'Black Mirror' Bosses on Social Media, VR Porn and That "F*** You" Ending With Miley Cyrus in Season 5

Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones explain the three new stories of their techno-paranoia Netflix series in a spoilery chat with the The Hollywood Reporter.
Courtesy of Netflix
The 'Black Mirror' season 5 stories "Striking Vipers," "Smithereens" and "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too"

[This story contains spoilers from the fifth season of Netflix's Black Mirror.]

How will modern technologies change the way we look at sex, relationships, our idols and ourselves?

After consuming Charlie Brooker's fifth season of Netflix's Black Mirror, those are some of the core questions that will bubble to the surface for viewers. The newest cycle of the techno-paranoia anthology that Brooker created, writes and executive produces with Annabel Jones returned with three new stories on June 5. Separately, feverish conversation and online debate will rage on about the merit of each but, collectively, all three episodes (or films, as they are called by Brooker and Jones) have a lot to say about how people are grappling with the everyday tech that is either on the horizon or already here.

The action-romance "Striking Vipers" crosses genres when two college friends (played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) reconnect through a Street Fighter-type game that has been upgraded into a VR escape — one that mimics physical sensations with the use of familiar TCKR tech. The two men are bored — Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) is single in the city while Danny (Mackie) has a family in the suburbs — and when they discover an unexpected spark in the game, they embark in a sexual affair as their avatars (played by Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin). Their ensuing feelings raise questions about monogamy and sexual fluidity when exploring the world of VR porn and, in the end, the two men and Danny's wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie) compromise to a yearly tradition where the men reunite in Striking Vipers while Theo explores an open night in the real world without her wedding ring.

Most true to the Black Mirror coda is "Smithereens," which follows a ride-share driver (Andrew Scott) who takes a passenger (Damson Idris) hostage because he works for the social media platform Smithereen. A grief-stricken Chris (Scott) reveals that his wife was killed by a drunk driver because he took his eyes off the road to check the addictive app while behind the wheel. Bringing to life a character who was foreshadowed in a Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Easter egg is Topher Grace as Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer, an evolved tech bro (reminiscent of Twitter's Jack Dorsey) whom Chris holds responsible for his wife's death. After relaying his story to Bauer over the phone as police close in, the episode ends with a sniper shot and the result of the hostage situation is revealed through breaking news apps (but stays hidden from viewers) as people go about their day.

And then there is "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," a departure in series tone that tackles the exploitation of artists in the music industry. The mega pop star is Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), whose image, music and mental health is controlled by an evil aunt (Susan Pourfar) who puts her in a coma so she can mine her talent, thanks to a futuristic brain technology, and copy her likeness to erect an "Ashley Eternal" hologram that can perform and sell out live concerts. But when a fan (Angourie Rice) and her sister (Madison Davenport) crack the limiter on the "Ashley Too" AI-smart doll that holds the brain capacity of the real Ashley, the duo and the now-digitally conscious Ashley doll embark on a mission to save the real superstar. In the end, they succeed and free Ashley, while exposing her aunt, and "Ashley Fuckn O" performs the punk music she desires.

Was "Striking Vipers" a love story? Is Billy Bauer really the villain in "Smithereens"? And, what does "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" have to say about true art? 

Below, in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Brooker and Jones — the Emmy-winning masterminds who put the groundbreaking "San Junipero," epic "USS Callister" and critical gems like "Be Right Back" and "Entire History of You" on the map — answer those questions and more as they unpack these three new offerings and their wide-ranging endings, while also bantering and looking ahead to telling more Black Mirror stories. 

We spoke about how interactive standalone film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch impacted season five. How did you settle on releasing these three stories?

Charlie Brooker: Like we spoke about, originally Bandersnatch was part of season five. These are sort of companion pieces. We shot "Striking Vipers" before we were filming Bandersnatch, and there was a bit of overlap between Bandersnatch and "Smithereens." We usually don’t overlap the filming, but we had to because Bandersnatch was shooting for—ever! And the more complex Bandersnatch became, we realized it was like doing one season all in one go. It also made more sense to have it as a standalone entity because, apart from everything else, we weren’t sure whether the interactivity would work on everyone’s platforms, and we didn’t want to launch a season where one of the episodes is grayed out and you can’t play it if you’re on an old tablet. Though, in practice, I don’t think that ended up being much of an issue.

Back in the day, we always used to do three. We looked at the other episodes we were working on in conjunction with Bandersnatch and realized they complemented each other. Rather than make everyone wait for ages while we write some more, we thought: why don’t we put these out relatively close to Bandersnatch? I can understand some people saying, “Only three episodes? That’s not fair.” But they’re actually getting more Black Mirror in a short space of time than they’ve had before, because Bandersnatch is about five-and-a-half hours and this season is about three hours. It’s kind of like an extra dessert.

