Black Mirror is known for its bleak, dystopian messages about humanity's fraught relationship with technology, and in the newly released fifth season, "Smithereens" is by far the most depressing episode. It begins with distraught app user Chris (Andrew Scott) taking a young intern named Jaden (Damson Idris) hostage, then builds to a tense standoff with police. The "Smithereens" ending cuts to black before we can see which of the two men were hit by the single gun shot that closes the episode, but ultimately, it doesn't matter; the final scene may be ambiguous, but Black Mirror's messaging couldn't be clearer.
The series usually relies on a piece of exaggerated technology in order to create a social critique: simulation dating apps, a personality rating system, real-life censorship controls. In "Smithereens," the tech is much more mundane but immediately recognizable: the big bad here is social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. As police pressure Chris to surrender, he reveals over the phone to Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace) that the reason he kidnapped Jaden was to talk to Billy and ensure he understands the damage his platform has done to his life. Both Chris and his fiancée Tamsin were obsessive Smithereen users, and Chris' inability to keep from glancing at new updates on his timeline proved to be life-destroying. While he was driving late at night, Chris got a notification that someone liked a comment he made on their dog photo. When he glanced down to check it, the distraction caused a car crash that killed Tamsin.
Billy is mostly speechless, admitting that he doesn't know how to reign in his own company now that it's become so big and stockholders are constantly demanding new user engagement goals, but Chris cuts him off; he doesn't want answers or even solutions to lessen the platform's addictive nature. He just wanted to say his piece before committing suicide. Chris hangs up and tells Jaden he can go, but Jaden is moved by Chris' misery and attempts to stop Chris from shooting himself. A scuffle ensues, and assuming Chris is trying to hurt Jaden, the sniper takes aim and shoots.
We never learn who is shot, but at that point it's irrelevant to the message of the episode. The point is that this traumatic event happened, and it deeply affected the people involved. Yet as the song "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" plays over the end credits, we see people getting notifications about the event (likely saying "Tense Standoff Ends in Kidnapper's Death") and instead of pausing to read the particulars, or to feel bothered that someone is dead, they simply shrug it off and continue scrolling. One man even lets the notification distract him while he's driving.
Meanwhile Billy looks distraught for a moment, but then shuts his eyes and goes back to meditating. The ending is simultaneously an indictment of social media, its founders, and society's inability to muster a proper response to daily tragedies, as the 24-hour news cycle keeps our timelines flooded and our emotions muted.
In a video interview with IGN, showrunner Charlie Brooker said the episode is a commentary on the detachment we feel while using communication platforms:
"The wider point there was that we wanted to show that this is like the most important day in Chris' life. And in probably Jaden's life as well. You know it's like the most significant thing that's ever happened to either of them. And it's this huge drama for them and for everyone in that field and for all the people directly involved in that story. And yet, for the rest of the world, it is one more sort of push notification. One more little bit of confetti. One more little thing to glance at and go 'ooh,' and then go and sort of move on with their day."
There's a few messages that viewers can choose to take away from "Smithereens." One is the issue of gun violence, as breaking news of a mass shooting now barely registers more than a few "thoughts and prayers" tweets. Miami Herald writer Carl Hiaasen, who lost his brother in a 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper, recently mourned the state of media by pointing out some outlets don't even cover shootings now unless "the body count hits double digits."
The boys filming on the side of the road while the standoff occurred, only to finally look up from their screens when the shot rings out, can also be seen as a criticism of the modern day manifestation of the bystander effect. Recording injustices to post on Twitter is one of the ways that social media has been used to positively raise global awareness, but they've also created the problem of the disembodied bystander: a band of people simply recording an injustice, rather than actually trying to intervene, as you see in the case of David Dao being dragged off the United flight.
And then there's the issue of tech CEO accountability, and why Billy is so frustrating. Billy is both intelligent and powerful, and yet his answer to whether or not Smithereen can be redesigned to force users to be more socially aware and responsible is to shrug and return to his luxury silent retreat. His failure to promise to make any changes on behalf of the consumer (that may then affect the company's bottom line) mirrors IRL situations where politicians are now having to pass laws banning all phone use in the car, since distracted driving is more dangerous than drunk driving, while tech CEOs have done little to curb the use of their own products.
In the end, "Smithereens" leaves us with a terribly saddening message. The commonly used saying "blown to smithereens" means to break or destroy something into tiny, fragmentary pieces. These social media platforms were created as a way to share news, disseminate information, and connect people, but their overuse has now created the opposite effect, and Black Mirror tells us we're more broken than ever as a society and a nation.
Speaking to NPR, Hiaasen acknowledged that while people are desensitized to the onslaught of tragic news, "if we don't shine a light on it and write about it and react with some humanity and horror every time it happens, we'll never get past it. We'll never get better as a society."
"Smithereens," at the very least, accomplishes that goal.