Black Mirror Season 5 Episode 2: Smithereens

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers! You have been warned. The second of the three new episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror which landed recently on Netflix harks back to much earlier episodes such as ‘Hated in the Nation’ where the technology isn’t futuristic but contemporary and the viewer is just made to think a bit differently about the direction it could be taking. I found it to be a lot more enjoyable than ‘Striking Vipers’ but maybe that’s because I like old British cop shows like Juliet Bravo or The Bill.

The story set in 2018 plays out more like an episode of a police drama than it does a typical Black Mirror episode. It stars the very brilliant and Laurence Olivier Award winning Andrew Scott (perhaps best known for his role as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock) as Chris a grieving man on the edge of a full mental episode.

Chris gets a job as an Uber driver (okay it’s not called Uber in the show for obvious reasons, but let’s call it what we all know it was) who kidnaps an employee of a global social media company (Jaden, an intern on his first week of work, played by Damson Idris – a new face to me) and threatens to shoot him if he can’t talk to the CEO. It’s no mental leap to tag the socme company Smithereens as Google and the other platform featured in the episode, Persona, as Facebook.

Early on there’s a fleeting nod to previous Black Mirror episode ‘The National Anthem’ in which Prime Minister Callow has to do something unspeakable to a pig on national TV – his name appears on a Socme feed behind the desk of the London HQ when Chris makes his first call to them making his demands.

Meanwhile the police, led by a female police chief played by Monica Dolan (hilarious in BBC comedy W1A but also a serious actorrr, don’t you know)  surround the field. A tactical firearms team arrive with a sniper (or two? Since later we see a female rather than the first shown male sniper taking the final shot) who is so bad at his job he doesn’t think to move to get a better angle and is constantly repeating trope lines like ‘I don’t have a clear shot’, ‘no clear shot’.

There’s also a reference to someone getting shot by the police because they thought the starter pistol they were holding was a real gun – while I’m sure this has happened in real life, I’m also sure I’ve seen it recently portrayed on a TV show – I just can’t remember which and it’s probably not a Black Mirror episode, so therefore not an Easter Egg as such, and rather a foreshadowing of some later confusion over whether Chris’s gun is real or not.

The bulk of the story is taken up by the phone calls between the Metropolitan Police, a creepy US Smithereens team, not so creepy Smithereens CEO, the FBI and Chris sat in a field in a car with his hostage. It’s fairly linear once the car ends up in the field and the run-of-the-mill story is perhaps only as entertaining as it is because of Scott’s great unhinged performance and later the performance of Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3) as Billy Bauer the humane CEO who wanted to be left alone on his silent retreat but ends up talking to a ‘crazy’. The clash of lifestyles is great, the disharmony between what Bauer set out to do and what his company now does probably true for a lot of these techno-hippy start-up types, and the dialogue between Billy and Chris some of the best of the episode.

In demonstrating the reach of social media platforms to capture data about your life and the dangers of being addicted to mobile phone apps designed specifically to give you dopamine hits, it’s a useful episode in a kind of ‘public service announcement to millennials’ but because it only really delivers that storyline with no twists it is ultimately a bit of a damp squib.

I’m worriedly wondering, if after the high of Bandersnatch the Black Mirror team need to go on a silent retreat of their own and come up with some better ideas. I said it in my previous post, but I hope the next episode is better. Otherwise you have to wonder if Black Mirror is sadly petering out and Brooker might need to go back to making the hilarious comedy round=up show Screen Wipe.

Chris does a redeeming act of kindness to help the mother of a girl who committed suicide get into her locked Persona account by calling in a dying wish from Billy Bauer – ‘I’ll do anything’ Billy says to stop guilt-ridden Chris killing himself.

Maybe using his God mode to disable Smithereens globally might have done more good, but this story is all about the individual effects of social media addiction as opposed to anything changing on a macro level. We are where we are, the episode tells us, it’s not going to change, maybe it’s going to get worse (the more future-looking dystopian episodes of Black Mirror certainly suggest so) and these my dears are the consequences if you’re not careful.

In the same way the film Jeepers Creepers ended with the song to sum its horrific ending, Smithereen’s unresolved (who got shot?) ending is accompanied by the catchy Frankie Vallie song ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ which again sums up the central premise of the story very nicely. Stronger than the last episode but still not a patch on some of the episodes of previous seasons…

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