‘Black Mirror’ Holds Viewers Hostage in ‘Smithereens’ (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 5 episode “Smithereens.”]
Black Mirror takes on the dangers of app addiction in the Andrew Scott-starring “Smithereens,” an episode which unfortunately stalls after a tension-building opening, leaving us stranded in a narrative standoff for the majority of its run-time.
When Black Mirror is at its best, it can be one of the darkest, most entertaining and thought-provoking shows on TV. Series creator Charlie Brooker sometimes lands on the perfect idea and knows exactly the right platform to tell his story; I’m thinking about his exploration of virtual reality and fanfic extremism in the stunning Star Trek homage “USS Callister” or the melding of class warfare and ruthless reality-TV culture in “Fifteen Million Merits.” However, there are other instances where the core concept isn’t strong enough to sustain a feature-length episode, and sadly, that’s the case in “Smithereens.”
The story revolves around Chris Gillhaney (Scott), an unhinged rideshare driver who finds himself at the center of an international incident. Chris’ fiancée died in a car accident which he caused when he took his eyes off the road to glance at his phone. He blames himself just as much as he blames the social media app which pinged him a notification on that fateful night. Now all Chris wants to do is talk to the creator of the Smithereen social network and provide some emotionally honest user feedback.
Scott, who recently charmed audiences as the “hot priest” in Fleabag, brings his trademark manic energy to his performance as Chris, a man whose grief has pushed him to the point of no return. No amount of group counseling can alleviate his guilt or take away his suffering. Instead, he’s resorted to staking out the Smithereen offices in London, hoping that one of the company’s employees will jump in the back of his cab and provide him with a direct line to Billy Bauer, the world-famous CEO of the tech enterprise (eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed Billy’s name flash up in a background news report during “Bandersnatch”).
That’s what happens when a besuited Jaden (Damson Idris) gets into Chris’ car and reveals he works for Smithereen. Chris stops the vehicle under a bridge on a quiet country road and pulls out a gun. He demands to be put in touch with Mr. Bauer, only to discover Jaden is a powerless intern on his first week on the job. “Why are you wearing a suit?!” yells Chris as he rages about tech company employment practices. “Everyone is so young, how can you get a sense of hierarchy?” There is an appealing dynamic between the two actors, especially with the contrast between Scott’s frenzied anger and Idris’s panicked naivety.
In fact, the first 20 minutes or so of the episode does a decent job of ramping up the tension, particularly when the police give chase after noticing a bagged-up Jaden in the back of Chris’ car. You feel that sickness in your gut of things spiraling out of control in a similar vein to season three’s unpleasant troll-job “Shut Up and Dance.” The local cops run Chris off the road and into the middle of a field where he has no escape. It’s all building to this epic crescendo… and then it just sort of peters out into a subpar hostage situation.
The episode runs for an unnecessarily bloated 70-minutes, and for 50 of those minutes, it’s just Chris in a car talking on the phone to various members of law enforcement and social media gurus. Now, that’s not to say a man on the phone in a car can’t be tense or compelling, Steven Knight’s movie Locke is proof of that and that’s just Tom Hardy driving on the freeway talking about concrete in a Welsh accent for almost an hour-and-a-half. And yet despite “Smithereens” having guns and snipers and police standoffs, the stakes never feel high enough, and it all becomes somewhat repetitive.
Brooker uses the situation to highlight the increasing dependence on social media as well as the disturbing power attained by these giant tech companies. For example, the staff at Smithereen are not only able to track personal information about Chris quicker than the police and the FBI, but they also have the ability to listen in to his calls, which brings up all sorts of ethical issues about data privacy, similarly touched upon in the recent season of Killing Eve. There’s also a focus on how social media desensitizes us to tragedy, even when it’s happening right in front of us, as we see bystanders snapping photos and live-tweeting the hostage crisis as if they’re watching an episode of Game of Thrones.
The higher-ups at Smithereen are presented as emotionless avatars who try to solve the situation as if its an algorithm; Chris might as well be talking to an online chatbot. Even when he’s finally put through to Billy, the tech whizz follows company issued “talking points” rather than initiating in a genuine conversation. “Speak like a f**king human being!” Chris shouts down the phone. Billy is an intriguing character, though, as he does eventually talk to Chris on a human level; he’s not portrayed as this cold Mark Zuckerberg-type but rather someone trying to get back in touch with his true self (he’s part-way through a 10-day silent retreat when he receives the call).
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Billy explains, referring to the addictive nature of the Smithereen app, which he compares to a crack pipe. “It was one thing when it started but became this whole other thing… and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.” He recognizes that he’s basically a “bulls**t front-man” of a social media network that has all but abandoned its “social” aspect. His company is now beholden to advertisers whose primary aim is keeping users engaged at all times no matter the cost to their physical and mental health.
Even though Chris undercuts Billy’s self-pitying speech, it’s still an oddly sympathetic portrayal of a billionaire social media mogul. Billy comes across a regretful Dr. Frankenstein type figure, albeit a Dr. Frankenstein that’s into meditation and yoga. He believed he was doing something with the best of intentions but ended up endangering the lives of others when he created a monster he couldn’t control. Whether directly or indirectly, his app led to the death of Chris’ future wife, which in turn drives Chris to suicide – though Jaden tries to stop his captor from killing himself, only for the scuffle to send a police sniper bullet towards Chris’ head as the episode fades to black.
The problem with this episode is that Black Mirror has covered the nightmare scenarios of social media in the past with much more depth and intrigue. It lacks the sharp satirical bite of season three’s “Nosedive,” which expertly skewered “like” culture and online popularity as social currency. Nor does it ever reach the emotional impact of season two’s “Be Right Back” which similarly covers the loss of a loved one and their online footprint. Despite a promising start, and some solid performances, “Smithereens” just ends up feeling like an overly long PSA on the dangers of texting-and-driving.
Black Mirror, Season 5, Streaming Now, Netflix