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Recap / Black Mirror: Smithereens

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Series Five
Striking VipersSmithereensRachel, Jack and Ashley Too

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"Everywhere you look, people are hooked on the things! It's like chain smoking!"

"It was like, it was one thing when I started it and then it just — I don't know, it just became this whole other fucking thing."
Billy Bauer
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A rideshare driver takes hostage an employee of Smithereen, a large social media company, demanding to speak with the CEO of the company. Meanwhile, the local police attempt to keep the hostage situation under control, while also trying to piece the hostage taker's past together by examining his social media profile, hoping that they might be able to figure out a motive for his crime.

Starring Andrew Scott as Christopher Gillhaney and Topher Grace as Billy Bauer, with Ryuichi Sakamoto providing the original soundtrack.


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Tropes related to Smithereens

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The only episode — the standalone film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch notwithstanding — known to actually take place before its release, it's set in 2018 with limited tech, reinforcing the tech-addict sentiment as well as depicting the reality of Big Data in the present.
  • All for Nothing: The implication of the Downer Ending. Whatever the outcome was for Jaden and Christopher personally, the ending shows that in the wider world nothing changed. All the smartphone addicts who'd been glued to the hostage situation go back to their routines. Billy Bauer returns to his meditation, leaving it ambiguous if Christopher's story really affected him — and even if it did, he told us he doesn't think he has any power to change what Smithereen has become, even if he quits the company. Even Christopher's Last Request to get Hayley the password to her daughter's account turns out to be something she likely would've figured out by trial and error on her own eventually. Christopher openly admits this, that he has no actual demands to make of Billy and doesn't care what Billy does after he hears his story, all he wanted was to be heard.
  • Ambiguous Ending:
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    • Either Chris or Jaden died. Which one is never made clear, but we know from Billy's reaction that it isn't good, but one of them survives.
    • Hayley gets into her daughter's Persona account, but it's never revealed if it holds any clues as to her motives or state of mind prior to her suicide.
  • The Atoner: Subverted. Chris acts like this is his motive, but he eventually admits that he doesn't believe he can be redeemed. When Billy protests that making changes to keep Tamsin's death from happening again is beyond his power now, Chris reveals he doesn't even care about that. All he wanted was to unburden his conscience before he died.
  • Be All My Sins Remembered: Chris was responsible for killing his fiance in a car crash, as he was focused on his phone instead of the road while driving them home one night. But the driver of the other car was drunk, and also died in the accident, so he got the blame while Chris received nothing but sympathy and support from his family and friends, which only made him feel more ashamed about what happened.
  • Benevolent Boss: Billy Bauer of Smithereens is portrayed as a genuine, good-hearted boss. He is both polite and courteous to his staff, and seems to genuinely want to speak to Chris in order to help resolve the hostage situation.
  • Berserk Button: Christopher hates social media and tech culture in general, so much so that being around people using their phones or hearing a phone notification go off is an anxiety trigger for him.
  • Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics: After the sniper takes his first shot at Chris, the bullet hole it leaves in the windshield is far too high to fit the path his bullet would've taken. He would have to have fired from at least the first floor of a nearby building to hit at such an angle, not from ground level as he did.
  • Blindfolded Trip: Chris tells Jaden to put a bag on his head for the trip. It makes little sense as a precaution knowing that Chris planned to kill himself anyway.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The whole point of the episode.
  • Call-Back: A less obvious callback, but this is the second episode whose plot is triggered by a car crash, after "Be Right Back". Both episodes deal heavily with social media, only with different uses.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • From the beginning of the episode, it's clear that Chris has some kind of history with the Smithereen social media service, and later on the police find out his day job used to be teaching kids to code. The fact that he's a geek and a former heavy user of Smithereen prior to his current grievance against it comes up in the thriller plot — he's savvy enough to know that Smithereen (like Twitter in real life) will give him an ongoing, unfiltered look at the hostage situation from an outside POV, something the cops themselves utterly fail to take into account in their strategy even though the Smithereen staff can see he's logged on.
