A lot of debate has been surrounding Black Mirror’s much-awaited season; the success over the last 4 left eager fans in much deliberation regarding the series’s ability to at least sustain or even top their own streak with even darker, grimly tantalizing, mind-blowing content. I, for one, did not watch it on its debut week but only about a month later and it’s chilling to know that was enough time for much controversiality to spark regarding whether it “lived up” to its previous seasons. Based purely on hearsay, there was word going around that it plainly sucked. Admittedly, I was rather beguiled into thinking that maybe the hair-standing content they’ve been making is starting to take a turn and the capitalist Devil was doing its work to make film creators create stories to please the masses. TLDR: I thought it would look forced. But boy was I glad I gave it a chance nevertheless and eventually made time to get myself in the game.
Out of the 3-episode fifth season, Smithereens was largely criticized to have one of the series’s “worst ending”. I beg to differ. I thought it was ingenious and felt like it was impertinent of me to not defend it. That aside, my fried-to-nuts brain uncovered a couple of theories that I just had to pen down lest I forget (or maybe it’s just a sorry personal excuse of mine to get something done because I won’t know when the next time these many ideas would come from my plain Jane/average Joe brain). Sorry if you had sit through two long paragraphs, but here’s where I will start. Spoiler-alert, you have been warned.
I thought Smithereens stood out because of its simplicity in comparison to other episodes. No convoluted plot line, no fancy futuristic or technological gimmicks — just the plain old human life. It’s real. And no I do not refer to the mind-blowing feeling of how something has the capacity to be real, in this case, this episode’s realness in irrefutably unrivaled. Before you die-hard BM worshippers start flaming me about the overuse of the word ‘real’ (like pffft duh it’s real what else could it be?) — let me explain. I mean cinematography aside — the plot was one of the most emotional and relatable ones of today. Yes, I get that generally, Black Mirror stories thrive on the feeling that sits between creepy and “omg yeah it’s happening”, but more than ever, Smithereens does not only look real, it is real. Its ending — whether it fulfills you (plebeian) plot-seekers’ satisfaction or not, is something that could not have been expressed any other way possible without compromising its “realness”. I thought James Hawes and Charlie Brooker did an amazing job.
Here’s my take — Charlie’s character starts off as your quintessential pseudo-Uber driver. We see a bit of a creep in him at the beginning during the close-up of his borderline psychotic eyes in his rear-view mirror reflection whenever his passengers come on, and also how he never fails to ask them whether they work at the social media tech-giant, ‘Smithereen’. We are then given a peek into his personal world that surrounds driving, focus-group sessions which foreshadow his complexity, and seemingly callous one-night-stands. The directors present Charlie as a lone man from the start, even his encounters (sexual included) are emotionless and have no strings attached. Our first real exposure to Charlie’s vulnerability is through his anxiety (or frustration) with people being glued to their phones — with that small sequence in a diner enough to warrant Charlie as the outsider of the narrative society. Long story short: Charlie parks his car just outside the Smithereen’s UK office every day in hopes to pick up a Smithereen employee, of whom he will hold hostage until he gets his victim to connect him with the company’s owner — Billy Bauer.
Almost halfway into the episode I was honestly starting to feel apprehensive about the direction of the episode. I was nearly convinced that this was a whole cat-and-mouse game between Charlie, the police and an unknown perpetrator that will never be revealed; and how victim negligence champions at the end of the day due to an increasingly desensitized society overly glossing problems. I also assumed the police and the board members of Smithereen will see the kidnapping as a prank, and eventually deduce to ignore it which would therefore result in the death of an innocent intern. But I guess at that point all I really wanted to know was what Charlie wanted from Billy Bauer (and what exactly happened to drive Charlie to the point of attempted murder).
Some of you may hate Charlie, but his character is what I would describe akin to a sacrificial lamb. He bore the brunt of our obsession with social media, and he paid the price for the society’s ignorance. What he did was wrong, but I can empathize that he is merely a human being with human emotions who just so happened to be (for all the better) aware of his victimization to social media. He was fueled with guilt, and hate. Seeing how people are so desensitized pissed the dude off big time. All he wanted was to get his voiced heard in whatever way possible — but he’s smart, he knows his audience, and that’s Billy Bauer. Sure, kidnapping and attempted murder may have been an extreme way to show it, but hey, that’s Black Mirror; and who knows what humans are capable of doing when pushed to their limits.
While Charlie claims to have always wanted to let Jaden (the kidnapped intern) off after speaking to Billy, we never know if the latter really got away. Turns out, Charlie just wanted the man behind Smithereen to know of the danger of social media (and also for a good excuse to ugly-cry and let out his grievances). He channeled his guilt through a confessional phone call that brought attention to the consequences of being constantly “connected” to social media. The death of his girlfriend symbolically portrayed social media’s danger: online presence can be created at the expense of human presence. Charlie confessed to Billy that he was responsible for the car accident that killed not only his beloved then-girlfriend, but also 2 people in the other car — all because he glanced at his phone notifications while driving. Of the 2 victims, one was drunk and automatically became the scapegoat for the accident. Charlie could not live with that guilt, and turns out he was planning to end it all after one last phone call.
