I haven’t talked about a Black Mirror episode in a while. I think I’ve done a few now – but my favorites definitely have been Playtest, and Bandersnatch for sure. I mean, if you are looking for mindjob episodes worth your time. Be careful with Bandersnatch as it cost me and a buddy several days of our lives as we were determined to experience every single option (we found ourselves basically coding cookie eradicators and cookie setters in order to make certain we were locking into certain paths and craziness ensued.) I digress. But! Today is another Dark Mirror episode. And if you are like me – you’ll be stoked about the conversation and the thoughts Dark Mirror forces, because explaining the ending of Black Mirror Smithereens might just unhinge you a little.
It’s rare to find many who are crafting thoughtful/thought provoking – and mind blowing films, let alone TV. But man, Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, is some of the best mindjobness happening around the world today. They are crafting magic on celluloid. Each episode is a philosophy of technology ethics doctoral degree…wrapped in a massively enjoyable 60 minute karate chop to the cranium.
Today is Black Mirror’s Episode Smithereens
The episode kicks off with Chris (played by Andrew Scott – whom you loved in Sherlock, but he also did a fantastic turn at a modern day Hamlet with BBC Two a couple years back – accompanied by Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey as Ophelia – which you should definitely check out if you get the chance) an Uber driver in London. But he seems to remain very close to the social network firm Smithereen. In the evening, he heads to group therapy that finds the members working through various heartbreaking circumstances in their past. Chris and Hayley (played by Amanda Drew) hook up after class, and Chris learns more about Hayley’s daughter who committed suicide. Chris finds out that Hayley has been using three guesses each day to find out her daughter’s Persona password. She is desperate to learn more about why her daughter died, and she is hopeful that the information inside Persona will give her the why she’s been trying to find out.
Then, a few days later, Chris picks up a rideshare in front of Smithereen with an intern named Jaden. The key here – Jaden, dressed in a suit – seemed really like he was an important executive. Which causes Chris to kidnap Jaden. But after Jaden tells Chris that he is claustrophobic, Chris decides not to put him in the trunk, but rather in the back seat with a bag over his head. But ultimately, it is this move, above all else, that causes Chris’ downfall. Why? Because a police officer sees Jaden in the back seat with the bag on his head. And after a car chase, Chris stalls his car in a field.
So now Chris has a standoff on his hands.
The question that percolates in everyone’s mind as the show unspools is what Chris ultimately wants. We know that he is hurting – he couldn’t bring himself to share at the group session – but we don’t know how or why. Eventually, Chris reveals that he wants to talk to Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), the high-flying CEO of Smithereen. Why does he want to talk to him, we don’t know. Then, after Chris calls Smithereen, the cops and Smithereen begin researching Chris and we learn that Chris lost his fiancé to a drunk driver. Which is really really sad. And maybe that is what is spiraling Chris out of control.
Eventually, after bouncing from continent to continent, the employees at Smithereen are able to finally get to Billy, who, ironically, is out at a solitary retreat and tech-fast. When Chris is able to talk to Billy, in a heart rending confession, he tells Billy that his fiancé didn’t die via drunk driver. But rather, he is the one at fault. Chris actually took his eyes off the road, when his phone notified him of a new post of a dog photo to his Smithereen stream. It was just a coincidence that the person Chris hit had a high blood alcohol level. So Chris has been living with this guilt for the past few years, and it’s ultimately, and literally, killing him. As a result of the crash, Chris stopped using Smithereen, as well as all other social media apps. Chris passionately appeals to Billy that he has built a drug that has hooked the entire world. Dopamine is release every time we get a like on one of our posts. Our body responds with natural drugs that cause us to be addicted to technology.
After Chris says his peace – Billy senses that Chris is about to commit suicide, and pleads with him to stop. Billy even goes so far as to ask if there is literally anything he can do to convince him otherwise. And in that moment, Chris realizes there is something that Billy can help him with. He then asks Billy if he knows anyone at Persona that could help Hayley out with her daughter’s password problem. And while we await the outcome of Chris’ life or death decision, a representative from Persona contacts Hayley and hands her, her daughter’s password to the system.
Now, the police on the scene have been itching to get a shot off since Chris showed them that the gun was working quite fantastically by firing it out the window. But they haven’t been able to get a clean shot because Jaden is sitting directly behind Chris. Now though, Jaden has slid out of the way as he attempts to also convince Chris not to kill himself. And after the sniper takes a shot, and misses, they are hoping for one final shot to shut this whole incident down. Billy and Jaden on the other hand, are desperate to stop Chris. And, as Hayley looks at the password – she notices, it’s the boat identifier behind a photo Hayley and her daughter. Ah, interesting. So as she logins in, simultaneously, the sniper is finally able to get his shot off, which, kills Chris, and ends the conflict.
But What Does It All Mean?
The simple answer here is that technology has actively addicted us to itself. And this addiction has very real and very painful repercussions. The least of which are the fact that society is voluntarily self-isolating from one another solely because of our collective chase of dopamine-inducing-likes. We receive a rush when people acknowledge our posts. And we have all been trained by social media to chase these responses. Worse, social media creates distractions that have caused real human beings to die. Chris’ fiancé a prime example.
