Four years before David Cameron was accused of performing a sex act on a (dead) pig, Charlie Brooker wrote an episode of Black Mirror where the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom performed a sex act on a (live) pig. Four years before Donald J. Trump was sworn in President of the United States, Brooker wrote an episode of Black Mirror in which a populist movement gets a lewd, inflammatory cartoon to run for public office. It almost makes you feel like you should set aside December 29 to watch the fourth season of Brooker’s Black Mirror (he runs the Netflix series with producer Annabel Jones) just to know what dystopic development to prepare for next.
Luckily, in Brooker’s hands a bleak sense of humor accompanies news of our nightmare future; each episode of the (truly super) funny anthology series has an entirely new plot and cast and explores the very human impulses that create technology, and the very human weaknesses that are enabled and exploited by it. In other words, we did this to ourselves—the Snapchat is coming from inside the house. Black Mirror is basically a televised version of the “This is fine” meme with extra panels where we find out how the be-hatted pup wound up in the room and accidentally set it on fire—maybe someone told him there was a rare Pokemon in there and he knocked over a festive scented candle catching it?—and realizing, too late, that he needs to get the fuck out.
The six new episodes of Black Mirror cover digital ills both current and upcoming—think video games, dating apps, and consciousness-uploading devices—and feature a bananas lineup of directors and actors that includes Jodie Foster, David Slade, Jesse Plemons, and Andrea Riseborough. Brooker took a break from working on his next, highly classified project to talk to GQ about Trump, Get Out, and why Batman is so depressed.
GQ: What’s this top-secret thing you’re working on now?
Charlie Brooker: I wish I could tell you. But you can probably guess what it is.
Is it the Twilight Zone?
I’m not allowed to say! I’m looking forward to the Twilight Zone from Jordan Peele…if anyone’s gonna reboot the Twilight Zone, then there’s the man to do it.
Did you see Get Out?
I loved Get Out. In fact, Jordan Peele did send me a message because he was a big fan—he’d seen [Get Out star] Daniel Kaluuya on Black Mirror. And I hadn’t had a chance to get out and see his movie, so I was embarrassed and I didn’t reply. It was so embarrassing. But I saw it and thought it was fucking brilliant and that Daniel was brilliant.
I’m so excited—he’s going to be in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
As is Letitia Wright from [season four Black Mirror episode] “Black Museum.” We saw an audition tape [from her] and there was a voice reading the other lines off-camera. I was like, “Hang on…is that Daniel Kaluuya?” It must have been in a trailer on [the set of] Black Panther.
Watching newer Black Mirror episodes makes me feel like you’ve turned into a real romantic.
Do you think?
Your tender underbelly definitely shows in “Hang the DJ,” the dating app episode from the new season.
To be honest, it’s probably a consequence of us going from three episodes a season to six—you’ve gotta have a soft center in the chocolate box. With “Hang the DJ,” I was concerned that it was more comedic and much lighter than we normally do for Black Mirror. But that’s what people are picking out as one they enjoy. It’s interesting when we confound our own expectations of what the show is.
It’s not really that surprising, because “San Junipero” was the one everyone went nuts over last season. People like to feel good.
I mean, there are episodes where a giant fucking boot comes down and crushes everyone.
But overall there’s probably a bit more hope in this season because it was being written from July 2016 to February 2017, and I didn’t know what state the world was going to be in by the time it aired. I didn’t want it to just be horrifying and awful, although obviously that’s also the thing that people tune in for.
People have been making the joke that 2017 is a viral marketing campaign for Season Four of Black Mirror. Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but things aren’t so great over here, Charlie.
I picked up on that. Ours has always been a worried show, but I don’t see it as being particularly reactive to the moment in which it’s being written. I started writing this season just after Brexit, but I didn’t sit down and go, “What’s the Brexit episode?” Though it’s really weird—I sort of thought, Well, there’s nothing in this season that’s gonna come, like, remotely true. But we’ve got this memory device in “Crocodile,” and somebody showed me a device that you can connect to a mouse’s brain and show it a face and then pull out a likeness of that face like ten minutes later. So what do I know?
More than you think, apparently! When we talked last fall you told me Trump was going to win. So, since you’re a prophet: what happens next?
I get contrarily hopeful—when everyone in the world is worried, I think, Oh, I can take the day off. So there won’t be a nuclear war with North Korea, I’ve decided. With Trump in America, the fact that the lines are drawn and that everyone is so polarized and concerned and worried and fractious makes me feel like that has to solve itself somehow. I don’t think it’s going to end in a civil war, if that’s any consolation.
I’m thrilled to hear it.
I mean, is that your perspective?
I don’t know if I think we’re going to have a civil war, but the people who love Trump aren’t just going to calm down and feel good about things if, like, Elizabeth Warren beats Trump in 2020.
But haven’t they always been there and always been that angry?
And of that 33% [who approve of Trump’s performance], how many are actually that furious? There are people who you can disagree with vehemently politically, but most people are fundamentally decent.
