Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the Black Mirror season 5 episode “Smithereens.”
It starts as the Uber ride from hell. But then, just as we’ve come to expect from Netflix’s Black Mirror, things take some surprising twists and turns. In “Smithereens,” a guilt-ridden former social media addict (Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott) holds an employee of a Twitter-like company (Snowfall‘s Damson Idris) hostage in an attempt to force a tech mogul (BlacKkKlansman’s Topher Grace) to hear his tragic story.
Below, creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones take some burning questions in one part of our three-part season 5 interview (also read our chats about “Striking Vipers” and “Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too”).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In some ways, this felt very much like the type of story you might have done the first two seasons, back in Black Mirror’s British indie rock days. This one seems like a Silicon Valley-inspired spiritual successor to “National Anthem,” if you don’t mind the comparison.
CHARLIE BROOKER: No, I think that’s a very accurate comparison. They both center on an unusual event taking place and you see the concentric ripples spinning off that. So that’s correct. And we knew we wanted to do a contemporary episode without any sci-fi elements at all.
And I think, like “National Anthem,” it might be the only episode that doesn’t require inventing any new advanced technology for the story?
BROOKER: I think “Shut Up and Dance” is also feasible today. We like to do those every so often because it reminds the viewer, and it reminds us, that we are not necessarily a science fiction show. I don’t quite know what we are.
ANNABEL JONES: We’re tapping into contemporary worries and concerns and themes and observations about how we live our life and extrapolating from them, so they should always feel relevant.
If you’re being honest and there’s no limiter* in place: Topher Grace is basically [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey, right?
BROOKER: I did zero research on who the heads of these companies are. I thought if I read up too much I’m going to worry I’m not going to get it right so I’ll just invent somebody different. However, [part of the character] did stem from Jack Dorsey — in 2018 around the holidays, he tweeted, “I’ve just been on a 10-day silent retreat” or something like that. And immediately his timeline was full of people saying, “Ahhhhh! This platform is overrun by Nazis! What are you doing?!” And I thought there was irony in him taking himself off [his own platform]. Fair enough, good for him. I thought that shows he’s a contemplative guy. We try not to do cartoon villains, though in a way that’s what [a character in another season 5 episode that we won’t spoil here] becomes. We wanted to make sure he was a slightly unusual presence. He’s sort of an enlightened tech bro. He’s not a villain. He’s conflicted and we see he’s a bit lost too.
JONES: The idea is the people who designed this tech had no idea it would become this global power and he too is feeling out of control — as you would be if you were suddenly running this massive corporation and there are new rules that haven’t been defined yet and new ways of communicating that people couldn’t have predicted. So he’s as lost as [Andrew Scott’s rideshare driver character] and them meeting each other at the end is quite poignant. Each goes into their own spiral and they realize they have nothing in common other than the fact they’re both lost.
BROOKER: He’s one of the founders of this company. It evolves into this thing where people say, “If you tweak this and tweak that, you’ll get better engagement.” You’ve got a responsibility to grow the company and to your shareholders. But you also have an ethical responsibility. And that’s the debate that is going on in the tech world at the moment and will continue to do so. I hope we’ve got that right. It will be interesting to see what Jack Dorsey makes of it.
JONES: He’ll be too distracted to watch it.
So what’s your opinion on the so-called deplatforming debate? Should a platform [like Twitter or Facebook] be an open platform? Or should owners take more steps to moderate their content?
BROOKER: I don’t have a simple answer for that. Platforms as they exist — and this goes for YouTube as well — reward extremity and performance. And extremity and performance are entertaining. But grandstanding is not useful in terms of debate and social cohesion. Presumably, we’re in a transitional phase we’re moving through as we all together learn how these things work. But in terms of deplatforming, I don’t know. It’s a network, you own the network, what do you want on your network? Do you want that stuff on your network? If you’re just going to let it run unfettered, that is on you. So that’s for them to decide.
Here’s my read on your ambiguous ending: By not revealing who was shot and then showing people checking their phones to see what happened, you’re putting the viewers in the same state as those social media users who are asking themselves: “What’s the update? What happened next?” You’re giving us the same desire for the latest news that we get when we pick up our phone to check a trending topic we’re following, and by then denying us that final piece of information, you’re staging an intervention by interrupting our addictive pattern. Or did I read too much into it?
BROOKER: That’s not necessarily the intention. But that’s a perfectly valid interpretation. Really it was about how this massive drama — this most important day in several people’s lives — was reduced to ephemeral confetti that just passes us by; just one more little crouton of a notification. So it was about the disposability of it and how it becomes just another distraction for a myriad of other people. But I almost prefer your interpretation. I should have just said, “Yes you are right.”
UPDATE: All 23 Black Mirror episodes ranked (including season 5)
- All the possible Black Mirror: Bandersnatch endings, ranked
- 11 Easter eggs in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch you may have missed