In almost any other television show, Walton — Jimmi Simpson’s character in the Black Mirror standout episode “USS Callister” — would be the villain, and Jesse Plemons’ Robert Daly would be our hero. Daly is slightly awkward, tech-savvy, nostalgically obsessed with his favorite television show; he has the exact credentials of an underdog protagonist meant to be a stand-in for the audience, like Scott Pilgrim, or Wade Watts in Ready Player One.
In another television show, maybe the audience would even cheer as Daly got revenge against the good-looking jocks of the office who wronged him, and against the slick company CEO who edged him out of his proper credit. The filmography of the ’80s and ’90s is dense with Revenge of the Nerd-style fantasies in which geeks finally win the day.
But this is 2018. “Geeks” are no longer the underdogs; they’re the mega-tech billionaires who, through drug-fueled sex parties in Silicon Valley, have built companies toxic for female employees. They’re the poisonous engine behind the harassment of GamerGate and the fetid petri dish of the Alt-Right; they are a generation of boys who grew up thinking they’re the victims, never grasping the extent to which they’ve become the bullies.
“What I do love about [Jesse Plemon’s] performance is, when he’s so extra f—ing angry, he gets so much more theatrical and it’s the most horrific combo,” Simpson says. “And we’re watching the leader of our country do the exact same thing every time. When it creeps through, you’re like, oh my god, this is an appeal for everyone to understand how hard he’s had it. It’s the grossest.”
That is the brilliant and timely message of “USS Callister.” And so it’s Simpson’s Walton — the smooth, electric-guitar-playing CEO turned broken Star Trek plaything — who gets the hero moment at the episode’s climax, sacrificing himself for the sake of his cohorts. The jocks are sympathetic and funny; the geek is a vindictive manipulator, a perfect representation of modern toxic masculinity.
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Playing the hero has been a recent development for Simpson, whose résumé before Westworld is a litany of awkward weirdoes and basement-dwellers, like the guinea-pig-loving hacker Gavin Orsay in House of Cards or a member of the milk-drinking McPoyle clan on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Simpson still sometimes gets sent glasses of milk at bars).
“I have a problem with the term leading man,” Simpson says. “It’s so limiting; it involves not upsetting anyone. Obviously we have anti-heroes now, but if we’re talking about the two tropes — character actor and leading man — I would so rather be a character actor. That’s why I have a career.”
I met Simpson at a tiny corner table in the back of Figaro Bistrot in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood, and the interview only began in earnest after he apologized twice for making me come out of my way (I hadn’t). In person, he’s far more like his Westworld character, William — at least back when he was a White Hat — than any of his techie alter egos. Simpson is a smile-and-shake-your-hand, walk-you-to-your-car kind of guy. He would almost certainly pick up a rolling can if I happened to drop it. He insists we order food.
When it comes to preparing for roles, Simpson takes an academic approach, analyzing the text with the dedication of an obsessive grad student. (For his role as Detective Russell Poole in Unsolved, USA’s upcoming drama about the murders of Biggie and Tupac, Simpson has filled a whiteboard in his home, serial-killer-style, with notes about the character. I saw a picture on his phone.)
“The process is: first of all, what would I do; and then the actual story: why does this character exist? What’s his purpose? And you come up with all of these reasons, and then when you get in the room and you have the 60 seconds, you let all of that go, and you’re going to naturally be guided by the preparation you’ve done. If you wing it, yeah, you might kill it, you might be really funny, or you might really tap into something, but I think it’s more likely after I prepare.”
But sometimes, as was the case with Black Mirror, some character choices come through fate: “I go in the first day of work absolutely flu-ridden. I’ve never had the flu this bad in my life. It stuck around for a f—ing month. But I told [series creator] Charlie [Brooker] and the director Toby [Haynes}, and I was like, this might be good, because I’m going to be so skinny for [Walton’s] vilified version, it’s going to be like [Daly] made me less appealing. It might work. That outfit is just hanging on me. It works.”
