The popularity of Black Mirror is largely connected to its sci-fi twists. From uploading brains into a heavenly cloud in “San Junipero” to a husband resurrected as a literal robot in “Be Right Back,” historically, the highest emotional highs of the show have been accompanied by relatable, but definitely out there concepts. Then again, some great Black Mirrors don’t have any sci-fi in them at all, and in season 5 of the Netflix series, the best episode is also the one that is the most realistic. In “Smithereens,” a man (Andrew Scott) blames a fictional social media company — Smithereens — for a huge tragedy in his life, and carries out a complex kidnapping scheme just so the founder of the company (Topher Grace ) will listen to him.
But what happened in those final moments? And is screen time the real villain here or something else?
Spoilers ahead for Black Mirror season 5, episode 2, “Smithereens.”
In 2016, distracted driving was blamed for 3,450 deaths in the United States. And from, 2010 to 2014 the number of children who died in car accidents was 2, 884. The bottom line is a lot of people drive around while looking at their phones, which includes, statistically, probably half of all parents everywhere. This fact is central to the conflict of “Smithereens,” because we learn that the cabbie, turned kidnapper, Chris, lost his fiancée in a car accident because he looked at his phone. In some sense, he blames the founder of Smithereens, Billy Bauer, a kind of Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. And so, Chris kidnaps an intern (Damson Idris) from the social media company that sent the alert to his phone and demands to be heard. Naturally, this leads to an intense stand-off with the police, complete with sniper rifles, and various experts from the social media company on the phone.
In some ways, it’s shocking something like this hasn’t happened in real life. It stands to reason that someone who has lost a loved one because of distracted driving might blame Mark Zuckerberg. But smartly, Black Mirror splits the difference and has Chris blaming himself and the technology. He knows he was addicted to screen time, but also felt like he couldn’t do anything about it. Why did Chris look at his phone while driving? Probably the same reason you have: you were bored.
Parents in particular will and should be affected by this episode. Not because it blames phones and social media for the deaths of people in cars, but because it poignantly, and accurately, describes just how little time it takes for an accident like that to happen, and how omnipresent this issue is in our lives all the time.
The episode ends as the police standoff comes to head. Chris has a gun, but he’s not planning on using it on the hostage from the tech company. Instead, he plans to shoot himself. But, the intern tries to stop him from taking his own life. The police take the shot, and it’s unclear who was killed. Was it the kidnapped or the kidnapper?
Which, when it comes to the dangers of screen time, relative to distracted driving, it’s the same. Everyone with phone addiction, or bad screen time habits, or whatever you want to call it, are both the kidnapped and the kidnapper of our attention spans. And, we owe it to our children to do better.
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Did the sniper take out Chris or the innocent intern in the ending of this episode? Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, series creator Charlie Brooker said: ” Really it was about how this massive drama — this most important day in several people’s lives — was reduced to ephemeral confetti that just passes us by; just one more little crouton of a notification.”
So, the fact that we don’t know what happens is almost surely the point.
Black Mirror season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.