Before we start, I'll say what I always say about Black Mirror, which is that each episode is best watched knowing nothing about it. Going in blind is an essential part of watching the series, which thrives on giving viewers the unexpected. This is intended as a review to read after you've watched the episode; spoilers will follow. You can also read our reviews of the other two Season 5 episodes,"Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" and "Striking Vipers."
Put your damn phone down! Black Mirror is back with three new episodes, and like all of Black Mirror, there are highs and lows. That's the hitch with anthologies; some episodes shine while others fall flat on their face. For every heaven-on-Earth joy like "San Junipero," there is a meandering letdown like like the empty baby surveillance state of "Arkangel." "Smithereens," one of three Season 5 episodes, isn't one of the good ones. And that's a shame, because it touches on greatness but ultimately can't figure out what it's trying to say.
The episode goes a bit like this: Christopher (Andrew Scott) is a man at the end of his rope, jobless and earning cash as a rideshare driver à la Uber or Lyft. One day, he picks up an employee outside of the headquarters of Smithereen, a social media platform that's a combination of Facebook and Twitter, but instead of taking him to the airport, Christopher opts instead to take him hostage. He doesn't want money; he has a very specific request that only someone who works at Smithereen can grant: a conversation with the company CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). Further mucking things up is the fact that the employee he picked up is a lowly intern (Damson Idris) who doesn't have access to Billy, but it's not like Christopher can drop off the intern and try a do-over, so he's stuck with the low-level leverage.
The bulk of the episode is set during a standoff with the police, with the details of Christopher's intentions and past purposefully clouded so as not to give too much away and keep us interested. The good news is that part of the episode works as intended. "Smithereens" consistently increases the tension as it moves forward, making it one of the most consistently engaging episodes of the entire series, though that's only because it preys on our sense of curiosity. Why is Christopher taking this young man hostage? What does he want to tell Billy? How does this tie in to Smithereen and what's the Black Mirror twist? We need to know!
The bad news is the episode is all set up. As "Smithereens" pumps itself up to the point of exploding, all it manages is a paltry fizzle in its conclusion, as though it had something to say but ended up taking a wrong turn and lost its train of thought. Christopher reveals that he needed to talk to Billy in order to get something off his chest: A car crash he was involved in that killed his wife wasn't the fault of the drunk driver he crashed into, but his own fault because he was checking Smithereen on his phone while driving. It's one of the biggest "that's it?" finishes of Black Mirror, made only more frustrating by the fact that "Smithereens" really felt like it was going somewhere.
It's a trap that Black Mirror sets for itself, yet still falls into. Aside from the occasional (and welcome) outlier, most Black Mirror episodes hinge on us waiting for The Twist. And the twist in "Smithereens" amounts to Christopher getting shot and becoming the type of push notification that distracted people from their everyday lives — including one driver — just as he had been distracted in the crash that killed his wife. There's a much greater casual reception to the alert of Christopher's death, though. For example, the driver who looked at his phone doesn't plow into a farmer's market, he just gets honked at at a red light. Is "Smithereens" saying we've evolved enough as a society that we've learned how to handle the distractions of phone alerts better? It is the low-key irony that Christopher became the very thing — a blip on a phone — he was trying to avoid? It's unclear what the message is, which is one of the greatest crimes Black Mirror can commit.
(Also, was there a point to Christopher's encounter with the woman at grief counseling and getting her daughter's Smithereen password for her? It seemed like it was supposed to be a big moment, but it felt like an extra distraction or padding for an episode that didn't know what it was trying to say.)
However, episodes of Black Mirror tend to be about more than just one thing, and some of the topics the episode touches on — notably the relevancy of the police in the social media age — are almost revelatory. As Smithereen employees beat the cops to key details about Christopher's life and the police were left dumbfounded and feeling inconsequential, it signaled a seismic shift in the accessibility of information by corporations. Will cops need to work with social media platforms to access details? Does that once again cross the line of privacy? Are social media companies more dangerous and powerful with all that information? That was the scariest thing and the peak in "Smithereens."
It's too bad that wasn't what the episode was ultimately about. Though "Smithereens" finishes weakly, the road there is pretty good, but unlike road trip clichés, Black Mirror is more about the destination than the journey.
Season 5 of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.