The sad thing about this episode is that there are many people who have lost loved ones – worse! caused the loss of their loved ones – through social media distractions while driving. Hell, my family and I were hit by a driver going like 70 who admitted to me outright that he had been staring at his phone and had no idea we had stopped. Heck, 25% of all accidents are caused by this sort of distraction. But, if that is all that it is about, why bother? Why not just make a freaking public service announcement? Like, I don’t know – this super clever one?
There’s definitely more going on here than keeping teens from texting and driving. Did you notice that after Chris’ fiancé died, he had zero connection to anyone else around him? Why? Well, his parents were dead, sure, that is an answer. Thanks for that though. But he also shutdown his social media accounts right? He “disconnected”… FROM WHAT? Hold on just a second. Just stop right there. He didn’t commit suicide (well, not yet anyway), but we are going to say it’s his fault for “disconnecting”? In David Foster Wallace now infamous graduation speech that he gave to the 2005 class of Kenyon College, entitled This is Water, he told a story about two three fish. Two fish friends were swimming together when another fish swimming the other way says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” And the two fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” I’m a little concerned that we are so close this idea of everyone being connected as normal, it’s impossible to see being disconnected as anything other than abnormal. No?
Personally, I haven’t been actively engaged on Facebook for almost a decade. Instagram, about eight years. And so when I say, I’m disconnected from social media, my wife shouldn’t laugh in my face. But she does. Every time. Without fail. Why? Well, there’s Twitter. I do love me some Twitter. And Reddit. And oh, also, this is something of a social network as well – if only for me! hahah. To truly disconnect from the interwebs and all social media is a tricky thing these days. Social networks have become water to fish…they are ubiquitous and absolute. It’s almost a requirement for survival in today’s cultural worlds. I remember when I initially took the death defying step of walking away from Facebook, 90% of my conversations at work went something like this: “Did you see that post about the A-Team I posted last week well… Oh, no, you aren’t on Facebook are you? Oh, never mind.” It was awesome. But poor Chris! This would be infinitely worse. To ostracize yourself actively and intentionally because you believe the underlying technology to be horrifyingly evil? I mean, if that isn’t the definition of becoming a pariah I don’t know what is.
But What About That Ending?
As we steamroll through to the end, the sniper is attempting to get a shot off on Chris, but Jaden is in the line of flight for the bullet. And the moment the shot is fired, the show cuts away. We literally have no idea if Chris dies. Or if Jaden dies. Or both. None. So that is problem number one.
Then, immediately following the sniper’s shot, word ripples around the world like wildfire. Wait, faster. It ricochets around the world at the speed of light. Fiber careens the news to phones in pockets, and on billboards, and on news networks, instantly. Everyone sees the news, it flickers, and then dies just as quickly as it came. Did you catch that?? A human life, Chris’, Jaden’s, it doesn’t really matter, held our attention collectively to the tune of 2 seconds and then was gone. Chris is utterly incensed at the dehumanizing effect that technology has had on each and every one of us in the world. (I’ve got a working theory that the downfall of Western Civilization will be traced back to the technological advancement of the automatic garage door opener – but we can talk about this run away rabbit trail another day. Come on! It’s obvious! Don’t look at me that way! If you never get out of your car, you just drive straight into your house, you aren’t required to make your pleasantries with the neighbors. We live exclusively within our own abodes, never bothering to step outside! Yes, I know, brilliant. THANK YOU. Took you long enough! hahahah.) But seriously, he hates what he has become, what he is a part of. The hamster wheel that is the technological feedback loop that drives itself to get more info, so we can forget more info, so we can get more info.
But then there is also Billy Bauer. The story of the creator of the world famous social network inventor. We see that he has created a monster. He even admits to Chris that there is nothing he can do to change it. He’s tried. Heck! He’s out in the desert for a tech-fast for heaven’s sake! He, of all people, realizes just how horrible his tech has become. Why else would he actively avoid technology for such a prolonged duration. But how many of us have the means for pulling off a disengagement like that? We are too busy just making ends meet to slow down enough to realize we have been forcefully addicted to this technology.
Personally, I believe that Chris was shot in the end. I believe that Chris died as something of a Christ figure for Hayley. At the exact moment that the shot is fired, Hayley opens her daughter’s social network, and hopefully the answer she was looking for. Heck, the password itself tells us what we want to know – that Hayley’s daughter loved her dearly, and her death was not a reflection on her mother, or their relationship at all. But it was Chris’ sacrifice that ultimately made this knowledge possible. It was Chris, who sacrificed himself to this world’s careless newsfeeds, that ultimately made another human’s life brighter. Did you catch that?
Chris saw Hayley’s desperate need. Chris genuinely interacted with a person in need. Remembered her. And sacrificed on her behalf. Gave himself for another. I can’t remember the last time I gave a second glance for someone, let alone, an actual sacrifice for another human. Chris is calling us to consider the humans beside us. To give. To share. To notice. To care. That is what Smithereens really is all about.
Edited by: CY