Black Mirror's "Smithereens" Episode Takes a Scary Look at Social Media
Warning: SO many spoilers ahead for the fifth season of Black Mirror!
Black Mirror's "Smithereens" episode careens down a social media cesspool. The second episode of the Netflix show's fifth season finds Chris Gillhaney (Andrew Scott), a cab driver waiting around the London office of Smithereen, a social media giant, in hopes of getting a passenger who works in the building (in case you're wondering, he uses the fictional Hitcher app to pick up passengers and, yes, the name is a creepy indicator of what's to come). When an intern gets into the car, little does he realize he's in for a ride traumatic enough to never trust driving apps again.
After a fast-paced car chase that ends in Chris stuck in the middle of a field and surrounded by the London police, he forces the intern to call his supervisor and get Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace) on the phone, threatening to kill the intern with his gun if he doesn't follow through. Meanwhile, the Smithereen Silicon Valley office manages to track down all his information with scary efficiency and keep him on hold while listening to his conversations, finding information even the London police department haven't tracked down yet. This begins to get to the crux of the episode and its commentary on social media's control over our lives. In other words, they are always watching, and it's a hard truth to grapple with on the show. The idea that Smithereen tracks Chris down even faster than the London police is cause for concern, particularly in the wake of the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
As the police try to talk Chris down and Smithereen argues over contacting Billy — who happens to be on a silent technology detox retreat — two teenagers excitedly document the situation on Smithereen, including the classified information the police around them are sharing, which, in turn, compromises their work. Once Billy gets involved and calls Chris to calm him down, Chris reveals he used to be so addicted to the social media app that he got into an accident when checking a notification, and it killed his fiancée. Unable to live with the guilt, he plans to kill himself but wanted to be heard by Billy first and offer some user feedback on the addictive nature of the app he runs. For what seems like the first time, Billy is forced to directly reckon with the consequences of the tech empire he created, and it makes him contemplate his own future at the company (for a hot second, mind you).
When Chris tries to finally let the intern go, a battle ensues between them when the intern tries to change his mind about killing himself. The police mistakenly assume the worst and shoot at the car, though viewers are kept in the dark about what actually transpires. The scene ends with familiar snapshots of people getting notifications on their phone and then moving on, including Billy himself.
Unlike its predecessor, "Striking Vipers," "Smithereens" hits a little too close to our reality through its depictions of addictive and controlling social media platforms, shady ride-share apps, and high-stakes hostage situations with active shooters. Chris complains to the intern that the only reason he's in this mess is because he never stopped to look up from his phone and be aware of his surroundings, something people rarely do nowadays. Anyone already wary of using ride-share apps probably feels validated right about now.
The chase for "likes" and comments becomes toxic in Black Mirror, when Chris, by his own admission, gets desperate enough to check his notifications while he's driving and rounds out with the two teenagers on the scene who turn a hostage situation into a sensational hashtag on Smithereen. Ultimately, this episode takes our relationship with social media to the extreme, and in turn, forces us to face it head-on (like a mirror reflection); though the open-endedness of "Smithereens" may leave viewers frustrated, the point of it is not to resolve the escalating situation but to show how quickly information can disseminate on social media, how people are so quick to follow a crisis and use hashtags to raise awareness, and how quickly they can move on to the next big thing.