Why 'Black Mirror' Offered More Escapism With Season 4

Exec producer Annabel Jones says it would have been "foolish" to try to do a politicized story in the current climate, while offering hope about a fifth season.
Courtesy of Netflix; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Star Letitia Wright in the 'Black Mirror' season four episode "Black Museum"; Annabel Jones (inset)

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

When a show is able to predict the rise of Donald Trump years before his presidency materialized, it's safe to say that, given the current climate, expectations were especially high heading into the fourth season of Black Mirror.

But instead of offering a 2017 version of an avatar winning an election due to his anti-establishment rhetoric — like in season two's "The Waldo Moment" — creator-writer Charlie Brooker and his partner, executive producer Annabel Jones, decided to lean into the success of "San Junipero," the hopeful season three episode that gave Black Mirror its first Emmy trophy and became a cultural phenomenon.

The fourth season of Netflix's dystopian anthology (now streaming) notched many firsts on Black Mirror's belt. Heading into the new cycle, Brooker and Jones spoke about keeping things unpredictable and vowed to continue to bring viewers into worlds of uncharted territory. With the six new episodes, "Metalhead" was the series' shortest and first black-and-white story; "Arkangel" had the series' first female director with Jodie Foster; "Crocodile" threaded all the episodes together by completing the season's slate of female protagonists; "USS Callister" was the first space epic; "Hang the DJ" became the first "rom-com"; "Black Museum" had the most series Easter eggs, proving the episodes all exist within one universe; and the latter three all had happy and satisfying endings, perhaps the most unpredictable delivery of all.

While speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Jones said tackling politics too on-the-nose would have proven to be a "daring" feat. Instead, they found ways to be timely and, as the series launched, came upon ways they were prescient when exploring new techno-paranoias and human and digital consciousness. Below, Jones expands on the optimistic shift and why the usually bleak and nihilistic series decided to deliver some happy endings.

Ahead of season four, Charlie Brooker said the success of "San Junipero" influenced his thoughts on the episode endings. "USS Callister" and "Hang the DJ" — and even "Black Museum" — all had happy to satisfying endings. Why was this the year that Black Mirror stopped being so bleak?

It’s interesting because when we are writing these there’s a bit of a lag between the public seeing season three and us working on season four. We can’t be overly influenced by the previous season because at the time that we were writing "Hang the DJ," we didn’t know just how well "San Junipero" would be received. But one thing we were very mindful of — for the viewer and for us who are making the films — is that we don’t want to be predictable. If you have six films and they are all despairingly bleak and nihilistic, it’s not really very entertaining because you know what’s going to happen. It would be uninteresting from a story point of view.

What are some of those challenges when trying to continuously outdo your previous work?

One of the challenges for us is to make sure we are doing new things with each episode. And that’s either by taking on new genres, bringing on new talents or having different endings. Having said that, you have to feel right that the story has a happy ending. "USS Callister," in terms of its pace and structure, is the closest we’ve come to blockbuster-type film. It is an homage to Star Trek, so it’s right that the hero, Nanette Cole [played by Cristin Milioti], wins out. It’s right that good prevails over evil and that she takes over the ship at the end; from a character point of view, and also from a story point of view. It felt like the right ending for that film.

With "Hang the DJ" being a reflection of what modern dating is like, there are moments of comedy and playfulness and then there are moments of loneliness, even when they’re in relationships. So we have all of that working through the film but hopefully, if we’ve done our job right, what we have you rooting for is believing in Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell's characters [Frank and Amy] at the heart of it. It’s the closest we get to a rom-com and in the rom-com world, they do get together in the end. It also felt right for that genre. So the happy endings, hopefully when they come, they feel in the right place or for the right film.

Those episodes were the ones that critics predicted would be the “next San Junipero,” especially with "Hang the DJ's" love story and happy ending. Does that surprise you?

