This story contains spoilers for the episode “Smithereens” from Black Mirror’s fifth season. Read the rest of our show coverage here.
Black Mirror is, in short, a show about technology. Since debuting in 2011 (it moved to Netflix in 2016), the series has pondered the horrors and wonders of our connected world via stand-alone, near-feature-length episodes that touch on topics such as video gaming, virtual reality, online shaming, and internet dating. Some stories take place in the far future, others in a world mostly resembling our own. But something about “Smithereens,” which debuts on Netflix today as part of Season 5, feels unusual for Black Mirror. Yes, the installment is about a fictional social-media app and a nightmarish scenario that unfolds, but it seems like it could’ve been pulled from today’s headlines.
There’s only the barest hint of surrealism to “Smithereens,” a grim tale that suffers from many of the flaws that plagued Black Mirror’s very mixed previous season. More than anything, the episode is a story about demanding accountability from the all-consuming apps and all-powerful tech companies that fill our lives, and how futile that process can be. “Smithereens” gets in a few interesting jabs, but Charlie Brooker’s script is hampered by how thin the plot is, how long it takes for the action to get going, and how simplistic the big mystery turns out to be.
The episode follows Chris (played by Andrew Scott), an Uber driver who parks his vehicle outside the office of the social-media company Smithereen every day, looking to pick up a particular sort of customer. After one trip proves abortive—the person visiting the office was just meeting up with a friend—Chris spots Jaden (Damson Idris), a well-dressed, wheelie-bag-toting Smithereen employee on his way to the airport. Chris picks him up, takes him to a remote location, and sticks a gun in his face, only then realizing that Jaden is actually an intern just a week on the job. “Modern fucking companies! Everyone looks so fucking young! How is anybody supposed to have a sense of the fucking hierarchy?” Chris screams.
Jaden might be an intern, but he’s on the payroll, and that’s enough for Chris’s ultimate purpose: to hold a Smithereen employee hostage and demand to talk to Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), the company’s founder and CEO. Chris makes this request around 20 minutes into the episode; he doesn’t explain why he’s doing it until about 35 minutes later. In between is a lot of stalling, much of it centered around classic hostage tropes (the panicked cops, the slick negotiator, the snipers looking for a shot through their scopes). “Smithereens” mines some tension from its basic “man with a gun” premise, but this is Black Mirror—I kept waiting for a twist that never really arrived.
The most incisive parts of Brooker’s script follow the ways in which Smithereen’s vast data-mining operation begins to envelop Chris as the company tries to figure out what he really wants from Bauer. At every turn, the social-media mavens are a step ahead of the cops in unraveling Chris’s motivation; they even provide helpful, albeit bland, tips via text message on how to best communicate with him. But Black Mirror has made a better version of this kind of episode, in which a news story begins to spiral out of control online—“The National Anthem,” the bleak entry that kicked off the whole show back in 2011. “Smithereens” is drab by comparison.
Scott throws his whole heart into the big, emotional monologue at the end of the episode explaining what caused him to snap (an errant phone notification from the Smithereen app caused him to crash his car, killing his wife). He does, of course, get on the phone with Bauer, who’s in the middle of a ludicrous-looking meditative retreat and is generally styled to look like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Grace portrays Bauer as a blissed-out, largely inept chatterbox who just wants to complain to Chris about how much the original idea for the app has gotten out of hand, but the takeaway from their confrontation is that fixing Smithereen’s flaws is impossible.
Scott’s committed lead performance (the actor most recently played the “hot priest” on Fleabag’s second season) kept me at least interested throughout. But “Smithereens” doesn’t add up to much. It’s the only definite flop of Black Mirror’s new run; every other entry, including the special Christmas episode “Bandersnatch” (which was initially intended to be part of Season 5), has something to dig into. “Smithereens” exists mostly as an impotent cry of rage, which might be easier to take if it wasn’t well over an hour long.
Chris can rail at Bauer all he wants, but he knows it won’t give him much satisfaction beyond a general sense of unburdening. Bauer can try to explain why his invention has become so addictive and overwhelming, but he barely understands the phenomenon himself at this point. “Smithereens” is a tale of two totally adrift people unable to continue living in an interconnected world. That feeling of helplessness is a fine starting point for a Black Mirror episode, but it shouldn’t be the grand finale.