The final sequence was what topped it for me. The jump-cuts in the cinematography is well-timed to aptly merge personal and social worlds in the narrative, making what seemed to be an isolated event in a far-away pastoral corner to the common world of today, bleed into the modern social world. While Jaden and Charlie were fighting over the gun in the car, we see one world where a man is fighting with his own conscience of guilt and morality. Outside the car, is another world which I would perceive as the state, or any governing body that supposedly polices what we can or cannot do. They put us in place. The two teenage boys represent the rest of society. And like their role, they are by-standers, so is the rest of society. And this is what scares me. They do absolutely nothing, but “live” update their social media regarding the events that unfold even though they could have played an integral role. Their role connects the unknown to the rest of the world (as seen in the feed updates and the hashtags). While that on its own makes them a powerful figure, they are completely desensitized to the fact that someone is about to die. They are personifications of our own online presence, and this is made concrete during the final sequence when the gun shot is heard — the scene cuts to people receiving a notification (presumably about the outcome of the kidnapping that results in at least 1 death) and they continue going about their daily lives as if nothing ever happened. Like the teenage boys at the kidnapping scene, society is desensitized to violence — as long as it doesn’t happen to them.
Which precisely makes the ending exquisite. We never know if Charlie dies, or if the sniper once again missed a shot and kills Jaden instead. Regardless of the outcome, people will still react the same way — unbothered. So does it matter who dies? No, because likewise, us as viewers will still continue on despite knowing. This is why the teenage boys were important character insertions into the narrative because they are literally the only thing that bridges the narrative reality of the kidnap scene, the narrative reality of the city life where people were getting updates of the kidnap, and the real world of the audience. As witnesses, they possess carte blanche — full discretionary power to act in any way possible, but they chose to watch from the side, imbued with all online power but did nothing other than update social media and draw attention to a problem they have no hand in. Meanwhile, Charlie, who has all cards stacked up against him — with the police on his back, the FBI monitoring his every move, still choose to do everything he could to make that one phone call in hopes to make a difference. While the whole episode might seem stalling or plot-thin, isn’t that the whole point? Everyone else is a by-stander, refusing or waiting to for someone to do something that they could have done sooner but are too socially programmed not to.
Perhaps the only solace is knowing — people want to know. Take Hayley, she wanted to know and was willing to do everything to find out why her daughter killed herself. But at what cost? For her case, perhaps knowing is closure. When the gun-shot is fired, the scene is cleverly edited for the sound of the gun-shot to coincide with her finger pressing the ‘enter’ button to her late-daughter’s social media page. But for the rest of society? Knowledge is obsolete. When Penelope knew about the kidnap, was her priority to contact Billy? No. She even stopped Billy from contacting Charlie when he wanted to. When the police knew about the gun being real, did they immediately approve a sniper shot to ensure Jaden’s safety? No. The cherry on top was: when Billy knew about the situation, did he do his best to alleviate it? Yes, but after the he receives the news about the outcome following the gun-shot, he immediately resumes his meditation like nothing ever happened.
So, what exactly is the use of knowing? The characters knew what happened, and are still desensitized to it. What makes you think, that as viewers, the filmmakers were going to give you that satisfaction only to know that you probably will not do anything with it? This is precisely why I feel that the open-ended ending was the perfect metaphor to express the futility of knowledge that in this case — it really is not important.
While this episode may have ended in a rather grim outcome, we can take comfort in Jaden’s character. As the only person (other than Charlie) who has ever experienced a real encounter with violence, he eventually sympathizes with Charlie, even sacrificing his own freedom by refusing to leave the car just to make sure Charlie doesn’t kill himself.
So where does this leave us? I don’t know exactly. But I do know this episode resonates even more so today because of our obsession with social media. Unlike Nosedive, this episode addresses social media’s problems without having its narrative strapped to technology. If you’ve read 1984 by George Orwell, social media in Smithereens reminds me of Big Brother — the all-knowing and omnipotent entity that is silently lethal through means of brainwashing. Forgive the crazy amount of words and theories, I just had to put these thoughts into words because I thought this was one of the most powerful episodes of the whole Black Mirror series and I disagree that the ending was bad. I absolutely loved it. I do not aim to concretely answer questions because the I believe the unanswerable is our first step to progressing as individuals and as humanity. But that’s just my Lit tendencies jumping out haha. While these are just some thoughts, I hope I’ve at least cracked something by shedding light onto how I thought Smithereens was truly a humanly real, exquisite piece of work.