SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched Season 4 of “Black Mirror.”
Earlier this year, the “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror’s” third season took home two key Primetime Emmy Awards (TV movie and writing for a TV movie). The love story — which offered a hopeful, happy ending — was lighter fare than usual for the technology-driven anthology series. That was a theme that series creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones wanted to continue with the six new stories in Season 4.
“The world obviously does feel slightly more troubled than it has been in other years,” Jones tells Variety. “And I suppose when you’re living in that world, you do think, “Do we want to be making six bleak distinct dramas? Does the world want to see that?” You do have to ask yourselves those questions.”
While Jones says it was still important to “deliver that sort of trademark utter fear and dread and tension” in some episodes, she and Brooker concluded that the true job of the anthology format is to have a “range of emotions and experiences.”
“You’ve got to try and tell the most authentic story you can, so it would be really foolish of us to say, ‘What’s going to be the ‘San Junipero’ of this season?’” Jones says. “It touched people because it was rich in ideas and also positive and just a beautiful love story. It would be impossible to try and repeat that, and our job is to not repeat ourselves.”
The tech that was explored in “San Junipero” — uploading one’s consciousness to a cloud to live beyond death — gets a deeper dive in Season 4 through “Black Museum,” though Jones says they were careful not to lean into any one particular area of technology too much.
“As an anthology show we want to try and be surprising and unpredictable,” she says. “And we don’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting a season theme because our job is to say you don’t quite know what you’re going to get so lean in and pay attention and hopefully you’ll enjoy the ride.”
One newer area they wanted to play with this season was the idea of parenting — and what it’s like from both the child and the adult’s perspective. Hence, “Arkangel,” which was directed by Jodie Foster. In that hour, the technology at play was a med-tech implant in the child’s head and how and why the mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) would feel it necessary to use, as well as how the child would react when learning about it.
“I know it happens a lot with pets, but I have heard that there are some children that are getting them now, so this is just an exaggeration of that. We wanted to think what the updated version of that [was] and find a really good idea of how that could go terribly wrong,” Jones says. “I love the themes that it tackles and that at the end you’re not quite sure where your sympathies lie. I love that ambiguity and that confusion.”
Each episode of “Black Mirror” is still designed to live as an individual TV movie, and ones such as “USS Callister” and “Hang the DJ” are what Jones specifically points to as the “most positive pieces” from Season 4. The former is an “epic space romp” that is an homage to early sci-fi shows. Though it tackles tough themes like the “exploration of power and tyranny,” the good guys do defeat the tyrant in the end.
“Hang the DJ,” the episode most closely related to “San Junipero,” is a take on “what it’s like to date in today’s world and what it says about a general sense of loneliness,” says Jones. The challenge in the episode for Jones and the production team was not in turning the romantic drama genre on its head but rather not tipping their hand too much at the fact that the couple being followed was merely a simulation.
“We tried to make the world look slightly unreal in that you know there’s something not quite right about the world, but you’re not quite sure what it is,” Jones says.
On the other end of the spectrum are “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” the latter of which is done completely in black-and-white, a style that was often discussed, but hasn’t been “justified” until now, shares Jones.
David Slade, who directed “Metalhead,” came in with the design in mind, which Jones says made sense because the world the story depicts is very “pared down, bleak, and post-apocalyptic” in and of itself.
“The world has been starved of color — there’s not much hope left in the world — so to have the world be drained of color felt right,” Jones says. “And also, for a lot of it you are seeing the robot’s POV, and it’s digital, it’s kind of grainy. The idea that we paint the whole world through the robot’s eyes appealed to us and made sense and we embraced it wholeheartedly.”
Unlike many previous episodes of “Black Mirror,” “Crocodile” tells the tale of the unraveling of a woman by her own fears and devices, not because she finds herself in a trap of technology’s making. “It’s more of a conventional cat-and-mouse type drama where you have someone who has a secret and their whole life can be ruined by it,” explains Jones. “She protects and saves her boyfriend by concealing this murder they’ve committed, and then years later it comes back to haunt her. So we just loved this idea of what would happen when your memories are no longer private — what would happen to the memories we conceal to ourselves and how out of control can that get?”
The idea that technology evolved to a place where you could repeatedly access memories was previously explored in the first season of “Black Mirror,” with “The Entire History of You,” but years later, the show’s creators were still thinking about such an “advancement” and took it to a new level this time by showcasing others accessing someone’s personal memories.
“From a genre point of view it was quite interesting to have that detective-esque angle but told from a very human, despairing story where this woman is desperately trying to hold her family together and gets sucked into this spiral,” Jones says of “Crocodile.”
“Black Museum,” the Colm McCarthy-directed episode which composites three shorter stories into one overall piece, may be the most thematically ambiguous of the group. It’s the diversity of the episode themes overall, she says, that keep the show fresh for the production team, and hopefully, the audience.
“There is a lot of curating going on,” Jones says, “but I think it’s fitting that we end with ‘Black Museum,’ which shows the whole universe off and shows connections between various episodes.”
“Black Mirror” is streaming now on Netflix.