When I mention to Charlie Brooker, the writer and creator of Black Mirror, that his Queen must be dreading the arrival of our reality-TV president, he informs me that Her Majesty may be better equipped for the antics of a crass buffoon than we think. “She’s lived with Prince Philip—a thin-skinned racist—for years, so she’s accustomed to that,” he cracks.
The cheeky satirist and his partner in (cyber)crime, Annabel Jones, are promoting the fifth season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, their acclaimed sci-fi anthology series probing the myriad ways technology can (and will?) ruin lives. And in these increasingly dystopian times, where climate change is rapidly eroding the planet, our every move is being monitored, and a man who spray-paints his face orange every morning is the so-called leader of the free world, the show is timelier than ever.
Following the surprise release of Bandersnatch—a stand-alone choose-your-own-adventure film—in late December, Season 5 has returned to the 3-episode format of Seasons 1 and 2, pre-Netflix move. The first of these, “Striking Vipers,” stars Anthony Mackie as a husband and father who loses himself in the brave new world of VR gaming-porn (more on that here). The second, “Smithereens,” concerns a rideshare driver (Andrew Scott, of Fleabag fame) who abducts an employee of the popular social-media company Smithereen in order to settle some unfinished business with its CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who just so happens to be in the midst of a silent meditation retreat. And the third, and perhaps best, features Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a global bubblegum pop star who inspires a line of AI Ashley Too dolls, and then is exploited by her aunt/manager in the grisliest of ways.
The Daily Beast spoke with Brooker and Jones about the new season of Black Mirror—including their latest bang-on prediction.
I’m sure you’re going to be asked this ad nauseam, but why is Season 5 only three episodes long?
Charlie Brooker: One of the chief reasons was pragmatic, in that originally, Bandersnatch was going to be part of Season 5, and the more we worked on it, and the more we experimented with it, it was like doing a season in its own right. It started to make more sense to put out Bandersnatch separately, because we weren’t initially sure if it would be able to function on everyone’s platforms, or the way you were accessing Netflix. We didn’t want to launch a season where you could only see half of it. So, in a way, you could say Bandersnatch is 5A and this is 5B, and if people accuse us of being lazy, I would point out to them that we’ve actually done more in the time frame than we normally have, because Bandersnatch was five-and-a-half hours.
Annabel Jones: The themes running through Season 5 are quite topical, and one of them is set in the present-day, so it’s really taking the temperature when we look at attention deficits, the constant pull and lure of the phone, and that being something that the big tech giants are worried about being sued for in the future when people are so distracted that they can’t hold down a job.
With “Smithereens,” you’ve managed to cast Andrew Scott, otherwise known as the Hot Priest from Fleabag. I imagine you must be enjoying the Hot Priest bump.
Brooker: We didn’t know about that! He was about to go on Fleabag when we started filming. Obviously, it meant we had to spend months in post-production using CGI to make Andrew look physically presentable, because obviously he’s a hideously ugly man. The CGI that goes into constructing that face takes months. [Laughs]
And “Smithereens” is set in the present-day, which is quite uncommon for Black Mirror.
Brooker: We’d wanted to do an episode set in the present-day. The genesis of this episode is, I wanted to do something about digital rights after death. The B-story that’s in there, the woman Haley who’s trying to get into her daughter’s social accounts to move on, that was initially what the focus of the story was. But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that, the problem with making that the focus of the prime story is it will lead into melodramatic territory where you’re going to get an “answer” to the reason behind someone’s suicide from their inbox, or it’s going to lead you to a mystery. That felt, to me, a little glib. So the more we discussed this, the more we realized that everyone we spoke to had issues with attention spans and limited their use of the internet. We met people who lock their phone in a timed kitchen safe, which is designed for people who binge-eat, so they can actually get work done. The more we explored this topic, and became really disgusted with people, we thought that it was a more interesting story motor.
Was part of this also you acting out a fantasy of telling off a prominent tech CEO?
Brooker: [Laughs] I don’t believe so, but perhaps! We didn’t want to create some evil CEO. It felt more interesting to have some slightly New Age tech bro who is probably just as lost as anyone else. I love the irony of this silent retreat that he’s on. He’s the head of a communications network and is someone who’s very hard to communicate with on a personal basis, and he’s deliberately shut himself off. That’s the only thing I took from real life—I saw, I believe it was immediately following the 2016 election, Jack Dorsey said, oh, I’ve been away on a 10-day silent retreat…it was great! And I saw that his [Twitter] timeline was immediately full of people screaming, “What the fuck are you doing?! The Nazis have taken over!” So, it felt like a fruitful area.
Miley Cyrus is fantastic in the final episode, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.”
Jones: We got very lucky. She really makes the whole thing feel grounded—which is hilarious given that she’s an international pop star—but she really gives it that authenticity and that heart. You feel her journey, her exhaustion, and exploitation, and her desperation in trying to find an identity in a world that’s engineered and exists to try to commercialize you, and make you into one bespoke pop piece of entertainment. I remember when we were casting it Charlie said, “Should we send it to Miley? Have we ever got a chance in hell?” and she took the script, read it, and committed to it in days.
It’s become a bit of a running joke by now how Black Mirror, much like The Simpsons, has predicted the future. But “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” with its pop icon being held hostage by an unhinged manager who wishes to launch a hologram tour, really feels timely. I mean, in recent weeks we’ve had the Whitney Houston estate announce a hologram tour and the #FreeBritney movement gain momentum.
Brooker: Right. All of that stuff’s been going on in the background. I believe there’s an Amy Winehouse hologram that’s supposed to be going on tour as well. It’s notable that a lot of these people who are being regurgitated by the industry as holograms are people who met very tragic circumstances, and you feel that the industry possibly hasn’t looked after them correctly. So, you have people who have been eaten up and spat out by fame, and now, it’s extremely ghoulish if you think about it.
Brooker: So it touches on all of those things, and at the same time, it goes quite bananas. It’s going to annoy quite a few people, I would imagine, because it encompasses all of that stuff, and it manages—I hope—to also deliver quite a romp. Some people want Black Mirror to destroy their faith in everything. But I think the ending is the most punk one we’ve done, in a way. We break the fourth wall at the last minute, and then Miley does an amazing cover of [Nine Inch Nails’] “Head Like a Hole.”
Are we going to see that track released?
Brooker: That’s down to Miley and her team—and Trent Reznor as well. She basically performs four musical numbers in the film. There was a moment on set fairly early on where we shot the scene where she’s playing the piano and singing, and we went, “Fuckin’ hell, this is actually Miley Cyrus on set singing live! That’s quite a number!”