriend.

Infuriated, Joan seeks legal assistance to prevent Streamberry from continuing to air the series. However, she discovers that the terms and conditions she agreed to when signing up for Streamberry allowed them to create content based on her life. Streamberry collected detailed information about Joan from her phone, which, much like our personal experiences with targeted ads, listens to and relays information back to the streaming service. Joan realizes she’s bound by an airtight contract.

Desperate to stop the series, Joan decides to do something so embarrassing that it would compel Salma Hayek to request the cancellation of the show using her likeness. She publicly defecates on the floor, which the AI Hayek replicates, successfully provoking the real Hayek’s outrage. Hayek, in turn, consults her lawyer to escape her own airtight contract with Streamberry, only to find herself trapped as well.

Joan and Hayek team up to physically destroy Streamberry’s all-powerful computer, which is operated by Michael Cera or an AI likeness of him. Before smashing the computer, Joan uncovers a mind-bending twist: she realizes she’s not actually Joan but a character played by Annie Murphy in a television series based on the real Joan.

In the climactic moment, Joan destroys the computer. In the real world, Annie Murphy forms a friendship with the genuine Joan, though both are under house arrest, wearing ankle monitors for the destruction they caused. Maybe they’re not in reality, after all.

The point is: Always read the terms and conditions before signing a contract, even for an app.

Annie Murphy, reflecting on the episode, likens AI to Pandora’s box, a powerful and mysterious technology that humanity still knows very little about, as she told The Wrap. “It’s this incredibly powerful and incredibly mysterious science and technology that we genuinely know nothing about.”

“When some of the most brilliant minds in the world are calling for a pause, so we can start trying to comprehend what the repercussions of AI will be, that’s a really scary moment,” Murphy said. “I hope that people do listen to these smart people who know more than we do, and we just take a breath and try to decide what we want the world to look like going forward.”

The episode’s underlying message becomes even more terrifying when we realize that the concept of mining our real lives for content and being represented by AI versions of ourselves is not far-fetched. In fact, the technology already exists. The only factors preventing this reality are our reluctance to unknowingly relinquish our rights and the unwillingness, so far, of celebrities to sign away their likenesses. However, the line between fiction and reality will begin to blur as soon as a team of lawyers can figure it out.