Even though his Black Mirror character sacrifices himself to save the day, Simpson doesn’t quite see Walton as a hero. “He starts the whole situation. It’s his lack of empathy that creates all of it. He did a common human sin: selfishness. But then, Jesse’s character took that, selfishness, and turned it into revenge. Now, that’s a more nefarious, thoughtful attack. My guy was thoughtless, but we have to understand, thoughtless is a problem, right?”
Notably, in the episode’s final scene, the crew — digital consciousnesses that had previously been entrapped in Daly’s Star Trek-analog stimulation — are aboard a new digital ship, all shiny and white, able to explore the universe without their tyrannical overlord. But Simpson’s character is missing. Did he “die” in the engine blast when the ship went through the black hole? Or was he still immortal? Is he burning, without dying, forever?
“We talked about that! Because we shot that kind of last. Everything was gutted, and we got this new ship and cool outfits, and the cast was like come on, you should be here. What? He’s just in the air? We don’t like that. First of all, it’s so Charlie. But it’s essential, I think. These people [on the Callister] have been tortured for what feels like hundreds of years. My take is — and you’ll have to ask Charlie, I’m not writing his script — but, yeah. Screaming cells for all eternity.”
It’s a pitch-black ending for a character in an episode that ends on a relatively (for Black Mirror) happily ever after.
“It’s not about getting redemption,” Simpson says. “I mean, that’s the way it’ll play, but as the man who’s making this human being, he’s not trying to redeem himself; he’s trying to make it right for the people, because he f—ed it up. It’s not about now give me a thumbs up; I’ll never see their thumbs up, but hopefully they’ll be free.”
The show’s true villain, the toxic masculinity so often personified by angry white boys behind computer screens, is still alive and well at the episode’s end: as the crew takes stock of their new freedom, they receive a voice chat with another video game player (voiced by Aaron Paul) who, with “blow me” swagger, declares himself the king of space. He’s no real threat to them, but still, he’s there, the episode’s final voice reminding us exactly what the point of all this was.
“I think about it a lot: being a white man, and the absolute lack of conflict every white man faces,” Simpson continues. “There’s nothing to get them to snap into reality unless they face personal trauma, and in this country they cannot conceive of things being more difficult for them, and so when things are, they act like it’s unfair.”
I ask Simpson about his House of Cards costar, Kevin Spacey, one of the many white men in Hollywood taken down post-Weinstein for allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. (In late October, actor Anthony Rapp alleged to BuzzFeed News that Spacey drunkenly initiated inappropriate sexual contact in 1986, when Rapp was just 14 years old and Spacey was 26. Following Rapp’s claims, Spacey issued a statement on Twitter saying he didn’t remember the incident and apologized “for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” He also came out as gay in the statement, and in early November he announced he was seeking treatment. The following day, Spacey was fired from House of Cards after more men came forward with allegations against the actor, some who say they were minors at the time and others who worked with Spacey on House of Cards.)
“I never worked with him, I don’t even know if I was ever on the same set with him,” Simpson says. “I saw him at a reading and I saw him at the wrap party one year, and we didn’t really exchange many words. I knew he was gay, but I didn’t know he was…” Simpson pauses. “A troublemaker. But I heard from a friend he had a young assistant once and that made me pause. It was the ‘assistant’ term that made my head cock a little bit, because if I heard ‘young boyfriend,’ it’s like, well, some dudes are a little grosser than others. But when you say ‘assistant,’ that makes me think there’s subtext there. But I never heard anything. No one on set, that I heard, said he was doing anything on set.”
Simpson is optimistic about the show’s decision to focus entirely on Robin Wright’s character. “I think it’s the greatest idea they’ve ever had. I could not be a bigger fan of hers throughout her entire career. What she does on that show is spectacular — one of the strongest actors out there. I’ll watch the show faster now.”
All four seasons of Black Mirror are available on Netflix.