Welcome to Role Call , where we call up TV’s leading ladies to talk about their most vital, memorable, and feminist episodes.
Warning: Spoilers ahead forBlack Mirror season 4’s “USS Callister.”
It’s rare to feel a sense of pure euphoria and triumph after an episode of Netflix’s dark sci-fi anthology Black Mirror, a series created specifically to make you question the technology sitting in your pocket and the world around you. But, then season 4’s Star Trek riff “USS Callister” comes along and leaves you with a small glimmer of hope. We can thank Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) for that flicker, as she serves as Mirror’s modern-day Princess Leia — sorry to use mixed Star Wars / Star Trek metaphors — who takes her figurative chains and strangles the misogynistic bad guy with them.
But, this villain here isn’t an obvious evildoer or a massive, slimy space slug crime boss like Jabba The Hutt. No, “Callister’s” villain is much more sinister: Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons), a sadist and sex creep who is hiding in plain sight as a bullied Nice Guy. In the world of the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer, we know Robert is the kind of person we truly need to fear. Watching Nanette destroy her bad guy from the inside of his self-created house of digital horrors is exactly what you need as we exit the existential crisis-inducing garbage fire of 2017 for the blank slate of 2018.
Nanette’s portrayer, Cristin Milioti, sums up best as to what, exactly, gives “Callister” its spark. “To see a story about a woman who conquers a small-minded misogynistic bully — it’s incredible,” the actress told Refinery29 over the phone.
And conquer Annette does. She finds herself transported to Robert’s virtual reality playground, which is based on his favorite retro show Space Fleet, as a copy of her real-world self after unwittingly displeasing her megalomanic boss. Her crime is admitting she isn’t attracted to him. Robert uses the digital, Star Trek -y expanse to take out his frustrations on Nanette and her fellow copied coworkers, killing their children in front of them and forcing women to kiss him, lest they too want to be brutally murdered or turned into a many-legged space creature. Annette uses Robert’s weaknesses and her coding brilliance to help everyone escape their digital overlord.
I wanted to see the reality of a woman sitting in the captain’s chair. I believed in that reality…I still believe, very strongly, that it will happen.
If you see a little extra spark in Milioti’s performance, there’s a reason for that. “We shot it right after [Donald] Trump was elected,” she explains. To cope while filming in London during the inauguration, Milioti headed to the city’s Women’s March, which “was incredibly inspiring,” she says.
“I definitely took that with me,” Milioti says of the event. “I wanted to see the reality of a woman sitting in the captain’s chair. I believed in that reality…I still believe, very strongly, that it will happen. That was definitely with me throughout the shoot and maybe made it a little more fiery.”
While the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump tones of “USS Callister” are obvious, it’s the smaller, more specific details that make it sing. It is also an episode that deals with sexual harassment and revenge porn, both of which couldn’t feel more salient.
“You know Jimmi Simpson’s boss character [James Walton] places his hands on her lower back at one point, he’s flirting with her. She’s overly meek, trying not to ruffle any feathers,” Milioti says of her character, echoing the sentiments of countless women who have recently come out as victims of workplace harassment and abuse. Yet, as Milioti continues, “Then you see, when push comes to shove and [Nanette] is pushed to her limits, she fights back with a vengeance.”
That same fight bubbles up again for the coder when she threatened with the release of her nudes to her friends, family, and PornHub. While the threat is part of the Callister captives’ complex escape plan, and therefore an empty threat from a trapped Annette, the real Annette believes this is a “Fappening”-type fiasco. So, she complies with James’ demands, committing a series of felonies against the real Robert, including breaking and entering into her own boss’ home.
But, Annette didn’t go on her crime spree because she felt shame for taking sexy photos. Rather, she was protecting the impossible-to-attain career she had built. “I did a lot of research before filming the episode about being a female coder and what a boys’ club that is. These women have to work three times as hard as men to prove their worth,” Milioti said. “Thinking about that, of how hard she must have worked, and if this is going to in some way compromise that, she’s going to do anything [to stop it].”
That’s why it’s so exciting to see both Annettes save themselves in the end. The real one finds a strength she never knew she possessed, while a Callister-bound Annette leaves Robert to be deleted in his own universe due to a system upgrade. Yes, there still are creeps (playfully voiced by Aaron Paul!) in the new galaxy Annette finds herself in, but now the newly-minted Captain Cole can hyper-warp away.
That optimism is what Milioti hopes viewers will take away from her Black Mirror showing. “You see these things [in the news] and you’re like, ‘How are we ever going to change this? How are we ever going to shift things? How are we ever going to get out from under this wet blanket?’ But we will,” the actress promised.
“We are all capable of adding things that will lead to a bigger change. That’s what this story is about on some level…you meet this woman who doesn’t seem like she would be capable of that and she is the most capable.”
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