We're breaking down Season 3 of Black Mirror, now streaming on Netflix -- be sure to check out our recaps and analyses of "Nosedive," "Shut Up and Dance," "Men Against Fire," and "Hated in the Nation." Here, we present our interview with series creator Charlie Brooker.
The hacking attack that debilitated major American websites on Friday occurred the same day that Netflix -- one of the disrupted sites -- released the third season of Black Mirror. Coincidence? Fans of the dark anthology series, which examines the potential horrors lurking in our increasing reliance on technology, probably didn't care either way, as long as the hack didn't prevent them from binge-watching the six new episodes immediately.
In a phone interview earlier this month, series creator Charlie Brooker talked to Thrillist about what Americanizing the show after two seasons on British television was like, why this batch of stories isn't quite as bleak as previous ones, and where to spot fresh Black Mirror Easter eggs.
Were there any unexpected challenges in writing the series for Netflix, rather than British television?
Charlie Brooker: It's interesting. I was thinking a bit about how this is a global audience now and that we have a slightly bigger canvas. But when you're in the thick of writing it, you're just thinking, Oh my god, I hope this isn't shit. You're fighting a fire in that respect. You've got running times that are malleable and you don't have commercial breaks. And sometimes, actually, when I was writing scripts that I knew were going out on commercial television, I would work out where the breaks were as I was writing, and I would psychologically use that. You don't have that anymore.
Netflix was very hands-off but very engaged, if that makes sense. They have a lot of thoughts and notes, but they never force you to take them, and they're always very well-considered. Sometimes they'd point out that I'd used a Britishism -- like in a story where the cast is American and I used a word like "fortnight," to American ears that might sound like something from Game of Thrones.
Unlike the first two seasons, these episodes all hit Netflix on the same day. Did you sequence them in a particular viewing order?
Brooker: We went back and forth over the order so many times -- it started to get a bit like that puzzle where you're trying to take a box and a chicken across a river, and you've only got space on the boat for one. There are certain stories you don't want back to back, and so we went 'round the houses working it out. [This season starts] pretty accessible, and then there's a difficulty curve.
What were some specific sources of inspiration for this batch of episodes?
Brooker: There's a real mix here. "Hated in the Nation" came about through two things: 1) it was thinking, Well, there's a lot of rage on social media, is there a story there? And 2) quite often I'll sit down to think, What's a Black Mirror detective story? What's a genre we haven't tackled yet? So it was those two thoughts that came together. I don't tend to look at the news and go, Well, I've got to do something about the rise of Donald Trump, say, or Samsung just launched their new fridge-freezer that can run and take the children to school. It's weird, the ideas just sometimes pop up really quickly, like fully formed stories -- or they're really tricky ones.
"San Junipero" is a love story set in a beachy California town, and it's more hopeful than most Black Mirror episodes. How'd that come about?
Brooker: That's partly to keep things fresh for me, selfishly. That was actually the first story I wrote this season. I was doing two things: 1) I'd read somebody going, "Oh, right, so Black Mirror has gone to Netflix; it'll get really American now" -- so I thought, Well, OK, I'll fuck with you. California! And 2) I also sort of thought I'm gonna do the opposite of what I'd expect to see in Black Mirror. It's one thing when you're doing three [episodes]. When you're doing six, you want more [variety]. And the more we do, if we were just depressing all the time, it becomes too predictable.
The episode reminded me a lot of HBO's Westworld --
Brooker: -- Which I haven't seen! I deliberately haven't seen it. I saw [the original 1973 movie] when I was a kid, but I haven't seen it in years. I deliberately avoided watching the show. Whenever anything is in the same ballpark as us, I tend to try and avoid it as much as I can, just because I'll start thinking, Oh, shit, there's a whole area of things we can't do. To what extent it's in the same ballpark as our show, I don't know. There are certainly Grand Theft Auto undertones, as I understand it. But I guess ours is probably more optimistic?
The tech in "San Junipero" is scary, though. Is it a good idea to have a manmade heaven on earth?
