When it came time to pick which episode the members of the Refinery29 entertainment team would recap Black Mirror season 5’s three episodes, I volunteered as tribute… with one caveat. I would take the installment starring Andrew Scott — aka Fleabag’s Hot Priest — or nothing. So, I got “Smithereens.” Little did I know, I shoehorned my way into the Netflix anthology’s most devastating episode in the new batch. It is also the longest one by three minutes.
So, let’s get into this deeply upsetting, technophobic 70 minutes of television, which closes with a haunting and deadly shooting. Maybe, we can actually figure out who actually died.
Black Mirror's “Smithereens” is grappling with two very different issues. The first is a gripe you can find at any dinner table across America and comedy’s more pandering stand-up specials: If you don’t look up from your Twitbook and Facegram soon, “real life” will just pass you by. It’s a refrain we’ve heard since the first Sidekick climbed out of the primordial ooze. However, there is a much more interesting, and mentally sticky, issue bouncing around “Smithereens” too, and that’s the disturbing fact that certain tech companies know more about us than law enforcement ever could. That is very, very scary.
But, neither of those problems present themselves at the beginning of the episode. When we meet its star Chris Gillhaney (Fleabag dreamboat Scott; Sherlock baddie Moriarty), he’s sitting in his car outside of Smithereen, a Twitter-like app. He’s a member of a grief support group and a driver for Hitcher, a Lyft-y rideshare app. The reason for both of Chris’ most integral activities is unknown. What we do know is that Chris spends his day waiting in front of the Smithereen office to pick up would-be passengers. He asks each of them if they work for the tech company. He hasn’t gotten any bites yet (they’re usually visiting someone who works there). That is until Jaden Tommins (Snowfall’s Damson Idris), glides into Chris’ car in a nice suit, carrying nice luggage and chattering about his first-class flight. Jaden, it seems, is somebody.
So Chris kidnaps him. Chris’ nefarious offer to take “fast way” to the airport may immediately remind one of author Kelly Barnhill’s frightening viral tweets about a May 2019 Lyft ride gone wrong. While Barnhill was eventually able to safely make it to her destination, Jaden is not so lucky. He winds up with Chris’ gun in his face and zip ties around his wrists.
The only problem is, Jaden isn’t the business luminary Chris believes he is. Jaden is a 22-year-old intern. Chris is livid and yells about how young everyone at start-ups look. The rant, like the general condescending paranoia of “Smithereens,” sounds like old-fashioned Baby Boomer complaints stuffed into a handsome 30something’s mouth. Despite Jaden’s low man on the totem pole status, Chris tries to push the claustrophobic boy into the boot of his car with the intention of taking him to a second location. When Jaden vehemently protests — the threat of car sickness and mid-highway screaming hangs in the air — Chris, a terrible kidnapper, lets him lie down in the backseat of his car.
That is Chris’ mortal mistake. Of course Jaden pops up mid-ride with a bag on his head. Of course police notice the bizarre scene. Of course they give chase. This is how Chris ends up driving in the middle of a field and getting stuck there with a vomit-covered Jaden in his car. Chris refuses to relent. The police set up shop on the road a few yards away.
It is here Chris announces he wants to speak Billy Bauer. Who is Billy Bauer? Great question. It won’t be answered until the 44-minute mark. But before that, we hear a lot about Billy Bauer. He seems to be the true boss of Smithereen. He’s in America somewhere. Absolutely no one, under any circumstances wants to bother him. Smithereen COO Penelope Wu (Ruibo Qian) stops running in her cool athletic wear to make sure of that. Unfortunately for the Smithereen team and police, Chris won’t speak to a single person other than Billy. Everyone between him and the big man is simply a means to an end. Poor Jaden’s life is his insurance policy.
It is in this period — between Chris’ demand to talk to Billy and his actual introduction to Billy — that reveals society’s genuinely bizarre relationship to tech companies.
Once Chris gets through to Penelope, her team uses his phone number to find his Smithereen account. On their end, they immediately have access to his photos, posts, and total amount of time spent on the app. Eventually, they have full diagnostics up about Chris, from the number of people who have blocked him (zero) to a cloud of his most used words (“great,” “love,” “mum,” and “people” are at the top). After a quick chat with Hitcher, Penelope learns “Chris’” driver account was obtained via the dark web. Penelope also informs police that Chris’ fiancée Tasmin died after a drunk driving accident. There are “historical posts” in his Smithereen network about the tragedy to prove as much. Smithereen is secretly listening in to what’s going on in Chris’ car. They even have him listening to a “Stressbuster” playlist while they figure out how to handle his request to talk to Billy with their employee’s life being used as blackmail.
