Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Season 5, Episode 2: “Smithereens”
Directed by James Hawes
Written by Charlie Brooker
* For a recap & review of the Season 5 premiere, “Striking Vipers” – click here
* For a recap & review of the season finale, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” – click here
Chris (Andrew Scott) is sitting in his car doing guided meditation when he gets a new fare on the ride sharing app, Hitcher. He’s already right outside the pick-up location. The place is called Smithereen, owned by Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). Later, Chris eats in a cafe. People texting, the fluorescent lighting, the noise, all makes him feel crazy, so he leaves in a hurry.
Chris attends a meeting for grieving parents. A woman talks about her daughter’s suicide. She finds the “needing to know” why her daughter did it the worst part. She asks Chris for a drink afterwards and they end up in bed together. They sit and talk afterwards, but she gets a notification. She’s been trying to get into her daughter’s Persona account, to look through her inbox for “an answer.” A depressing, Sisyphus-like struggle that may never ultimately get her anywhere.
When she falls asleep it gives Chris time to sleep away.
Again, Chris is parked outside Smithereen. He picks up another fare, a man (Damson Idris) going to the airport. He asks the guy if he works there, just like with the woman. He takes this Smithereen employee on an “alternate route” to a tunnel where he holds him at gunpoint, forcing him to put zip ties around his wrists.
The guy begs not to be hurt, he’s only an intern. Chris rages about the “modern fucking company” and goes off on a rant about all the postmodern bullshit of a digital society. It’d be a lot more hilarious if it weren’t so sad / upsetting. He puts his hostage in the other car that’s parked in the tunnel, leaving the first car behind.
On the road, a cop sees Chris pass by a gas station and his hostage with a bag over his head. The cops start following him. They pull the car over near a field. Chris decides to try and lead them on a chase. He drives into the field, getting out with the gun and threatening to shoot his hostage. The cops move back to their car, along with a few kids on bikes who happen to be out there.
What will Chris do? He tries to get the guy to give him a way to contact Bauer. The hostage suggests a woman called Hannah Kent (Caitlin Innes Edwards). They have to call reception and get through the old fashioned way. Jaden— the intern— tells Hannah what’s happening.
The office gets Penelope Wu (Ruibo Qian) on the phone in Los Angeles. They explain the situation. Chris waits patiently on the phone and more cops turn up. A couple bystanders take pictures on their phone, sharing them on social media. At the L.A. office, Penelope looks into Chris as much as possible. She gets on the line with him. He only wants to talk to Bauer. They listen while they have him on hold. They hear him whisper to himself: “This is my last day.”
The police determine the car’s registered to an Eleanor Gilhaney. A couple cops go check out her place which isn’t too far. They find a picture of Chris in her home— her son. A neighbour tells the two officers Eleanor died back in March this year. They figure out Chris is a “former teacher” and a few years ago was hit by a drunk driver. Someone in the car with him died: his fiancee.
At the hostage scene, the FBI suddenly calls for Chief Superintendent Grace (Monica Dolan), and they’re also on the phone with Penelope at Smithereen. Lots of people connecting, sharing data. None of them know why Chris is targeting Smithereen, and specifically Bauer.
Problem is, Bauer’s at a “silent retreat.” (Anybody get the feeling we’re seeing Jack Dorsey skewered here?) Penelope doesn’t want to disturb her hipster boss while he’s out in the desert someplace basking in immense privilege. They send someone to go find him, for fear of what could happen if they don’t do anything. Bauer isn’t happy to be interrupted. So inconvenient while he’s out there working on inner peace.
Bauer wants to speak with Chris. His team advises against it. He asks to be put on the line with him. At the same time, cops— using Smithereen’s line in— hear Chris telling Jaden the gun’s “a replica.” So, they figure it’s time to finish things.
One of the bystanders tweets about it. Chris keeps an eye on social media, realising they’ve been spying on his phone. He fires the gun off. A sniper fires, clipping him. Chris demands to talk to Bauer, or he’ll murder Jaden in five minutes.
Billy invokes “God mode” and gets the gunman on the phone. Chris explains he was addicted to social media years back. They were driving home once and Chris took out his phone to check notifications. A drunk driver collided with them. After that, Chris got sympathy, but he knows the hard, awful truth: “I killed her.” All for a notification.
All Chris gets is talking points from Billy, until the social media guru gets honest with him. Bauer says Smithereen became a monster he never intended in the beginning. It became a “Vegas casino” with sealed off doors, “a crack pipe” people can’t put down. Chris doesn’t care what Bauer thinks. He simply wanted to get it all off his chest. “And now I‘m out of here,” he says.
Billy offers to do anything he can to help. Even if it’s only a small thing. Chris decides to get Persona to give over the login info for the woman’s daughter, from earlier— a selfless act to give another grieving individual some sort of closure and finality.
Jaden wrestles with Chris trying to prevent him from committing suicide. The sniper takes a shot, missing the mark. One more shot hits its target. Everyone gets their notifications. Bauer gets back to his retreat. And the world goes on turning exactly like it did before. Nothing will change.
Stellar use of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (this is the best version).
Love it! Great episode. Definitely not without commentary, but what’s best about “Smithereens” is that there’s so much grey area going on, even with Chris at the centre of it all epitomising the horrors of paying too much attention to social media. At first it feels like Chris deserves retribution for his fiancee’s death, only for us to find he’s let social media take everything from him and he wants someone to blame.
In the end, it’s on us to disconnect, or face the consequences of being connected 24/7.
“Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” is next.