Black Mirror season 5: 'Smithereens' review – A thin premise that doesn't justify the running time

The Andrew Scott-starring episode has a moving ending but feels muted rather than subtle

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 05 June 2019 15:00
Black Mirror season 5: Smithereens trailer

The fifth series of Black Mirror is shorter than the previous two, with only three episodes rather than the six we have come to expect in the Netflix era. Officially this is because the interactive episode, “Bandersnatch”, the curious but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment that came out at the end of last year, took as much work as several regular episodes due to its multiple storylines. Watching “Smithereens”, however, I wonder if creators Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones and their team of writers might be flagging a bit. It must be tiring, all that technological pessimism.

Andrew Scott stars as an IT engineer, Chris, whose life has disintegrated after he was involved in a fatal car crash. The casting is fortunate. Even if Scott was a canny choice after his turns as Moriarty in Sherlock and Hamlet in, well, you know, nobody could have guessed how much attention he would get for his performance as the sexy priest in season two of Fleabag, which finished the other week. He inspired a thirst in critics and some viewers not seen in British TV since every episode of Luther.

Anyone expecting an equally twinkle-eyed effort here will be disappointed. Chris is a bag of frayed nerves, always on the verge of crisis, like a sweeter, Irish-lilted Travis Bickle. As the episode begins he is working as a driver for Hitcher, an Uber-type cab company, waiting for passengers to emerge from Smithereen, a Facebook-style internet company run by the enigmatic Billy Bauer (Topher Grace). Bauer was referenced in “Bandersnatch” in a news ticker along the bottom of the screen, another Easter egg for keen-eyed fans that proves much of the series takes place in the same universe.

Where his sexy priest shied from the act itself, his nervous cab driver hops straight into one-sided intercourse with a woman from his bereavement support group. The next day he picks up a smart-looking young man outside Smithereen and takes him prisoner. The police spot him and give chase, resulting in a standoff in a field in rural England. He’ll shoot the prisoner unless he is allowed to speak to Bauer, who is at a silent retreat in Utah, fleeing the destructive digital noise his firm has done so much to spread.

Before long, everyone is listening in, from Bauer the FBI to the local police to Bauer himself. This is the film’s theme: through likes and clicks and surveillance there is more information flying around than ever, but is anyone really hearing? A smithereen is a tiny fragment of something, the debris of an explosion: the firm’s users and also the information they post. A data point might be nothing, or it might contain a whole life. At one point, Bauer says that one of the few privileges of his position is occasionally being able to enter “God mode”.

By Black Mirror‘s standards it feels like a thin premise, and doesn’t build enough to justify a 70-minute running time. A sub-plot involving the dead daughter of the woman Chris meets at the start is undercooked and really Scott’s is the only developed character. He does his best and is never less than compelling, using that wonderful voice and those deep dark eyes to wring as much as sympathy as he can from the part.

In its finest episodes, “San Junipero” or “USS Callister”, Black Mirror has provided some of TV’s most thoughtful recent engagements with the implications of technology. You might have guessed from Brooker’s acid TV criticism that he could create nihilistic, acerbic scripts of his own, but not have suspected the humanity that has elevated Black Mirror‘s finest episodes. Despite a moving ending, “Smithereens” feels muted rather than subtle.

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