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Black Mirror steers into a skid, with mixed results

Photo: Stuart Hendry (Netflix)
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Possibly the most famous joke ever told about Black Mirror comes from Daniel Mallory Ortberg: “what if phones but too much.” It’s part of a larger piece skewering the show, but that one phrase in particular caught on. It summed up so much of what people had come to dislike about the series—that at heart, for all its flash and polish and buzz, it’s really just another cautionary tale from an old grump who doesn’t like where the future is headed. It’s a good joke (Ortberg’s pretty much always are), but one I always had to resist the urge to argue against. It’s too over-simplified, I wanted to say. The show has its flaws, but it’s a lot more interesting than something than can be summed up in six words.

Joke’s on me. Here’s “Smithereens,” which is about a guy who ruins his life by checking his cell phone at the wrong time. What if. But too much.

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There’s a little more to it than that, and I have a theory that the episode actually arrives at a different conclusion that it initially appears to, but, at least on a surface level, this one’s biggest flaw is in its climax. An hour (or more) running time has long been the bane of anthology series. What seems clever and gripping in 25 minutes can easily wear out its welcome if stretched to 50 or more, and a premise has to be very strong (or allow for unexpected turns) if it’s going to survive that much scrutiny. It’s a fact that Black Mirror has struggled with on occasion—if an idea is thin, tacking on another half hour isn’t going to do anything but try the audience’s patience.

Yet episodes like “Smithereeens” also demonstrate the advantage of that length. For most of its hour and change, it’s a slow burn mystery about a hostage situation. Chris (Andrew Scott, aka “Hot Priest” from Fleabag) is a quiet man who runs a Lyft-style service out of his car. We see him trying to stay calm through guided meditation; acting awkwardly (if not openly disturbed) in public; and attending group therapy grief counseling. A woman at the group picks him up and sleeps with him, and we learn about her daughter who committed suicide, and about how desperate the woman is to find the password to her daughter’s main social media account in order to get some answers. But we don’t really know anything about Chris beyond the clear signifiers that something is definitely up. (I don’t think we even get his name until much later.) We assume he’s lost someone because he’s going to the group, but he’s never spoken there before. And we assume he’s waiting for something because, well, we wouldn’t have an episode if he wasn’t.

All this plays out slowly and carefully, with Scott staying low-key with just a hint of strain. But while the pacing isn’t lightning quick, this doesn’t feel like wasted time. The episode works best when it just watches things unfold without offering obvious commentary. It’s vaguely reminiscent of something like Dog Day Afternoon, albeit on a much smaller scale, with a nervy, strained guy at the center making increasingly poor choices to achieve a goal we don’t immediately understand. He kidnaps someone he assumes has some level of influence at the Smithereen company, only to find out the guy is just a well-dressed intern on his first week at the job. He tries to shove the guy into the trunk of a car, but relents when the guy says he’s claustrophobic, which lets the cops spot him; which leads to a chase which ends up killing his car; and so on.

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It’s funny in a grim way, sort of Coen-light, and the time it takes for everything to unfold means there’s a low level of suspense that gradually increases in intensity throughout. The stakes are small, and it’s clear from the outset that Chris is probably not a psychopath. The tension comes less from wondering what horrible thing he’ll do next, and more from the knowledge that this sort of criminal activity always spirals out of control, and worrying how everything will inevitably fall apart. It’s entertaining to watch the situation spiral outward, first to the local police, then to the media, then to upper level Smithereen management and the FBI, and finally to Billy Bauer, the head of Smithereen himself. There’s little violence, and while there’s some discomfort at the speed with which the Smithereen personnel are able to hack into Chris’s life, no one is so actively unpleasant as to make this uncomfortable to watch. It’s just consistently engaging.

That engagement also raises interest in the episode’s big mystery: why Chris is doing what he’s doing, on the micro level; and on a macro level, why this is a Black Mirror episode at all. There’s technology, sure, but there’s nothing special about it. The names have been changed, but everything is similar to the general Internet presence most of us engage with daily. Because Smithereen is a stand-in for something like Facebook or Twitter, and because Chris is fixated on talking to the company founder, it’s clear this has something to say about… things. And it’s doubtful it’s positive. But for a long time, his motivations are left unspoken, which allows us to at least pretend they’re going to be unexpected.