Plus, think of how much harder it is to actually fight in a civil war than to live your life just being kind of ambiently dissatisfied with the government.
Oh, my God, yeah. It would be such a pain in the ass. So what percentage of that percentage that you’re worrying about would actually [join a civil war?] What would happen if Trump was replaced by someone else is you’d get those people shouting at the TV and grumbling and complaining online. But that’s the hopeful view.
If this were an episode of Black Mirror and you were writing a story where the government had to try and appease those angry people, what would you have it do?
The basic problem is that the pie is not being sliced correctly, isn’t it? That is the thing that is driving everything. But don’t ask me how to solve that, ‘cause I ain’t got a fucking clue.
One of the things I love about Black Mirror is that the bad guys tend to wind up in a prison of their own making. I was thinking of which real-life villains would be good for that and imagining PayPal founder Peter Thiel having to be a banker forever, trapped in a virtual money gulag.
That’s a mean thought you’re having there, isn’t it?
I mean…yes. But you’re the one who came up with this concept!
Yeah, but I put fictional people in there. It’s like in “White Christmas.” Rafe Spall’s character ends up in eternal hell for like millions of years—someone worked out [the math]. It would be inhuman. You’re a terrible person! Just like the spectators in “White Bear.” That’s what you’re like. Would you not feel a glimmer of sympathy?
Okay, you could keep them in there until they learn their lesson, not actually for eternity. Maybe there’s a parole board…
You’re setting yourself up as a tyrant there, aren’t you? I mean, this is the problem. Often in Black Mirror someone’s got a technological thing that they believe they’re going to use in a good way, and they end up doing something terrible. So who’s to say that inflicting this cruel and inhuman…what’s that quote about gazing into the abyss? [“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.—Friedrich Nietzsche”] Careful what you wish for.
You’ve convinced me, Charlie! I’m bad; torture is bad. Would you trust yourself to be a moral arbiter?
No! Definitely not. Years ago, I did a show in the UK that was a Daily Show-esque thing [called 10 O’Clock Live]. And every so often people would say things like, “If [only] you guys were running the country…” And you’d think, “Are you joking? We’d be the worst people, just lazy and stupid.” I can’t complete the simplest strategy game. When I tried to play SimCity, it inevitably ended up being a fucking disaster. Roads didn’t even join up. So I should never be put in charge of any system ever.
I suppose if one person has too much control and isn’t taking in input, things always get screwed up. Like me torturing Peter Thiel, or Michael, the architect Ted Danson plays on The Good Place. Or Trump.
He’s odd, isn’t he? Because he, on the one hand, is incredibly opinionated, and on the other you can read interviews with him where he seems to just say what he wants the person to hear.
It’s because the thing that drives Trump is people liking him. So if he’s in a room with you, he says whatever he needs to get you to “yes.” If he’s on a stage, he says whatever he needs to get to you to chant.
But his approval ratings are low. Hasn’t anyone pointed out to him that if he suddenly decided to do the opposite of everything he’s doing, that might mean that suddenly 70% of people [would approve of him]? Imagine if he turned up on TV tomorrow and said, “Fuck all that!” Wouldn’t he be received rapturously as a hero by a huge swath of the people?
That’s literally an episode of Seinfeld. But Trump would never do that because he’s like a monkey. He sticks his hands through slots in his cage to pick up two grapes—that’s the 30% of people who like him. But then someone puts a bunch of bananas on his side of the cage, which is the 70%. In order to get the bananas he has to drop the grapes, but he won’t let go of the thing that’s already in his hand in order to get the better thing.
So what—you have to saw off his hand? Or you have to keep piling up bananas until it becomes irresistible. Or you just wait for the grape to rot.
There you go. On Black Mirror, characters tend to be driven by a fear of being found out.
Like Kelly in “Shut up and Dance,” who’s being blackmailed.
One thing that terrifies me about all the recent news of real-life sexual predators is that they don’t seem to be scared of being found out at all.
I suppose the thing is that all that stuff is about power, isn’t it? Or they’ve not contemplated it because of the power structure surrounding them. On Black Mirror, we don’t tend to deal with big, powerful people, because when you look at a Weinstein or something you think, “Is he capable of feeling anything?” We’ve always wanted the stories to feel very relatable. Having said that, our very first episode had a prime minister, but we immediately strip him of all his power, basically. If [an episode were going to be] about the high-flying CEO figure, I’d think, “Who cares about the fucking head of whatever multi-corp? I don’t give a shit.”
You even have to do that with superheroes now. Bruce Wayne is, like, clinically depressed.
It’s true. [When I was young] Bruce Wayne was someone you looked up to because he was rich. Whereas now you’d be like, “I’m never gonna be Bruce Wayne. Fuck that fucking asshole!” And that’s because the pie isn’t being sliced fairly.
Gimme some pie, Bruce!
Where’s my fucking pie?