Black Mirror: 502 “Smithereens” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Andrew Scott is, as the kids definitely don’t say, “so hot right now”. Nearly a decade on from his iconic turn as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock series, he recently stole hearts again as a priest on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant Fleabag. He stars in another television titan now in the second episode of Black Mirror’s fifth run, Smithereens, a story circling around one man’s desperate search for closure on his grief in a world he doesn’t understand anymore- part hostage drama, part crime mystery but mostly never pointedly driving home a layered message.
Smithereens is set in an actual dated year- 2018, which keeps our mind on it for better or worse. Scott plays Chris, a man posing as a driver for an Uber-like company, seeking to kidnap a high-ranking exec from the London HQ of Twitter stand-in Smithereen, so he can demand to speak with founder Billy Bauer (That ‘70s Show’s Topher Grace). Events swiftly escalate from the moment Chris accidentally kidnaps lowly intern Jaden (Snowfall’s Damson Idris), and the two are soon stranded in the countryside- with Chris holding Jaden hostage at gunpoint, refusing to give up on that phone call.
Andrew Scott can be at once the coolest, calmest, most sympathetic person in his roles, with contrasting mania through his gestures and eyes. Our introduction to Chris is as a skittish man full of nervous energy, rattled by the modern cacophony of buzzes and pings- struggling to regulate himself, never mind his thoughts on “distracted” people. Breathing exercises calm him- though even that’s through a Headspace type app on his phone, telling him to “let his mind wander”- the very last thing Chris wants.
Prior to discovering his tragic circumstances- when we don’t yet have a read on him- Chris is all quiet intensity. At a grief counselling session, he is unmoving, staring at grieving mother Hayley (EastEnders’s Amanda Drew). Even when they spend the night together, Chris seems disaffected from both emotional and physical sensation- clearly not wanting to be too invested. There’s more than a bit of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in Chris initially- the first sign of humanity we see from him is his pity towards how much Hayley has invested in her late daughter’s locked social media account for answers on her suicide. Far from being a sociopath, Chris is more disconnected, jaded.
Scott’s performance is wonderful and at times upsettingly hard to unpack. His relationship with kidnapped intern Jaden is tinged with a darkly comic bent, as Chris slaloms from in-control calm to complete madness. Jaden represents everything wrong with the world in Chris’ eyes, a symbol, “tap tapping away” in his pristine suit despite not having any ranking. Jaden is a nice visual representation of the futility of Chris’ whole endeavour, the invisible bogeyman at play, summed up by Chris’ enjoyably over the top ranting in what feels like a physical embodiment of the “what if phones but too much” gag.
You start to understand Chris as a man out of time, pitiable, voice cracking telling Jaden “what did you expect sitting in the back like that!” When Chris “regains control” after being stranded, he snaps into a rage of hitting the car horn before comically returning to assuredness. Chris is on the edge, and as Jaden gains better understanding on him, his sympathy grows- he’s notable as the first character Chris takes any true interest in other than Billy, even trying to make Jaden feel better about his gun. It’s around his presence that he shows any other real emotion than anger. Chris’ breathing techniques fade in effectiveness as his grief overwhelms- Jaden tries his best to help.
While this central relationship is interesting, other characters range from amusingly satirical to perfunctory. Like The National Anthem way back in Season 1, Smithereens is a story focused on one event in particular and those who orbit it. The increasing level of characters oft works as a humorous escalation of those involved, with nice comic moments (the negotiator’s confidence being blown back in his face and losing his calm is glorious), yet they rarely perform more than a collection of crime and hostage situation tropes. Director James Hawes keeps the action at a steady climb when proceedings kick off, yet it all feels a bit done-before, and he has actually done a better police procedural- Season 3’s Hated in the Nation.
Smithereens’ own involvement is a bit more incisive, with thoughts worth bringing up around bureaucracy and the power of social media- the fact they outperform the police for information on the case is quite worrying and brings a bit of justification to Chris, as is their classification of him in a grouping of high intellect, low income (often angry!) people. They even bring up a word-cloud to try and understand what the police describe as his “sophisticated criminal behaviour”. That they think it would instantly clue them into Chris’ psyche- and their dumbfounded reaction that he’s “totally clean”- speaks volumes. It’s a shame Smithereen as an entity aren’t really dived into, as a consideration or representation of how tech is (or has) shaped our society. Still, the “Stressbuster” playlist they place Chris on is very funny.
