Spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “Smithereens” follow below.
Viewers of Black Mirror are certainly no stranger to ambiguous or bleak endings, but one of the Season 5 episodes leaves things on a slightly less clear note than usual. Black Mirror: Smithereens tackles social media culture—more specifically humanity’s obsession with staring at their phones day-in and day-out, especially when prompted by notifications. The hourlong episode follows a clearly unwell man named Chris (Andrew Scott) who holds the employee (Damson Idris) of a Twitter-like company called Smithereen hostage, demanding to speak to the company’s CEO and founder Billy (Topher Grace).
As the hostage situation grows more tense, and as the authorities think they have it under control, the audience becomes aware that the executives at Smithereen have far more information than the police. They’re not only able to track Chris’s profile changes to determine what he may be upset about, but they can tap into the app on his phone to listen into his conversation with the young employee Jaden. This should be Red Flag #1 that the “theme” of this episode has something to do with the social media industry.
As the episode progresses, it’s clear that Chris is distraught and doesn’t wish to cause Jaden any harm. He just wants to speak with Billy. Why? As it turns out, Chris’s fiancé was killed in a car accident months back, which also killed the driver of the other vehicle. The other driver was drunk and thus blamed for the crash, but when Chris finally gets Billy on the phone, he confesses that he was the cause of the crash. All because he was bored and a Smithereen notification popped up on his phone, prompting him to take his eyes off the road. The drunk driver wasn’t responsible for the death of Chris’s fiancé. Chris was. And he’s been stewing silently in his guilt ever since.
This confession comes towards the end of Smithereens, after Billy (who very much resembles Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, right down to the “silent retreat” getaway) seemingly drops his façade of faux empathy and confesses to Chris that he never wanted Smithereen to become so big, blaming the continual drive towards engagement and responsibility to shareholders for why the app’s addictive nature got out of hand. Chris stops Billy mid-rant to say he doesn’t care what Billy has to say, and doesn’t even care if he changes the app to make it less addictive. He just wanted to confess his responsibility to the person who created the app that indirectly killed his fiancé.
In the final moments of Smithereens, Chris has said his piece and is ready to let Jaden go free, but once it becomes clear that he intends to commit suicide in the car, Jaden hesitates. He’s come to empathize with Chris’s pain, and while Chris probably shouldn’t have taken him hostage, it’s clear now that he never intended to hurt anyone but himself. So Jaden decides to try and wrangle the gun free from Chris’s grasp, and a struggle ensues. All the while, the cops nearby have a gun pointed on the car, ready to take Chris out.
The struggle continues, the shot is far from clean, and then we hear the gunshot. But we don’t see who gets hit. Instead, the episode cuts to a montage of people checking their Smithereens app, reading the news of this terrifying incident—and presumably the outcome. Billy looks upset, but then resumes his silent retreat. Business as usual. One by one, we see strangers checking their phones, seemingly being notified that at least one man has been killed after what the audience has witnessed as an intense and unsettling ordeal, but they barely respond to the update. It’s just noise. They move on with their day.
Indeed, this is the point. We as a society have become so desensitized to violence—and gun violence especially—that we get these alerts of these horrific events, but then just go on about our day. The constant notifications for everything from a new movie trailer to a celebrity going to rehab all mesh together, to the point that a notification regarding a real-life tragedy simply blends in. There’s no delineation, and there’s no onus on us to do anything but clear the notification and move on.
The Smithereens ending is fittingly bleak for Black Mirror, but especially resonant in today’s culture. You may be left wondering who got shot at the end of the episode, and what happened next, but the episode itself doesn’t give you the satisfaction. It underlines how trivial this whole event would be treated in the real world, when media outlets and social media conglomerates are pushing a new story every 20 minutes to increase engagement.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that by March 6, 2019, more Americans had been shot to death this year than died on D-Day in World War II. Every day a new tragedy. Every day a new notification. Every day it seemingly becomes easier to ignore the horrors of our world and move on with our day.