Annabel Jones: I actually think we’ve over delivered.

Brooker: We might take them back!

A common theme from last season was digital consciousness. Now, with "Striking Vipers," "Smithereens" and "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," you seem to be tackling the addictions we have to technology and how disconnected that can make us from the world. What inspired you to focus on this obsession and isolation in season five? 

Brooker: It’s interesting you say that. Sometimes we need to be told [about the themes], because we’re not necessarily thinking in terms of an overall theme per season. Just like making anything, this is fire-fighting a lot of the time — so, "panic" is our overall theme! (Laughs.) But some people have said there’s a thread of loneliness running through these episodes, which I think is fair. Maybe it reflects how when I write, I’m sitting alone and typing a lot of the time.

Jones: Or, are you experiencing porn in a VR world?

Brooker: Oh, is that what you think I’m doing?

Jones: If we’re talking about inspirations…

Brooker: I’m writing when I’m in that room for hours, that’s what I’m doing! And, as we’ve established, Annabel, I don’t know what pornography is because I’ve never seen pornography. You’ve mentioned it to me as a thing, and apparently there are naked people in it or something like that? And it sounds disgraceful from your descriptions of it! (Laughs.)

Jones: (Laughs.) And then you have the ["Striking Vipers"] line about "fucking the polar bear," so I’m not sure what porn you’ve been looking at. But you’ve obviously explored this thoroughly.

Brooker: Well, that was inspired by something you said. About something you had seen a farmhand doing.

Well, we can dig into your inspiration for "Striking Vipers" in a minute...

Brooker: Yes. Anyway, back onto topic! There is a sort of thread of isolation. There’s an unhealthy relationship going on at the heart of all three of these, isn’t there? I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it. In "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," obviously the relationship between [Rachel and the doll is unhealthy] — although, having said that, I’m fairly ambivalent about the Ashley Too doll.

That episode also goes into the Black Mirror "happy ending" column, because the doll ends up being helpful when it comes to saving the real Ashley (Miley Cyrus) from her coma-inducing aunt (Susan Pourfar). 

Brooker: The doll becomes helpful. She becomes a companion to Rachel, and the problem there is that her pep-talk advice is a little shallow. It’s a bit one-size-fits-all, and it persuades Rachel to go put on a talent show in which she ends up feeling humiliated. But, the doll itself is bringing her a bit of joy.

Jones: In "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," while there is a parallel going on in Ashley O’s life and in Rachel’s life, the film itself is really a sarcastic look at the entertainment industry and digital rights and what happens to artists when they’re more valuable as a digital property than they are in the real world, as seen recently by the Whitney Houston estate maybe bringing about a hologram of her and, in the past, Amy Winehouse’s family resurrecting her image. This idea that troubled pop stars who ultimately maybe were not supported by the music industry or couldn’t cope with that level of fandom, now they’re being brought back and people can enjoy their music again and the music can live on.

But the idea that what destroyed the characters is going to now outlive them and have none of their identity and personality is such a ghoulish idea. And then, of course, the idea of AI being able to draw out more of their music for fans to enjoy. As the consumer, you need to ask yourself, "What if I end up liking that music?" You probably will and, is that true art? How do you feel when you want to go see a gig and it could be a massive hologram that you’re going to see and enjoy — does that feel like music? All of these are questions we’re going to be asking ourselves going forward because technology is enabling it to happen. 

Brooker: It’s also quite a romp.

Jones: There are a lot of dark and relevant ideas going on while we sort of play this mad caper with Miley and her amazing fuck-you attitude ripped all the way through the story. I hope people enjoy Miley’s performance because I think she’s so authentic in it, and she’s so vulnerable. She shows us this whole other side of what the world is to her and how she tries to stay grounded within it. At the same time, all of these very other dark concepts are being explored.

Miley Cyrus said she identified with this story of a female pop star wrestling with fame, her image, artistry and exploitation. What did she contribute to the episode?

Brooker: Most of it was already there in the script and then we sent this to her, thinking it was a gamble — like dropping a coin in that thing where the coin bounces off the pegs, and then you lose! We thought we just wouldn’t hear back. But we had nothing to lose because she would be so perfect for the part. And it turned out she did know the show and likes the show, and she was really excited because the script resonated with her. We had a Skype chat with her early on, and it was immediately apparent that she’s very smart and just funny. She takes her job very, very seriously but she’s also aware of the absurdity of that whole world. Obviously, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is very heightened and it’s a very unusual tone for us, because it all starts out like it’s going in one direction. It’s more traditionally Black Mirror for the first half, and then it starts accelerating into craziness. But there were several things Miley said that ended up being reflected in the script that were to do with the music industry. Certainly, she doesn’t have an evil aunt who controls her. But there were aspects and things she was saying about live performance and the general sense of the responsibility you have to fans. The general sense of how you move on as a performer if you want to express yourself differently than the box people have put you in. I think all of that stuff resonated with her.

