SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the fifth season of “Black Mirror,” streaming now on Netflix.
The fifth season of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” features three new tales of modern life affected by the future technology — but the worlds depicted aren’t as bleak as in past seasons.
“We sometimes get frustrated when people characterize the show as being anti-technology, because we tend to see it as a neutral thing itself — it’s just a powerful thing,” executive producer Charlie Brooker tells Variety. “So, it’s just our characters dealing with this great power.”
But, just because the episodes including “Smithereens,” starring Andrew Scott as a man who kidnaps a social app company employee (Damson Idris) as a way to get to the founder (Topher Grace), tell stories about connections enabled by technology, Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones aren’t necessarily saying that technology is making people’s lives better.
Looking at “Smithereens” more specifically, Jones says she actually considers that story “quite hard-hitting and impactful and emotionally devastating.” Meanwhile in “Striking Vipers,” two college friends’ (played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) relationship becomes more intimate thanks to an extremely immersive video game — but that game proves to be “very disruptive to what’s going on in their lives,” she points out. “It’s upending their self-image, it’s upending their relationships.”
In the Miley Cyrus-led “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” episode, the real-life musician plays a pop star whose moods, behavior and music are controlled by her aunt, who is medicating her. When she tries to speak out, her aunt poisons her, which makes her fall into a coma. But, thanks to brain wave technology and utilizing the voice library that had been recorded and uploaded into “Ashley Too” dolls for the fans to purchase, her aunt is able to keep her music career going. While that may certainly seem dark, the second half of the episode becomes “more of a crazy romp,” per Jones, as one of her fans (played by Angourie Rice) unlocks Ashley’s true consciousness within her doll and then breaks into Ashley’s house to save her.
Still, Jones says she embraces “that punk element of it rather than the optimism” of the story, which embodies star Cyrus.
Casting Cyrus was a lucky moment because the team knew from the beginning it would be a tough role to fill. “When you’re casting an international pop star, that’s a huge ask for any actor to try and embody a pop star from the first scene — especially since we’re a one-off film, so it has to be immediate,” Jones says. “The viewer has to totally understand that that person is a pop star and feel for them in that world. So while we’re agonizing over this, Charlie said, ‘Why don’t we ask Miley?’ And we were like, “Really do you think she would ever?’ Because you know that’s the stuff of dreams.”
The duo had no pre-existing relationship with the one-time “Hannah Montana,” aside from Jones being a fan. “That doesn’t count,” Brooker jokes. “We thought it was like writing a request on a paper plane and hurling it into the Grand Canyon. We didn’t think we’d even hear back.”
But it turned out that Cyrus had seen the series, and she read the script and quickly committed to the part, offering her own insights and observations into the character that they immediately started working into the script. “She’s such a powerful force of nature, that when she commits to a project she gives her all,” Jones says.
“Black Mirror” has always brought in a wide range of actors, which this season also includes Nicole Beharie, Pom Klementieff, Madison Davenport and Ludi Lin. Brooker and Jones credit their casting director Jina Jay with finding the right people who will not only be interested by the material but also be able to tap into the complex themes.
For “Striking Vipers,” Jones says, “the questions it raised about the portrayal of masculinity” was a chance for Mackie to do something “totally against type [which] was such a fun and dangerous idea for him.”
While the last two seasons of “Black Mirror” featured six episodes each, Season 5 features a return to the show’s original pattern of releasing three episodes at a time. However, it was a choice made not because Brooker and Jones wanted a break, but because of the effort needed to make the interactive episode “Bandersnatch.” “The more we worked on ‘Bandersnatch,’ the more we realized it was like doing a season in itself,” Jones explains. “I wish I could say, ‘Oh it was relaxing,’ but we actually ended up doing loads more.”
Netflix has yet to greenlight a sixth season, but it’s something Brooker and Jones would be happy to do — in fact, Brooker says they “will keep doing it until we are physically prevented. Literally physically wrestled to the ground. And even then we’ll be scratching it on the floor with our fingernails.”
It’s a bold attitude, but as Brooker points out, the format provides flexibility to the storytelling, which keeps it fresh for the producers. “We often have a technological underpinning to the plot devices, but under our ‘Black Mirror’ banner we’ve done horror movies, we’ve done romances, we’ve done comedic romps, we’ve done satire, we’ve done relationship dramas. It represents a flavor and a tone, and it’s very, very flexible.”
In the future, Brooker adds, what the team is eager to do is “experiment even more with the form of what it is.”
“We’ve done seasons of three; we’ve done seasons of six; we’ve done stand-alone interactives; we’ve also done one-off episodes — ‘White Christmas’ was a one-off in the U.K.,” he notes, “so I think there’ll be more of that sort of thing.”
Adds Jones: “When you’re given that creative freedom, my God, it’s a privilege you dream of.”