This article is a review of Black Mirror’s season five episode “Smithereens.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.
Black Mirror has spent five seasons (and an interactive movie) asking whether our current technological golden age is in fact a hellish dystopia, but it’s rarely been as blunt about the issue as it is in “Smithereens,” which is explicitly set in the present day — specifically 2018.
“Smithereens” builds a sardonic look at the state of modern social media around the classic tale of an abduction scenario gone wrong. Pivoting around Andrew Scott (Fleabag, Sherlock) as a social media user whose behavior escalates from ”jaded” to “renegade,” the episode blatantly apes the extremities of our current technological age, from untrustworthy Uber drivers to heinously unfeeling Facebook policies to Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey being ... well, just being Jack Dorsey. At 71 minutes, this episode is the longest of the three in Black Mirror’s fifth season, and it comes across like a thesis statement for the series as a whole, one creator and writer Charlie Brooker has been saving up to deploy until now.
The trouble is that, as thesis statements go, the message of “Smithereens” is both redundant and a little weak; it ultimately feels like a sophomoric, slippery slope argument, with little nuance beyond “social media is bad,” unlikely to edify anyone who’s been following news of the tech world lately.
“Smithereens” is all about Silicon Valley’s hypocritical, unstoppable culture
“Smithereens” tells a Taxi Driver-esque tale of a car service driver named Chris — Andrew Scott playing a typically manic role, and doing it fabulously. Chris is a loner who’s been burned by social media in a major way, and now he’s embarked on a quest for vengeance as part of a mental downward spiral. Chris has done his homework; he knows that phones and social media apps are designed to be addictive, and he blames the founder of a massive tech platform called Smithereen (which seems to be mainly based on Twitter) for creating a litany of problems, both societal and personal.
Chris is also mourning the death of his fiancée, who was a victim of a car accident involving a drunk driver, and his grief for her causes him to spiral while he fixates on Smithereen as an easy target for his maladjustment. His plan is to personally confront Smithereen’s CEO by stalking the company’s London headquarters and abducting one of its high-level employees. Unfortunately, the person he kidnaps turns out to be a terrified intern named Jaden (Damson Idris), and Chris’s sympathy for him sends things haywire for them both. Chris quickly finds himself locked into a hostage situation, facing a standoff with a baffled police force as he tries to escalate his demands to speak to the CEO, Billy Bauer.
Over the course of the episode, Chris’s complaints about the dangers of technology play out before us. The savvy Smithereen executive team has amassed so much information about their user base that they know most of the basic details about Chris’s life before the police do; they have far more control over the hostage situation from their headquarters in California than either the FBI or the local police at the scene does.
In a separate subplot drawn from real-life controversy, a friend of Chris’s tries to gain access to her dead daughter’s social media account (a clear Facebook stand-in), only to be stonewalled by the corporation’s policies. The absolute power that platforms like Facebook and Google wield over our personal information and browsing habits isn’t so much satirized here as it is portrayed as the default state of modern society. And, well, Black Mirror isn’t wrong.
“Smithereens” skewers the excesses of a Silicon Valley aspiring to be a New Age-infused, socially progressive culture, even as its biggest companies enact regressive policies, design invasive privacy settings, and engineer social manipulations that keep people glued to their phones at the expense of their humanity (and even their intellect).
Dorsey in particular is the target of the episode’s most satirical and direct real-life analogue: As Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer, guest star Topher Grace is styled to look like Dorsey, whose recent turn toward thick locks and a long beard has become an unlikely politically charged flashpoint with his detractors. And a whole, somewhat ridiculous storyline is dedicated to questioning whether to interrupt the tech guru during a long silent desert retreat —the kind that Dorsey is infamous for advocating.
When Chris finally gets Billy on the phone, after fighting with corporate lackeys determined to keep him from speaking to the chief, the Dorsey stand-in begins to rail against his increasing irrelevance as a figurehead. Billy laments his company’s inability to abide by its stated progressive aims, and its out-of-control, unstoppable algorithms — only to be hilariously cut off by Chris, who tells him he doesn’t care what Billy has to say. What Chris ultimately cares about is being heard, and if his desire to be heard destroys his patience for listening, well, that’s just another of the episode’s very loud signals that social media has ruined our ability to communicate.
The problem is that once the episode allows us to hear Chris’s revelation, he’s not really telling us anything earth-shattering enough to tilt our perspective in the way of the classic Black Mirror twist. In a way, that’s a tragedy on its own; tragedy shouldn’t be less tragic just because it’s become familiar. But Chris’s revelation simply doesn’t land with much impact, and its flatness means the moral arguments in “Smithereens” lack resonance, and worse, the drama lacks punch.
Smithereens feels the most Black Mirror-y of season five’s episodes — but it’s also thin on plot
Still, “Smithereens” is the most traditionally Black Mirror-y out of this season’s three offerings. It’s the episode that blends a hefty mix of bleak nihilism and social satire. But it also takes a few narrative shortcuts in establishing its premise and convincing us of the drama for its full runtime — until you think about it for a little longer and realize how flimsy it all is. In particular, the conclusion feels clunky, predictable, and shoehorned in as a way to make you feel something like gravitas, without asking you to think too much.
It’s not that the plot isn’t interesting — Scott and Idris are both compelling, and the episode’s director, James Hawes, keeps the pace taut despite moments where the storyline starts to flag. Hawes previously directed the season three episode “Hated in the Nation,” one of Black Mirror’s more ambitious installments. Like that episode, “Smithereens” is blunt about the toxic effects of social media. But the fact that “Smithereens” takes place in the present day creates extra pressure to go somewhere interesting. There’s no technologically advanced swarm of robotic bees, as in the earlier episode, to distract us from the overt message of how the only people we have to blame for the present state of things are each other, and that we exist in a culture of increasing smartphone addiction.
But all this moralizing ultimately wears thin. In particular, the episode’s choice to have the corporate flunkies at Smithereen be an obstacle to direct communication between Chris and Billy seems predictable from the outset; but as it plays out, it also seems ludicrous. Bauer eventually decides to circumvent the corporate red tape and call Chris directly, in a gesture that plays as both heroic and ironically invasive— all he has to do to find Chris’s cellphone number is enable “God Mode” over his massive web platform.
This is normally a moral gray area Black Mirror can have a lot of fun with, but in Brooker’s attempt to cull drama out of the way social media currently runs our lives, he’s found himself on shaky ground, with a story built on stereotypical fears about the internet — without doing much more than hand-wringing. In Bauer, Brooker created a clear embodiment of all Silicon Valley’s idealistic, hopeful futurism, waylaid by a culture of excess and personal hubris. But the most he does with this is establish a sense of people shrugging, “What else can we do?”
That’s exactly what Black Mirror itself does, and the result isn’t particularly original or satisfying. It’s almost as if Brooker’s desire to draw from existing tech controversies has hampered his love of a good thought exercise. Instead, “Smithereens” is a well-acted, but thoroughly clichéd, after-school special, featuring a crying Andrew Scott and an indifferent populace.
And if you wind up checking your phone and social feeds while watching the episode instead of staying glued to your screen, I can’t really say I blame you.