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They aren’t, really. Oh, Scott sells the hell out of the confession scene (talking to Topher Grace, playing Bauer at his absolute Grace-iest), talking about the car accident that killed his fiancee, and how, while the accident was blamed on a drunk driver, he considers himself responsible because he was driving and checked a notification on his phone at the worst possible moment. He blames Smithereen for its impulsively addictive product, and Billy, whose portrayed as a sort of well-meaning, out-of-his-depth hippy type, agrees. He didn’t want it to be addictive, he says. But then the money people kept demanding more engagement and, well, you see the mess we’re all in.

This is boilerplate stuff, the sort of thing Andy Rooney might have complained about on an especially tragic 60 Minutes. (Is that still a reference anyone gets? Fuck I’m old.) Again: “what if phones but too much.” It’s tragic and there’s no doubt at the sincerity of Chris’s grief and self-loathing, but it’s also an anti-climax. To an extent, that’s just the nature of this sort of structure. By waiting so long to reveal the real reason this is happening, the episode gives us plenty of time to speculate, which makes it all the more disappointing when the most obvious speculation turns out to be true.

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That’s the obvious read, anyway: Black Mirror at its most pedantic and judgemental. Chris isn’t to blame, it’s all those horrible devices. People can’t enjoy a moment with staring at their phones. It was better in the old days, when you had to make eye contact with strangers and actually talk to people, etc, etc.

But it might be more complicated than that. It’s possible that the ultimate idea is that Smithereen and phones and the Internet aren’t explicitly to blame Chris’s problems. It’s more that he, and the woman desperate to unlock her daughter’s Persona account, and Billy Bauer himself, are desperate for a reason. For something explicit to point to and say “That’s it. That’s why the bad thing happened.” After all, it’s not as though people drove perfectly before phones existed. Chris could’ve been fiddling with the radio. He could’ve been looking the wrong way. He could’ve been tired and blinked for too long.

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If that sounds too generous on my part, there’s some context to back me up. The episode ends with Chris presumably getting shot while he and his hostage struggle with the gun; only they’re struggling because the hostage is trying to keep Chris from killing himself, and the shot comes from a police sniper who doesn’t understand the situation. Life is confusing with or without smart phones. During the end credits, we see scenes of people looking at their phones and then going about their regular lives. It doesn’t feel particularly ominous. Maybe the guy who’s checking his phone in the car is a reminder of the Horrible Danger, but someone behinds him honks their horn and no one is killed.

I honestly don’t know. The quality of the filmmaking in the episode, the strong performances, the slow burn, all lead me to want to think there’s more to this than the obvious, and fairly tedious, finger-wagging it seems to be. Because while Facebook and Twitter have certainly caused problems in the world, hearing the same old lecture about how we’re all just junkies for likes is old news, even if it may have some truth to it. It’s just not a satisfying story. There might be more going on, but if there is, it needed to be louder.

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Stray observations

  • Seeing Topher Grace pop up was fun, but Bauer is under-realized. “Well-meaning tech guy in over his head” seems a little too gentle in this day and age.
  • I think Brooker tends to flail as a writer when he has an idea that can’t fill a whole episode. (This season’s final entry is an excellent example of that.) For a while this one seemed to be leaning into the idea that Chris was too hapless and generous to be an effective kidnapper, but that goes by the wayside fairly quickly, because he needs to be good enough at what he’s doing in order for the the story to play out. The comedy of him picking the wrong victim seems initially a lot more important than it actually turns out to be, and in the end, he gets pretty much what he wanted out of the day. That makes the whole comedy routine of having everything go wrong at once seem a little out of place in retrospect, and yet it works—the focus of action is so narrow that everything ends up feeling like it belongs, even if it wasn’t precisely necessary. 
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