Black Mirror recap: 'Smithereens'
Who is to blame for social media obsession: human error or the tech gods themselves? Where is the justice when that obsession yields catastrophe? These are the questions posed in the second episode of Black Mirror’s fifth season “Smithereens.” Director James Hawes is no stranger to the trippy Netflix favorite nor stories that center tragedy on the evils of social media; he also directed season 3’s “Hated in the Nation.” While equal parts thrilling and heart wrenching, my biggest takeaway from this episode is that I’m completely validated in lying to talkative Uber drivers.
We open on a man sitting in his car, following along to a recorded guided meditation. It’s 2018 in London. We’re not given his name, so let’s call him Our Guy (Fleabag’s Andrew Scott). As the phantom voice dictates, Our Guy’s mind begins to wander. A memory flashes across the screen too quickly for the viewer to place it.
He’s a driver for a rideshare/taxi app called Hitcher. He accepts a ride request and as he waits for the young woman to get in his car, he gives his glove compartment a suspicious look. She’s busy doing something on her smartphone, so she initially misses it when he asks if she works in the building he picked her up from. No, she’s not a Smithereen employee (read: Twitter), but she’d love to be taking advantage of the facilities at the Billy Bauer-run tech giant.
Later, Our Guy is sitting alone in a cafe and looking physically uncomfortable. The buzzing of the fluorescent lights marries the buzzing of all of the young people around him intensely tuned into their smartphones. Eventually, the continuous buzzing and beeping forces him to flee.
The next day, Our Guy repeats his routine from the previous morning. He accepts a ride request from a young man headed for the airport. We aren’t given his name either, so let’s call him Passenger (Snowfall‘s Damson Idris). It just so happens that Passenger is a Smithereen employee.
As they make their way down the highway, Our Guy tells Passenger that the GPS is showing that there’s an accident ahead so he needs to take an alternative route. Passenger is so enthralled by his phone that he doesn’t even notice Our Guy cancel the route and remove his phone from the dashboard holder. By the time Passenger finally looks up from this phone Our Guy has stopped the car behind another car in a dark underpass and is now pointing a gun at Passenger’s face.
Our Guy instructs Passenger to zip-tie his own hands. As he tries to move him from one car to the next, Passenger tells Our Guy that he’s just an intern and doesn’t have any money (if that’s what he’s after). This information stops Our Guy cold. He’s befuddled. Why would an intern be dressed in a nice suit and headed for the airport? Passenger was sent by a stylist to take a bunch of outfits to an executive waiting at Heathrow airport. Ok, that explains the luggage, but what about the suit? It’s Passenger’s first week on the job and he just wanted to look nice.
This sends Our Guy into a rage. He angrily rants about mass obsession with smartphones and apps such as Smithereen, pointing out that if Passenger had bothered to put his phone down for a moment he might not be zip-tied in the back of a car right now. Passenger takes this moment of hysteria as an opportunity to make a run for it, but his tied hands throw off his balance and he falls over just a few feet away. Our Guy collects his hostage and tries shove him into the trunk of the other car. Even with the trunk closed, Passenger can be heard screaming about his fear of small spaces, so Our Guy allows him to lay down in the backseat with a cloth bag over his head.
As they make their way down the road, Passenger complains that he’s feeling sick and starts to sit up in the back seat. Our guy screams at him to lie back down, but it’s too late. As they drive past a gas station, two police officers see the suspicious sight of Passenger in the back of the car with a bag over his head. They pursue the car conservatively. When Our Guy realizes he’s being followed, he turns off the main road, but the police still following intently. Our Guy pulls the car over and the police follow suit. Just as one of the cops exits the car, Our Guy speeds off, escalating the situation to a full-fledged police chase. Our Guy is driving so frantically that he nearly collides with two young men riding bikes. He swerves into a field and the car sputters to a stop.
As the police run up to the vehicle, Our Guy hops out waving his gun in the air. The police retreat and instruct the bikers to follow them. They stop a few hundred feet away and call for backup, all the while keeping an eye on the car with a pair of binoculars.
In the car, Our Guy practices a few of his meditative breathing exercises before removing the bag from Passenger’s head and tells him he needs to speak to Billy Bauer. As an intern, Passenger is too low on the totem pole to know how to contact Billy directly. That’s fine. Our Guy will settle for the most senior person he knows, which is Hannah Kent from HR. The only issue is that Passenger’s phone is still on the floor of the other car. Our Guy’s composure breaks. He pounds on the car horn, presumably cursing his own stupidity. He’ll have to search for the office number himself.
Hannah is away from her desk, but her cell phone number is conveniently in the voicemail recording. Once they have her on the phone, we learn that Passenger’s real name is Jaden. As Our Guy instructs, Jaden tells her that he’s being held at gunpoint by a man that demands to speak to Billy Bauer. Hannah thinks it’s a bad joke until Our Guy texts her a photo of a frightened Jaden staring into the barrel of a gun.
While telling Our Guy that she’ll do what she can to find Billy, Hannah uses a notepad to instruct a colleague to call the police and places Our Guy on hold. Hannah and another colleague reach out to the Smithereen executives at the Silicon Valley office in California. The COO Penelope gathers Shonelle from the company’s analytics team and Don from legal to help troubleshoot the issue. Shonelle is able to manipulate the line so that they can hear what’s being said on Our Guy’s end of the phone even while he’s on hold.