Despite being an engaging and tense mystery at times, the often rote trappings bog it down. There’s a truly great story in Smithereens, about how a desperate cry for help, a human need to listen, can be so easily swept under the rug. We are seemingly nowadays always seeking a more exciting tragedy, represented by the disappointment when Chris is thought to not have a real gun. This addiction to being in touch with information, or social media enabling connections designed for spreading and indulging in drama (see the excited “Tweets”), eschewing real understanding and listening- thereby increasing the suffering for people in great pain who feel like they aren’t being heard- are strong themes to dive into. Social media use actively exacerbates the situation here, so it’s a shame that we only get lip service in regards.
Chris’ monologue about his departed fiancé late on is terrific though, and the revelations on his misguided quest to find closure on her death land well. He represents a feeling I’m sure many of us have at times- being “the real cliché” when it comes to phones and social media, “bored every ten seconds”. I appreciated the realism of Smithereens, yet the plot is so thin and scattered, the scope of the story narrow- with no deeper moral qualms to leave you uneasy about the world we live in (away from what we already understand), despite the character focus on tragedy- so it gets muddled morally.
Smithereens says little novel about the multitudes it throws up- which is a great shame given Scott and Idris’ performances. The compelling moments come from the interactions of the three main players. Grace too, as Twitter boss Jack Dorsey like Billy Bauer is a novel creation, one of those classic Black Mirror premonitions (Smithereens was filming when Dorsey went on his infamous Myanmar retreat). Billy has lost his way in life as Chris has, feeling parallel in his irrelevance. He’s surprising for a tech boss, with his admissions of his platform’s addictiveness and eschewing of the “talking points” drafted up to calm Chris. I’m pleased that their distinct difference is shown though- from their two very different central locations showing the meaninglessness of the small gesture Billy offers, to Billy’s little glee booting up “God mode”. He’s similarly angry about the world, but it’s surface level. Even if he doesn’t know how to navigate and outline these new rules and ways of communicating, he’s still complicit in their creation and suffering caused.
Chris rejects the attempt to relate despite Billy’s repentance. He doesn’t care- he just wanted to say his piece. That Chris told no-one else of his guilt prior to Billy is one of Smithereen’s hardest hitting revelations, circling back to the responsibilities of social media in our personal lives. Chris felt disconnected enough to go to the very top to try and alleviate his grief and be heard. Chris’ admission of his own mistake is food for thought however, showing the futility in demanding accountability or explanations from these impossibly large corporations or big tech in general, which could’ve hit harder if more focused. These monoliths, as problematic as they can be, are an easy scapegoat for a myriad of things we don’t want to take responsibility for. As ever, Black Mirror is about the problems within people and the way we can abuse technology, not the inherent technology itself.
Chris takes responsibility for his mistake; Billy deflects his onto the succubae in his company. Perhaps the real God mode is taking responsibility? I wish more time was spent on the two men at the opposite end of the social scale, with being out of control their only thing in common. If the seventy minute runtime was better spent, the ironic strains of Andy Williams’ Can’t Take My Eyes Off You would’ve hit harder. As it is, it’s a fittingly bleak wrap up, Billy returning to meditating like nothing’s happened after a brief thought, perhaps accepting he is powerless to influence any change on his creation.
While it’s left ambiguous, Chris has either way became the thing he hated most- a notification. His one act of kindness given to Hayley will likely not give her the closure she dearly seeks. Meanwhile, Chris’ fate is as a distraction from everyday life- his life, grief and the whole event gone in a flash, a blink of an eye, days gone back on with. As a statement on disposability culture and the value of individual struggles in the media circus, combined with a stronger focus on the tale and theme of “is anybody really listening?” It could’ve left Smithereens as far more relevant with more fleshing out if it decided the route it wanted to take, rather than what feels outwardly like a basic “social media is too addictive” message. We knew that.
I was waiting for a real kicker throughout Smithereens, something that would stick with me like the best of Black Mirror’s horrifying endings. While not without moments and some fittingly bleak Coen brothers-like humour, sadly the targets Brooker takes aim at here and the themes explored have often been done on the show in fresher, more resonant and consistent ways that leave a clearer impactful message. The light touching on many messages makes Chris’ tale feel more like a rather simplistic, PSA-feeling morality tale about social media ruining our ability to communicate and interact with the wider world that we’ve heard before, rather than anything revelatory surrounding feelings of “what else could we do?” It might be the most “true” to the show of Season 5, but Black Mirror has done far better with this type of story before, which leaves Smithereens as a messy instalment raised by superb performances.