Black Mirror Season 6 episode 3 review: ‘Beyond the Sea’ asks how two people can ever share a life
A more mature Black Mirror episode, set in an alternate 1960s space race, provides a remarkable acting showcase for Aaron Paul
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This review contains detailed and immediate spoilers for Black Mirror Season 6 episode 3, ‘Beyond the Sea’.
There’s something grimly inevitable about the ending to Beyond the Sea – less of a twist, more the natural, unavoidable conclusion of everything leading up to that point. It’s one of several departures from the traditional idea of what Black Mirror is: there are no real curveballs to its storytelling, it’s a period piece that takes place in an alternate past rather than something set in the present or near-future, and its imagined technology bears only the slightest resemblance to an invention you might see in the real world. In every respect, though, the episode is better for these breaks from the norm.
Beyond the Sea follows two astronauts, Cliff Stanfield (Aaron Paul) and David Ross (Josh Hartnett). They’re public figures – recognisable in the streets, approached in cinemas and in book shops, making front page news – because of the unusual nature of their mission. While they’re in deep space, they’re in an even deeper sleep; while their bodies hurtle through space in a cramped command module, their consciousnesses can be transferred to machine automatons that walk the Earth. They spend most of their time visiting their wives and children, only really interacting with one another during weekly maintenance sessions – they’re friendly but not friends, an experimental mission into the furthest reaches of the solar system suddenly equivalent to a part time job.
Two years into the mission – with four more to follow – David is no longer able to access his machine body. The reasons are multiple, but the circumstances and the result are tragic: all the freedoms he’d enjoyed previously are suddenly and sharply curtailed, leaving him stuck alone in a spaceship that seems even smaller and even more claustrophobic than ever. (It’s an impressive piece of production design, incidentally, feeling exactly right for Black Mirror’s alternate take on space in 1969, and exactly the sort of place you’d grow to hate if stuck there for more than a few hours, let alone months.)
Cliff, meanwhile, is still free to leave, and worries about what the extended period of isolation might do to David – in part out of concern for his colleague, yes, but as much if not moreso worried about what might happen to his physical body if an increasingly depressed David is no longer able to carry out his duties aboard the ship. Cliff’s wife Lana (Kate Mara, elevating an admittedly underwritten part) proposes an unusual makeshift solution: what if David uses Cliff’s automaton? While Cliff works on the spaceship, David can come down to Earth – breathe the fresh air, feel the sunlight on his face – in a replica of Cliff’s body. Cliff is cautious, but sees the benefit, and David leaps at the chance.
It’s a remarkable showcase for Aaron Paul, who plays two characters in Beyond the Sea: Cliff, and David-as-Cliff. They always feel meaningfully distinct, always obviously delineated from one another (granted, this is essentially the definition of acting, but it’s always more impressive to see someone do that twice in one show rather than across multiple). It’s a performance strong enough to support a kind of Orphan Black style doubling – is this Cliff, or David, or David pretending to be Cliff? – but Beyond the Sea never really opts for that, instead going for a more unvarnished approach. Put another way, what’s impressive about the performance isn’t its capacity for smoke and mirrors, but instead the way that Paul-as-David-as-Cliff weeps when a caterpillar crawls across his palm.
Hartnett impresses as well, pitched perfectly to play what is essentially the other half of Paul’s character. It’s a performance made up of a series of interesting, off-kilter choices: David is, it becomes clear, almost entirely broken by his isolation aboard the spaceship, and increasingly obsessed with taking every opportunity he can to assume Cliff’s life for a while. He’s a far cry from the space race poster boy he began the episode as, but Hartnett avoids any of the more obvious ways of portraying that; when Cliff eventually confronts David about overusing his life, what follows isn’t anger or recrimination, but closer to confusion. “You have everything,” David says, and Hartnett plays that jealousy as if David can’t even conceive of Cliff’s perspective, like trying to speak to someone in a language they can’t understand.
After a while, Beyond the Sea feels like a different register for Black Mirror. Part of that is because of the general, series-wide reinvention that Season 6 represents: it’s refreshed, yes, benefitting from the break since a tired Season 5, but it’s also a little less concerned with being about technological anxieties and instead just following Charlie Brooker’s interests. The science fiction idea isn’t the point in and of itself, and it only vaguely picks up on the theme of life as a public figure that runs through Joan Is Awful, Loch Henry, and Mazey Day. Instead, Beyond the Sea feels quite mature in its own way, an attempt to tell a story about separation and jealousy without worrying the implications of its sci-fi conceit.
Or, put another way, at heart it’s like any relationship drama: it’s about two people trying to work out how to share a life.
Black Mirror Season 6 is available to stream on Netflix now. You can read more of our Black Mirror coverage here, including our reviews of the previous episode Loch Henry and the next episode Mazey Day. You can also listen to us discuss the series in full on the most recent episode of our Screen Babble podcast.