Black Mirror is not known for subtlety.
Most of its episodes can be boiled down to the idea that technology is dangerous in the hands of the wrong people and that most people are, in fact, the wrong people. It’s taken shots at the military industrial complex, online shaming, reality television, virtual reality, and millennials not calling their moms enough.
Some of those episodes get their points across better than others, but Season 5’s “Smithereens” has the distinction of being the only Black Mirror episode to have no discernible point and to literally deify the CEO of a tech company.
With “Smithereens,” the show’s previous dedication to saying something, anything about technology and/or humanity is thrown out the window in favor of an absolute clusterfuck of mismatched ideas. “Smithereens” says distracted driving is a menace and rideshares are untrustworthy. It also says social media has more of your data than the government does and privacy is only important up until you die. But the weirdest, most bizarre of “Smithereens” big points is that… tech CEOs are Jesus.
To describe “Smithereens” simply, it’s the story of a man who really wants to make a phone call. The man is Chris, who kidnaps and threatens the life of an intern at a Twitter-like social media company named Smithereen. The phone call is to Billy Bower, the CEO of Smithereen, whom Chris blames for creating the addictive app he used before getting into a car accident a year before the episode’s events; in the accident, Chris crashed his car and killed both the drunk driver in the other vehicle as well as his own fiancée. He blames himself and Bower for the deaths, and wants a chance to tell Bower his story.
Spoiler alert: Chris gets his call. Then “Smithereens” gets really weird. When Bower, played by the eternally affable Topher Grace, appears as a character, he’s found meditating alone at an unplugged retreat in the middle of the desert. He’s a serene, slightly neurotic presence — legs crossed, eyes closed, with a strong physical resemblance to the Western idea of skinny white Jesus.
Surely the Christlike imagery around Billy Bower, which includes his immaculate white robes, humble-looking sandals, and his man bun, is meant to lampoon him as an archetype of all-powerful titans of Silicon Valley, but Bower’s place in the story never sufficiently cross over into the satirical realm. Aside from Jaden the intern, Bower is probably the nicest guy in “Smithereens,” so his insistence on performing the miracle of communication with Chris reads as a genuinely good deed.
Like Jesus, Bower just wanted to connect people and make the world a better place. At the end of the story, he shuts his eyes to grieve for the folly of man. By the time Bower activates “God mode” (yes, really) on his computer to get in contact with Chris, the heavy-handed comparisons are already overwrought and profoundly uncomfortable.
That’s, uh, not a great look for Black Mirror. Bower’s hippy-dippy retreat and alternative appearance remind the audience of real social media CEOs like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who also has a documented affinity for meditation and wellness. Bower’s upset over the state of his creation also reflects current headlines about Twitter’s lack of control over the hate speech on and ubiquity of his platform. By deifying Bower in all his hand-wringing glory, “Smithereens” lets his real-life analogues off the hook for the actual bad things social media has wrought.
That Black Mirror, which would toss social media moguls a softball appearance in its narrative, is completely bonkers.
In case it wasn’t obvious, that’s not how any of this works. The Dorseys and Zuckerbergs of the world have a greater responsibility to the public because of what they’ve made, and with social media’s rampant data leaks, fake news problem, Nazi infestation, and potential for perils yet undreamt of by polite society, they are in reality far removed from the naive and ostensibly benevolent Billy Bower. That Black Mirror, which has so cleverly interrogated humanity’s relationship to technology, would toss social media moguls a softball appearance in its narrative, is completely bonkers.
Because “Smithereens” refuses to skewer Bower and makes Chris, an actual criminal, the protagonist of the story, the episode proceeds without making a single point. Texting and driving sucks, but the other driver in Chris’s tragedy was drunk. Null point. Social media companies know everything about you, but Smithereen wields that terrible power to help apprehend a kidnapper. Null point. Random people around the world read the news of the episode’s final, fatal moment and seamlessly move on with their lives, but nobody gives a shit about anything in the episode. Who can blame them? Null point.
And about that final, fatal moment — the episode goes beyond mere pointlessness and becomes pointlessly cruel with its ending. As Jaden tries to save Chris from committing suicide, a police sniper takes a shot at the car and presumably kills one or both of the occupants. Whether Chris, Jaden, or both men die is left up to audience interpretation. So the audience must interpret if a mentally ill, grieving white dude dies or the cops shoot an innocent black man.
Because that’s what “Smithereens” needed: a coin toss where heads says “random police violence against black people” and tails says “they shot Andrew Scott.” Jesus-Bower reads the news and reacts briefly as if his heart was broken, then climbs back to his glassy desert hut to continue meditating. God closes his eyes on the people, and the episode ends.
Even the worst Black Mirror episodes have something to say about technology, but “Smithereens” says far too many things that fail to cohere into anything resembling a takeaway. When the most salient part of Black Mirror is a hilariously misguided Jesus metaphor, there’s not much else to say about the thought or quality of the installment.
Billy Bower does have one good idea, though: Instead of watching the nonsense that unfolds in this episode, just skip out and unplug. Man bun optional.