Oh, no! It’s impossible to try to recreate something like that. "San Junipero" was such a different piece. In our anthology, they’re all meant to be different pieces, so it would be foolish for us to try to recreate San Junipero. "San Junipero" was a love story but it was so layered and rich in ideas; whether it’s about mortality or it’s about a coming-of-age drama, what it’s like to relive your life if the prejudices that existed when we were younger were no longer there, and how that makes a difference to the life you could lead. It was about two old people and how old people are sometimes portrayed on TV in a very clichéd way.

There was so much going on in "San Junipero" that makes it so different from "Hang the DJ," which is ultimately an exploration on contemporary dating. "Hang the DJ" is about what it’s like to date in a world where you can have as many dates as you want in one night because technology can facilitate it and, how do you ever settle down with someone if you know there are thousands of other people out there that you could be with? It’s exploring what that does to your decision-making and your confidence and your instincts. Thematically, it’s very different. But if it’s as well-received as "San Junipero"? I hope people liked it!

Brooker said he wrote the episodes from July 2016 through February. Which ones were written after November 2016?

We did "Arkangel" with [director] Jodie Foster in Toronto first and then we did "USS Callister," which Charlie wrote before the election but we filmed in January. The we did "Crocodile," then "Hang the DJ," "Metalhead" and then the last one was "Black Museum." We’re often referred to as a show that tries to predict the future, but we don’t in any way try to predict the future. That would be a daring thing to do in today’s current climate, because I think we’d probably lose out to real life and not be ridiculous enough. But you can’t help but be influenced by things going on in the world. In a world that has so much change and upheaval, we thought it would be foolish to try to do a politicized story. What can we possibly say at the moment? But at the same time, there are influences that are playing throughout the episodes, whether it’s in "USS Callister" or in "Black Museum." 

So you also shot these episodes in an alternating order — switching between the more light-hearted to the more devastating. Was that intentional?

(Laughs) We did, but only because we’re not on a film schedule of being able to plan years in advance. You sometimes just have to go with who is available and the order in which the scripts come out.

Brooker said he wrote "USS Callister" right before the election and its theme of abuse of power resonates not only politically, but also with the sexual harassment reckoning in America. How do you think Callister will be viewed in this climate, compared to when you made it?

It’s interesting because the time that Charlie wrote that and we filmed it, it wasn’t the same climate. No one could have foreseen the extent of the sexual harassment claims and what’s been going on. So, you don’t quite know. At its heart, "Callister" is about tyranny and abuse of power. But I don’t think we could have foreseen what has happened.

Overall, in what ways do you think this season reflects more of an optimism about the world?

We certainly felt at the end of last year and the beginning of this year that the world felt different. We thought, “At the moment, does the world really need six very, very despairing, negative, pessimistic view points on the world? Probably not. Do I feel like I want that? No.” So there may be more elements and, to a degree, more escapism and fantasy than in previous seasons. The series does try to entertain and sometimes comedy and moments of levity and a rom-com can be just as affecting as anything that’s emotionally draining and exhausting. You just want to elicit a reaction. That’s ultimately what we tried to do: Tell compelling and entertaining stories and if we get a strong reaction, that’s great.

We have something like "Metalhead," which is quite simple and quite linear, but hopefully all the more effective for it. It’s a faceless, unfeeling machine. Sometimes we start to feel that in the world, where we see increasingly people being replaced by machines and everything becoming slightly more automated and relationships with people becoming limited and less and less. It’s a horrible exaggeration of that. We try to have different tastes and different moods across the season.

Have you talked about doing another season, and does your Emmy win all but guarantee we will see more episodes in the future?

We love making the show. It’s an utter privilege to be able to curate six films. It’s the stuff of dreams. So we would love to do more and hopefully there will be a conversation with Netflix, but at the moment we’re just wanting everyone to hopefully enjoy season four.

Black Mirror's fourth season is streaming now on Netflix. What did you think of the six episodes? Sound off in the comments section, below. For more coverage, head to Live Feed.