Jones: And the role of social media within that and how that’s an element of her job that she has to embrace, and how she manages that relationship and tries to be true to it. All of these peripheral things that aren’t actually connected to music.

Brooker: Definitely. I remember her saying that she recently had an experience where she had gone on stage as a cameo — and I cannot remember the act, but it was a band or performer whose main audience is significantly older than Miley’s — and she walked on stage and looked out into the audience and could see everyone’s faces, because they weren’t all filming it on their phones. Instead of a sea of rectangles, she saw faces and that struck her; that she had forgotten and almost missed that. There was a line about that that went into the script. So there were lots of comments that she made that went into the story.

"Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" does have that fist-in-the-air kind of happy ending, but "Striking Vipers" is not as clear cut. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II spoke about the ending being a happy one for technology, because the game saves a marriage and brings these two men together who would have never found a connection in reality. But if the VR world is better than the real one, is that ending happy or sad?

Brooker: Well, it’s a fantasy, isn’t it? It’s a fantasy for that one day a year, so it’s a pragmatic ending. And for Yahya’s character, his situation is the most bleak at the end, because you see he’s living alone. He has a cat for companionship. But it’s literally marked on the calendar — the one day a year. What has become the most significant relationship in his life revolves around one day a year. Whereas for Danny [Anthony Mackie] and Theo [Nicole Beharie], we see that their marriage has actually been strengthened by an acceptance of their selfish need for a little outlet. This is a world where this fantasy is available to people and the way they’re dealing with it is to ration it. We deliberately play a very romantic track. It has very romantic imagery at the end, with [Danny and Karl's avatars] smogging as we zoom out. But really, it’s not so much the game. The game hasn’t really saved the relationship because Theo’s fantasy is in the real world. She goes out and meets guys for one day a year. What saved their marriage — or at least what has kept it on life support — is that they are now communicating about their fantasies and needs. It’s that communication that’s now happening. He opens his mouth and really talks to her for the first time, you sense, in about a year. Some people will see it as a happy ending, but I think it’s much, much more ambiguous than that.

Whereas I really like the fact that "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" has a very goofy ending and that, for Black Mirror, is one of the more punk things we could do. To say, “Let’s go quite cartoon at the end and literally have her look down the lens.” At one point I suggested that the aunt should either turn out to be a robot or she should vanish in a puff of smoke and disappear in a haunted mirror. I always wanted to push it that far! (Laughs.) But we did have her look down the lens and that, for us, is going to piss a lot of Black Mirror fans off!

Jones: I don’t think it will piss people off. It’s a very funky ending,

Brooker: Well, it might. I’m sure it will. I hope it does, in a good way. But I agree, it’s very funky. And she makes a very convincing rock 'n' roll, punk rocker.

Since she's dropping new music right now, I was going to ask if Cyrus will release that closing cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole." (Which was the pop-ified inspiration for Ashley O's "On a Roll.")

Brooker: Well, I hope so! (Update: Check out the music video here.)

Jones: The film is essentially the spirit of Miley and her commentary about the music industry and laughing at its absurdity, refusing to sort of play ball and stepping back and essentially giving it a big "fuck you" at the end. Which is her saying, "I’ll just try and do my music and my work. Even if it’s not the most commercial thing in the world, it’s my music." It feels like the right ending for her and for that character arc.

Back to "Striking Vipers," Owen Harris returned to direct another romance for you, following up on the Emmy-winning “San Junipero” and critical favorite “Be Right Back” episodes from earlier seasons. Was "Striking Vipers" always written as a relationship story between two men?

Brooker: Yes. As often happens with Black Mirror, the starting point was that there were two different ideas that collided. One was a different take on our romance idea and another one had to do with fighting games. It was an observation that I had that there is something often quite homoerotic about Tekken and Street Fighter and [fighting] games like that where you have these incredibly hyper-sexualized characters jumping about and grappling on the floor. In the ‘90s, I used to play Tekken a lot and I remember being concerned at one point that the people in the flat below me must have thought we were operating some kind of sex dungeon. Because of these noise grunts and shouts of joy ringing out at all times of the day and night from me and my flatmates. And then it became a thing where it was like, "Well, that’s a funny situation." You start playing a game with your best friend and then a holiday romance sort of blossoms. And it’s also a confusing situation because of the gender identities. What I find quite fascinating about it is that I still don’t really know where I come down on that episode, whether I think they’re having a same-sex relationship or what.

