Most Black Mirror episodes have some kind of fantasy element to them, exaggerating technology to make points about the hold it has over us. Not Smithereens. There is nothing in this episode that doesn’t already exist. It is quite pointedly set in the very recent past, 2018. It’s a direct blast at the hypocrisy of tech billionaires who live hippie dippy lifestyles while running companies that treat people like packets of data, and a sharp poke at ‘blame culture’, whereby everything is always someone else’s fault.
The episode is built around a broken man played by Andrew Scott, who does broken men better than just about anyone else. Chris has suffered a bereavement, which he is not coping with well. He goes to a support group and says nothing. He spends his days in his car, a driver for an Uber-like ride service. Chris only picks up passengers outside the head office of Smithereen, a Twitter-y massive tech company. It becomes clear why when he kidnaps an employee (Damson Idris) and threatens to kill him unless he can talk to the company boss.
Dramatically, Smithereens is solid. Scott is frantically unraveling as Chris, getting ever more desperate as his plan goes wrong and he winds up in a police stand-off. He’s an actor who so thoroughly inhabits any role he’s given he makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in it. He’s the male Olivia Colman. There are car chases; there is shooting; there’s a race to find a man who doesn’t want to be found, in order to save a life. It is brisk, absorbing drama.
Black Mirror always promises more than that. We’re conditioned to wait for a twist or smack-in-the-face revelation about how technology is making us all ghouls. Smithereens builds to an ending that falls flat. This particular episode has little to say that isn’t already common opinion. It shows the vast amount of information tech companies hold about their users – so much that Smithereen knows more than the police do about Chris. It shows how families don’t know each other half as well as online contacts do. It shows such an addiction to social media, and specifically ‘likes’, that the approval of strangers can outweigh real life relationships. All of these are accurate observations, but they’re discussed daily. They’re covered everywhere. We know all this. That message doesn’t bite very hard.
The most interesting part is the look at how social media can be used to as a Big Bad Monster to blame for personal failings. Chris holds Smithereen responsible for something awful that happened, which is easier than accepting that he was at fault. It’s easy to point fingers at the faceless corporation making us into less caring, less focused people, rather than admitting we do so voluntarily.
Smithereens could have been stronger if it dealt in fewer clichés. Everyone is as we’d expect them to be. The most powerful people at Smithereen are LA free-spirits on their own time and corporate villains on company time. Smithereen’s head is a tech bro loner. The police are stressed and old-fashioned.
The best Black Mirror episodes are the ones that flip expectations, that don’t take the easy ‘boooo, the internet’ road. Smithereens is a middling installment, a bit of a grumpy dad hand-wring about the evils of social media. It takes place in a world just a little out of date and its points feel just a little behind the current conversation.