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'Joan Is Awful': The 'Black Mirror' episode's meta ending, explained

Star Annie Murphy says the episode points to a fundamental quirk of human nature: "It's so much easier to find the salacious, dirty details in others than to turn inwards."
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"Joan Is Awful" is the kind of "Black Mirror" episode that seems a few years, and a quantum computer, away. Star Annie Murphy, speaking to, says the plot "terrifies" her.

“They sent me the script and my jaw just kind of kept dropping and dropping and dropping. Then we got to the end and it basically unhinged from my skull and fell all the way on to the floor,” she says.

Below, we'll break down the meta, AI-filled ending, and what it all means.

What is the plot of 'Joan Is Awful'?

"Joan Is Awful" doesn't open on one of Joan's best days. She fires a colleague and rekindles an affair with her ex boyfriend within hours.

Then, she returns home and cuddles with her current boyfriend to find a show on the streamer Streamberry (clearly riffing off Netflix, right down to the branding).

An uncanny offering pops up on their feed. The show has the title "Joan Is Awful." Salma Hayek Pinault plays the titular character who has a hair style a lot like Joan's. Even creepier, everything Joan does in the show mimics what the real Joan had done earlier that day, including watch "Joan Is Awful." (In Salma Hayek's version, Joan is played by Cate Blanchett).

The pattern continues with the next episode.

So, uh, what's going on with this show?

The entire show is CGI-generated using data from Joan's phone and a licensed image of Salma Hayek. Using futuristic (though not too unimaginable) technology, Streamberry's quantum computer is able to mix it all up and ... boom! Create an episode.

While meeting with a lawyer, Joan learns that she has no recourse. "Legally, the Streamberry Corporation can do this," her lawyer tells her. Turns out Joan signed away her rights by agreeing to use the app (check your terms and conditions, people!).

Salma Hayek — the TV show version, heretofore known as Salma —learns she's equally powerless after Joan's attempt to get her attention works.

Heads up, this part is next-level gross: Joan binge eats fast food, takes laxatives and proceeds to decimate a church wedding. Salma can't abide by her image being tarnished to this degree, and tries to sue Streamberry. But since she signed away her likeness, the show can do whatever it wants with her (digital) body.

Then, things get more meta

Unable to stop the show from streaming, Joan and Salma decide there's only one option: Stop the show from being made. They break into Streamberry's offices with the intention of destroying the quantum computer.

Finally standing before the "quamputer," a man (Michael Cera) delivers a mind-altering twist. Joan learns she's not Joan: She's the actress Annie Murphy, playing Joan, just like he's the actor Michael Cera playing an office worker.

"You're playing an adaptation of Joan. Source Joan lives in reality. When 'source Joan' watches the TV show 'Joan Is Awful,' she sees you playing her,' he says.

Annie Murphy was "coded" to play herself in Fictive Level One. Salma Hayek was coded for Fictive Level Two, Cate Blanchett for Fictive Level Three, and so on. We can only imagine who was on Fictive Level Four!

What happens at the end of 'Joan Is Awful'?

Annie Murphy destroys the quantum computer with an axe, concluding that since the entire sequence is "based on decisions that have already happened," she has to go through with it.

"It's not my decision. It's Joan's," she says, destroying the computer and destroying all of the fictive levels — and any possibility of more shows in this format, which were planned.

Back in the real world, source Joan and the real Annie Murphy stand side-by-side in front of the ravaged quantum computer and are apprehended. (Remember, Annie Murphy had taken on Salma Hayek's role in the real world, meaning she was there when source Joan destroyed the computer).

Time passes and the real Joan opens a coffee shop, which the real Annie Murphy seems to regularly visit. They have matching ankle bracelets, indicating they're both on house arrest — but seemingly happy with their friendship.

It's a happy ending, "Black Mirror" style, especially when compared to other episodes.

What does it all mean?

The episode had people online joking about checking the terms and conditions of their Netflix and worrying about the future of AI.

Beyond that, Murphy says the episode is a commentary on how people are more likely to relish others' bad news than their good (which Streamberry's CEO points to when she explains why the show is called "Joan Is Awful," not "Joan Is Awesome").

"This is coming from a 'Below Deck' fanatic who tunes in to see people be as drunk and miserable as humanly possible. We live in such bleak times and yet it's so much easier to find the salacious, dirty details in others than to turn inwards, because we're full of anxiety ourselves. It's easy to say, 'Those people aren't well. But I'm doing fine,'" she says.