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Smithereens Tries (and Fails) to Recapture Black Mirror’s Old Magic

Over eight years and 23 episodes, Black Mirror has slowly shifted from a grounded, satirical look of technology’s effect on society, to a theoretical horror series, pondering about the very path of human evolution, and the dangerous role technology may play in that future. In recent years, Black Mirror has truly embodied the “what if phones, but too much” joke, pushing itself more and more towards science fiction with each new series. In that respect, “Smithereens” feels much like a throwback Black Mirror episode, essentially “The National Anthem” played out on a much smaller, more personal scale – unfortunately, it’s one of the worst episodes of the series, a maudlin public service announcement about social media, complete with one of the most fucking toothless criticisms of Silicon Valley one could possibly imagine.

“Smithereens” aims for the lowest common denominator, copping out on any kind of substantial reflection on the power and influence of social media companies, and their billions of users around the world.

Starring Fleabag‘s infamous Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) as rideshare driver/maniacal sociopath Chris, “Smithereens” exists without the often masturbatory self-created technological advancements; Chris drives a regular ass car, lives in regular ass London, and works his normal ass job every day. Or so it seems; as “Smithereens” slowly draws out over its interminably long 70-minute running time, Chris is grieving the loss of his fiance, who dies in a car accident when he looks down to check a Twitter notification (changing Twitter’s name to Smithereen is a running theme of season five’s painfully unsubtle metaphors).  After his mother passes away, Chris becomes determined to exact his revenge… by kidnapping a Smithereen employee in London and holding them hostage?

The actual narrative of “Smithereens” is rather brief; Chris kidnaps an intern and his car breaks down in a field 18 minutes into the episode – that’s really about it, all the conversations and interactions rippling out from his small Toyota sitting in the lump of tall grass, increasingly surrounded by police. Much of the episode then spends its time dancing around the actual questions it wants to explore; every conversation drawn out, every advancement in the plot spelled out minutes before it actually occurs. While Chris negotiates with the police, Black Mirror negotiates with the audience, pleading that its indulgent pace is going to pay off; but the longer and longer “Smithereens” runs, the less effective it becomes as a narrative.

Like “Fighting Vipers” before it, “Smithereens” has all the ideas in the world about the power of social media, especially data mining: while the police struggle to figure out basic details of Chris, a Smithereen engineer is able to unearth his entire life story in a matter of minutes, from his real phone number and address, to his internet habits, the ability of social media to understand its users better (and faster) than police can is a fascinating idea; as is the moral implications of a technology company giving its data to the police, a terrifying harbinger of the surveillance state we already live in, and how much farther the limits of power can truly be tested (hell, the Smithereen team is able to legally activate his phone’s microphone without him knowing, which the police can’t do without a warrant).

In those moments, Black Mirror is illuminating, if obvious: but as “Smithereens” begins to offer its less textured critique on the spread of false information in its second act, the episode slowly becomes redundant, superficial – and, in an unexpected turn, strangely empathetic to authoritarian surveillance attitudes and social media executives alike. As it introduces Billy Bauer, an obvious Jack Dorsey stand-in (played by a game Topher Grace), “Smithereens” settles into a strange compromise between dark satire and moving character piece; embracing neither, it ultimately ends up feeling like Grace’s impotent CEO; enamored with their own ability to raise big questions and ideas, even as they’re direly ill-equipped to deal with the implications of either.

Most frustratingly, “Smithereens” takes over an hour to get to its wet fart of an ending, which reveals Chris’s fiancee died because he looked at his cell phone while driving, pushing him down the path to his suicide mission to get the Smithereens CEO to listen to his story during a hostage negotiation. Cutting back and forth between Billy and Chris, “Smithereens” struggles to juggle its two tones; the satire of a CEO handcuffed by his own ambitions and Chris’s breakdown is not easily juxtaposed, and Black Mirror isn’t really interested in offering any coherent revelation or powerful mediation.

Two white dudes bitch about the decisions they’ve emotionally imprisoned themselves with, and then “Smithereens” cops out on an actual ending, “dramatically” cutting away as the snipers fire at Chris, and his life is reduced to a forgettable notification on the millions of other smartphones of the world (but since he got a password for the sad woman he banged, there’s still hope!!!).

It’s a bummer to watch “Smithereens” wither away to nothing; a strong, all-too-brief second act knocks on the door of some fascinating, dark ways the episode could’ve proceeded. The dichotomy between real events and how the world perceives them is fertile for the brand of devastating technological critique Black Mirror is built upon: grounding it in current technology – especially with something like Twitter, a platform wrought with echo chambers of fake news and nationalist propaganda – theoretically offers “Smithereens” a much higher ceiling to explore.

Instead, “Smithereens” aims for the lowest common denominator, copping out on any kind of substantial reflection on the power and influence of social media companies, and their billions of users around the world. In fact, its ending, where apparently everybody and nobody are responsible, feels like an abject cop out, suggesting the problem’s already spiraled out of control, and the only way forward is to embrace the self-made Gods of Data, and hope their circle jerk sessions with Joe Rogan eventually lead to moments of enlightenment (though “Smithereens” doesn’t really entertain this idea in any way, which amounts to a dramatic shrug of a climax).

like its spiritual predecessor, “The National Anthem,” “Smithereens” refuses to condemn either the ignorant social media companies pushing growth at all costs, or society’s growing acceptance of giving up all control of their lives to the data-mining networks of Silicon Valley. Strangely, “Smithereens” just kind of ends, hoping a series of hard cuts as the credits roll to give emotional weight to its superficial sociological observations. Like “Striking Vipers,” “Smithereens” puts all of its energy into its premise, and runs out of gas long before it reaches its conclusion; there are certainly elements of a memorable episode here, but they’re sandwiched between a series of ludicrous decisions that drown out the few poignant, coherent ruminations it contains.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • “Smithereens” also stars Ruibo Qian as a Smithereens exec, and Damson Idris as the intern Chris kidnaps – neither are given much to do in the episode, unfortunately.
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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