Smithereen is controlling Chris in ways he doesn’t even realize. On the other hand, Chris threatens the cops’ comically cocky hotshot negotiator David (an always-welcome David Ings) into speeding away from the hostage situation.
With all other options exhausted, the Smithereens crew finally decides to bring in Billy, who’s allegedly attempting a 10-day silent retreat somewhere called Furnace Valley, UT that looks as infernal as its name. When an assistant is sent to find Billy we learn he is Topher Grace in Jack Dorsey cosplay and gave up on quiet days ago. Once Billy is debriefed on the crisis in the English countryside, he announces he wants to speak to Chris. His advisors, including an FBI agent, are against it.
At the same time, Chris tries to reassure Jaden he isn’t in any real danger since his gun isn’t real. Since Smithereens is secretly listening in on the conversation, they tell police as much. Two teens who have been hanging around the hostage situation overhear the news and immediately blab about the update on the Smithereen app. There is an interesting thread here about what kind of danger people will put themselves in for a social media post (it deserves its own episode). Chris, noticing police are closing in on him, checks the app and finds the kids’ posts. Chris tells police he was lying to Jaden, but they don’t believe him. He shoots the gun into the air, proving yet again this is a real hostage situation. Police try to eliminate Chris with an authorized sniper kill shot, but they miss.
With tensions escalating to scary levels, Billy is on the phone with Chris within seconds, even after the FBI heavily recommends against it. Again that question of who is more powerful — tech companies or the government? — pops up. Again Smithereen wins. At last, Chris unravels what drove him to kidnap a 22-year-old and incite an international incident: guilt. Three years ago, Chris was driving home late at night with his fiancée asleep in the passenger seat. It was a dark night and a boring ride, so he glanced down at the Smithereen app for just a few seconds. In those moments, a drunk driver plowed into the car. Tamsin didn’t die on impact. Instead, Chris watched the love of his life waste away for two months until she finally flatlined.
Although the world blamed the now-dead drunk driver, Chris was consumed by secret self-blame for the Smithereen secret. He believes he killed Tamsin, all for a quick peek at a dog photo. Now he wants Billy to make his app less psychologically addictive. Maybe this way, things will change. Billy profusely apologizes for the monster his creation has become, and laments how powerless even he feels to fix anything. Is this how Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg feels? Chris doesn’t care to wonder, because he cuts Billy off, uninterested in the anxieties of a billionaire.
With Chris’ piece said, he is going to let Jaden go and then get “out of here.” “Out of here,” Chris confirms, is a euphemism for suicide. We’re reminded of Chris’ earlier chants that today is his “last day,” which itself was a refrain from one of the “Stressbuster” playlist songs Smithereen played for him. Did Smithereen put this deadly idea into Chris’ head?
We’ll never know because Chris hangs up with Billy and quickly gets into a debate with Jaden, who doesn’t want his captor to die by suicide. Jaden, who is now cut free, begs Chris to give up on his fatal plan. Jaden’s own family was destroyed by his uncle’s death by suicide. Chris refuses to relent, and Jaden tries to grab his gun in an attempt to save Chris’ life. A scuffle ensues. To the outside world, it appears Chris is trying to murder Jaden. So, a sniper takes two “critical shots” at Chris. The second seems to kill someone in the car, but it’s unclear who it is. Fade to black.
However, considering the scene following a short fade, two outcomes are likely. The more optimistic one is that Chris was the sole victim of the critical shot. After all, police did not authorize a third shot, suggesting their target has been eliminated. But, it’s possible the critical shot killed both Chris and Jaden. That would explain why police look so very upset over the resolution. Despite the tragedy, the world that was enraptured by the hostage situation takes a deep sigh and returns to their regularly scheduled programming. Of course, that programming is the damnable smartphones that Chris hated so much in the first place.
Writer/creator Cory Booker better not own an iPhone.
Odds & ends
— Chris is offered one favor from Billy in an effort to stop his death by suicide. He chooses to get Hayley (Amanda Drew), the woman he hooked up with from the grief group, the Persona password for her daughter Kriss, who died by suicide. The password ends up being the name of a boat in a photo of Hayley and Kriss. It’s sweet, but we shouldn’t miss the Chris/Kriss parallels.
— The “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off Of You,” lead-out song may be television’s first creepy ode to smartphones.
— During Chris’ many phone calls with Smithereens, the auto transcription of the conversation reads “ducking” every time Chris says “fucking.” It’s perhaps the only levity in the episode.