Jones: I think the great thing is that it’s not defined. And that is what’s so perplexing for the two characters. They don’t quite know what it is, but there’s something about this VR world that’s giving them the ultimate sexual fantasy. And it’s to do with the uniqueness of their friendship. They have this very long-lasting friendship where they have this easy camaraderie and immediately connect with each other, even though they haven’t seen each other for a few years. And that, fused with this world that allows them to indulge in the most sophisticated and immersive porn, is creating this really heavy mix of excitement and intoxication and they don’t quite know what to do with it. People have different relationships — whether they’re physical relationships, online relationships or texting relationships. Everyone is experiencing these new types of relationships where some work on one platform and don’t on another.

Then you have "Smithereens," which is this amalgamation of all the tech giants and social media companies that calls to mind everything from Twitter and Facebook to Uber and Spotify (the company is also set in Netflix’s home base of Los Gatos, California). In the story, Smithereen is more advanced than the police because of their tech and access to users. What is your biggest fear about these companies and how much trust we put in them?

Brooker: What we’re doing here, hopefully, is that the Billy Bauer character [played by Topher Grace] is not this mustache-twirling villain. One of my favorite moments is when he starts unloading his problems onto Andrew Scott’s character, who interrupts him to say, “I don’t give a fuck.” There’s definitely an irony there that Billy is the head of this big communications platform [called Smithereen] and he’s a very hard person to reach and he’s literally on a silent retreat.

There's a big debate that’s going on at the moment about social platforms. They are companies. They have a responsibility to their shareholders to deliver a profit and, in order to do that, they have teams going, “Well, if we optimize this and they optimize that, here’s the outcome. This is growth.” But the problem is that’s probably socially irresponsible. There comes a point ethically where you’re turning into the tobacco industry and it's like adding additives to tobacco. So there’s an interesting area for debate there and, hopefully, it’s a very human story going on.

It’s also about people being caught up in this sort of whirlwind of confetti that these platforms are. Social media is an amazing invention. The thing that frightens me is that they reward extremity and your phone is increasingly like a nest of baby birds all craning their necks for a mouthful of food. You have a world where things are competing for your attention and they’re rewarding extremity, so people end up getting radicalized and they get hope from these things. That is the next stage of our development. I’m not saying we have to stomp it all out. It’s just the next phase of our collective R&D as we work out how we use this stuff. This is like the printing press; we’ve got to work out what this means to us as a species and how we responsibly use it, because it’s powerful.

There’s a moment in the episode where Andrew Scott delivers a rant. He does it brilliantly and it’s deliberately almost a parody. There’s a bit of a wink involved in that what he does is virtually, “What if phones, but too much?” If that distills the sometimes criticism where people say, “Oh, Black Mirror is like a bloke getting angry over the existence of the app story.” There’s certainly a dark element and a bit of comedy going on there, even though the circumstances for him delivering that rant are obviously quite bleak!

How many more ideas do you have brewing — how many seasons do you envision doing Black Mirror?

Jones: You assume we want to do more? Have you seen these things? They may be optimistic to you, but, Jesus Christ!

Brooker: (Laughs.) We’ll keep doing them until a voice in our brains commands us to stop.

Jones: Or Netflix.

Brooker: Yes, or Netflix!

Jones: You know that voice inside your head, Charlie, is not yours — it’s actually Netflix.

There were a lot of Easter eggs in these episodes. The news scroll in "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" and the trending hashtags in "Smithereens" were like a Black Mirror library — #Piggate lives on! Did you also foreshadow any future stories with these nods, perhaps a "Sea of Tranquility"-themed episode?

Brooker: We did actually in Bandersnatch have a couple references to some of these episodes. Sometimes we do. Sometimes it's fun when you have a situation like that where you go, “Hang on a minute.” We knew Bandersnatch was going to go up several months before these did, so we were able to lob in a couple of Easter eggs. There are a couple near the end in the news ticker [in Bandersnatch] where, like a newsfeed going along the bottom of the screen, you can put in future Easter eggs — which was a new one for us. There’s a reference in ["Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too] that refers to the body of Rolo Haynes [from "Black Museum"] being discovered in the smoldering remains of a burnt out museum in the middle of a dessert. And there’s a reference [in "Smithereens"] to the prime minister from "National Anthem" going to do Brexit negotiations. That’s a bigger punishment for him than the pig thing, isn’t it? (Laughs.)

It all started because the art department would say they were doing some graphics for the news channel or whatever was in the episode, and they would ask, "What should we put in the storyline ticker in the bottom?" So I was like, “I’ll just fire off a couple of emails and a load of suggestions.” And then it has sort of grown from there! Now, the name of almost everything is some sort of Easter egg. Like in "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," they’re attending Ritman High, which is a reference to Colin Ritman from Bandersnatch.

Season five of Black Mirror is now streaming all three episodes on Netflix. Head here for more on the new stories.