Back in the UK, Chief Superintendent Grace and a hostage negotiator are now on the scene. The chief sends the original cops to investigate the safety of the owner of the car Our Guy is driving. Meanwhile, those bikers are still on loitering nearby and steadily posting a play-by-play of the situation on Smithereen.
When the officers arrive at the home of the woman who the car is registered to, they discover that not only did Eleanor Gillhaney pass away in March of that year, but she was the mother of Christopher Gillhaney a.k.a Our Guy. The kitchen table is covered in overdue bills and a neighbor tells them that the house is up for repossession.
The press has arrived at the site of the hostage situation with vans and helicopters. Snipers have moved into position.
Chief Superintendent Grace gets a phone call from the executives at Smithereen Silicon Valley and the FBI. The Brits know that Chris is a former IT teacher, has been unemployed for 2 years and was the victim of a drunk driving accident three years ago, but the Americans know all of that and way more (which the chief is noticeably salty about). Through his now dormant Smithereen account, Penelope has learned that Chris lost his fiance in that car accident. She also learned from the people who run the Hitcher app that he’s operating a compromised account he likely got on the dark web to hide the fact that he’s spent weeks only picking up passengers outside the Smithereen London office.
Hostage Negotiator David tries and epically fails to reason with Chris. He’s read about negotiators and he’s not interested in being manipulated. In fact, if they try to reason with him again he’ll just shoot Jaden in the face and get it over with. They have no choice but to find the elusive Billy Bauer.
In the middle of Utah, surrounded by canyons lies an isolated glass house. “Enlightened tech bro” Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), as Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker describes him, (don’t open that link unless you want spoilers!) sits cross-legged. He’s 6 days into a 10-day silent retreat, and presently deeply engrossed in a round of mediation. An employee gingerly knocks on one of the glass windows and informs him of the ongoing hostage situation. Billy takes a long moment to silently process the news, and then lets out an exhaustive, “Oh, f—.”
In a moment of kindness, Chris tries to calm Jaden who is sure his mother is probably watching the news worried about him. Chris tells Jaden his mother has nothing to worry about because the gun isn’t real. It’s only a replica. That news reverberates among the police and is heard by one of the bikers still hanging out nearby. As the newly confident police begin to move in on Chris, one of the bikers shares the fake gun news on his Smithereen account. Chris has decided to log into his Smithereen account (he keeps it in an app folder labeled “Emergency Only”) to keep up with what people are saying about the hostage situation. When he realizes that the police can hear what he’s saying, he lets down the window to tell he lied to Jaden. The gun is real. To prove it he fires a shot into the air and a sniper shoot him in the arm through the windshield.
Chris has been played and he’s pissed. Now that he knows everyone is listening, he says he’s hanging up, and if Bill Bauer doesn’t call him in 5 minutes, “it all kicks off.”
Billy is on a conference call with his Silicon Valley staff and the FBI, and he insists that they let him speak to Billy. He grows tired of hearing FBI Agent Cruz tell him what he can and can’t do, so he tells his people to hang up on “Agent FBI Douchebag.” However, even after kicking the FBI out of the conversation, Penelope still won’t give him Chris’ number. Billy has his laptop and a satellite connection, so he really doesn’t need her. “F— it. I’ll get it myself. Peace.” With that hangs up and uses what he knows about Chris to pull up the number with time to spare.
Chris is stunned to hear Billy on the other end of the phone. He needs a moment to remember the words he’s so carefully rehearsed and all he needs Billy to do is shut up and listen.
Chris and his fiance Tamsin had been driving home after visiting his sick mother the night of the accident. Tamsin was asleep in the passenger seat and Chris was driving. He got bored as they made their way down an empty road, and took a moment to look at a Smithereen notification on his phone. It was at that moment that their car collided with that of a drunk driver. It took Tamsin 2 months to die, and although everyone blamed the drunk driver, Chris blames himself. And Smithereen.
He and his late fiance used to be addicted to their phones and Smithereen. Constantly checking it like the people he despises now. He blames Billy and his company for making the app so addictive in the first place. “Bit of user feedback for you there,” he says through tears. “Maybe factor that into your next update.”
Billy begins to rant about how the app has gotten out of his control and that he’s essentially just a figurehead now. Chris truly couldn’t give a s—. He just wanted Billy to hear his story before he takes his own life.
Billy can’t stand the thought of Chris completing suicide. He promises to give him anything he wants. Chris takes the opportunity to ask him to have the owner of Persona send the woman from his support group the login information for her deceased daughter’s account. Turns out the password was hidden in plain sight in a photo of the two them together.
Chris hangs up with Billy and cuts Jaden free. He still fully intends to take his own life, but Jaden can’t let him do that. He lost an uncle to suicide and has seen how it ruined his family. He tries to take the gun from Chris and the two struggle back and forth. Nearby, the sniper is trying to get a clear shot at Chris so he doesn’t harm Jaden. Elsewhere, the grieving mother is slowly typing in the password she’s just received for her daughter’s Persona profile. As the sniper pulls the trigger and the woman presses the enter key, the screen cuts to black. We never learn what she finds or who is killed, but the viewer sees that everywhere the magnitude of this day and the conclusion of the chaos has been reduced to a cacophony of smartphone notifications.