Brooker: It's probably coming. The characters in there do represent the slightly different points of view on their world. Those are the sorts of things we're going to be dealing with in the near future. I'm delighted even our most optimistic story has terrified you on some level. The show doesn't really ever have a message because I don't have answers to anything. So we might pose questions occasionally, but I don't sit down thinking this is gonna set the record straight.
Which Black Mirror scenario most worries you?
Brooker: I guess the "Waldo Moment" [an episode about a crude cartoon bear who becomes a political sensation] has actually turned out to be the one that's most worrisome. I am quite neurotic and I kind of worry about everything. I am actually quite pro-technology, and I try to be optimistic in real life about where that's all going. I'm hoping it's stuff that we're all going to get better at dealing with and using, because it's not going away.
Overall, the "Waldo Moment" is probably one of the most terrifying ones. "Men Against Fire" is in many ways, too. A lot of the others aren't trying to spread a message, they're trying to entertain, and then if there's an additional resonance, great. I love The Twilight Zone, I really like the "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone, which isn't really about anything, it's more a brilliant punch line. I'm a fan of that kind of rug-pull, gotcha, almost-bordering-on-corny story as well. Black Mirror's not meant as a warning, although it's always pleasing if people come away devastated.
"Shut Up and Dance," the story of the boy who falls victim to laptop-webcam hackers, felt the most devastating to me, because that could happen today.
Brooker: Oh, totally! Yeah, no, that was very deliberate. We thought, Let's do one that we thought is not in any way science-fiction. Like, we'll just do one that could literally happen right now. It's completely contemporary, there's nothing impossible that happens in there. Nothing magical. Nothing farfetched. Even the way [the protagonist] is communicating is all text messages. We deliberately kept that very, very, very grounded, partly because I was aware there are other stories we've got where we are in a fantastical future with magical technology doing things. In the same way that one of the things that led to doing "San Junipero" was me thinking, Can I do a story set in the past? -- that was where that idea kind of sprang from -- we thought, Can we do a story just set today?
And we've done that before, because "National Anthem" could have been set today. I mean, it's a preposterous sort of fable, but it could happen. It sort of did happen! And the "Waldo Moment" as well. But I think that's probably why you're finding "Shut Up and Dance" particularly depressing -- because it absolutely could happen, and it's fairly unforgiving.
I've noticed that some of my co-workers have put tape over their computer webcams. I'm thinking of doing that now.
Brooker: Isn't it weird? I do not understand why products with webcams built into them don't come, by default, with a slider that covers that. It's not like it would be difficult. So why don't they? [Laughs.] Someone's gonna do that, and that will sell a lot. If the next MacBook had that on, you'd go, Oh, thank fuck for that! I guess the thing is it's hard to introduce that now without admitting there's a problem, or it would just worry a lot of people, wouldn't it? They'd go, What? You're saying I need that?
I've seen a few Easter eggs scattered throughout the new episodes, like character-name callbacks and more Irma Thomas covers. Did the fan theories of a connected Black Mirror universe encourage you to do more of that?
Brooker: I've read a couple things where people have tried to work out whether this whole thing is set in one coherent universe, and my view is, if they want to believe that, that's fine. But I don't approach it that way, any more than The Twilight Zone was set in one coherent universe. It's probably all in the same psychological universe.
Which other inside references should fans look out for?
Brooker: In "Nosedive," we threw in a couple status updates from Michael Callow, the former prime minister -- but I don't know if they're visible in the final cut. The "White Bear" insignia pops up in an episode. The Irma Thomas song comes back. Our news network, UKN, pops up a couple times. If you look at the covers of the magazines in "Playtest," there's usually little Easter eggs hidden around. And a while ago, when we were doing the show, somebody sent me a link to a funny article that Mallory Ortberg had written that was taking the piss out of Black Mirror in an amusing way, and so we've hidden the phrase "what if phones, but too much" in there as well, if you look closely. We did it before with the Christmas special -- we had the Irma Thomas song come back in because it does sort of nest the whole thing together in some kind of artistic universe, to sound wanky for a moment. So it is deliberate, but it's not part of some grand unveiling that this is all set in the year 2030 or something.
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