    • Played with with Chris' literal gun. From the beginning, the cops speculate it's a fake, and he tells Jaden it's a fake in order to try to calm him down, but Genre Savvy viewers will predict that he's lying and that the cops' attempt to arrest him will lead to it going off.
  • Claustrophobia: Chris initially intends to make Jaden ride to their destination in the trunk of the car, and it's only Jaden's screaming panic attack at being in a confined place that makes him Pet the Dog and let him ride in the backseat. This is what gets them caught.
  • Clueless Boss: Legendary Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer turns out to be this stereotype. His COO, Penelope Wu, is the one who really runs the company (with ruthless efficiency), while he fucks around doing press and going on retreats contemplating his urge to quit the company entirely. Ironically, this makes Christopher's doomed, quixotic quest to speak to him personally more appropriate — of all the people involved in Smithereen's top brass, only its original founder is enough of a regular human being to listen to Christopher and openly take responsibility for the company's role in his tragic life, regardless of the legal or PR consequences.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • A location Chris picks up a customer from is called Skillane Street, a reference to Victoria Skillane from the episode "White Bear". Other locations shown on the Hitcher app map include a restaurant called Raiman's, a reference to Raiman in "Men Against Fire" and the Bandersnatch Theatre, a reference to the interactive standalone "Bandersnatch".
    • The social feed seen on the large screens in the Smithereen London Office makes reference to:
      • Prime Minister Michael Callow from "The National Anthem" meeting with EU negotiators. Hashtags #oinkoinkcallow and #snoutgate obliquely reference the pig incident in that episode.
      • Game company Saito Gemu from "Playtest".
      • The television series "Sea of Tranquility", which was mentioned in both "The National Anthem" and "Nosedive".
      • An industrial strike at St. Junipers, a reference to "San Junipero", "Black Museum" and the doctor's surgery seen in "Bandersnatch".
      • Tucker, likely a reference to Tuckersoft and TCKR Systems seen in both "Bandersnatch", "San Junipero" and "Black Museum".
      • Ashley O playing at the Wembley Stadium.
    • The gas station PC Najma Haque and PC Damien Bullen are fuelling up at is a BRB Connect, a chain previously seen in the USA in "Black Museum".
    • The police callsign for PC's Haque and Bullen is Sierra Juliet (SJ), a reference to the episode "San Junipero".
    • UKN, the national British news network seen in most episodes provides primary coverage of the hostage situation.
    • The UKN website page looked at by Penelope Wu showing details of the car crash that killed Chris Gillhaney's fiancee includes:
      • An article noting a severe decline in the bee population, a reference to "Hated in the Nation" where such a problem was resolved with Automated Drone Insects (ADIs).
      • A reference to Prime Minister Michael Callow from "The National Anthem" seeking confidence in his cabinet.
      • References to the Cookie, the data cloning device first seen in "White Christmas", and later referenced in "Shut Up and Dance" and "Hated in the Nation".
    • An empty pizza box from Fences Pizza is seen in Christopher's house, a brand previously seen in "Crocodile" and "USS Callister".
    • There was a Call-Forward to this episode in "Bandersnatch", with a news feed announcing that Billy Bauer was in talks with the US government over the issue of Russian bots (mirroring a real-life controversy over Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter).
    • An article about a blackmail victim being found dead in their car is shown, potentially a reference to the severe blackmail inflicted on victims in "Shut Up and Dance".
  • Contrived Coincidence: For all the emphasis this episode puts on the ubiquitous technological surveillance we live with, the Spanner in the Works that initially gets Chris caught is a very old-fashioned one — he happens to drive past a gas station where a sharp-eyed cop picking up snacks notices something not right through the window.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Downplayed, but Billy mentions that Smithereen has an entire team of experts researching ways to make the app even more addictive to users than it already is.
  • Cutting the Knot: In-universe. Hayley's daughter's Persona account password was right in front of her the whole time, and it's strongly implied she was about to get it (looking for a letter-number combination, she's moved onto things related to a holiday, showing a photo of the holiday on a boat: the password is the boat's code name), but she is ultimately given it outright as a favor when Christopher gets Billy Bauer to make a call to the Persona CEO. This fact kind of undermines Christopher's last request.
  • Death Seeker: Christopher had absolutely no intention of surviving this encounter, one way or another. It's implied that he originally obtained the pistol he uses for the purpose of committing suicide, but hatched this hostage-taking scheme because he became obsessed with the idea that he couldn't die before telling Billy Bauer his story. His Madness Mantra he uses to calm himself down turns out to be reassuring himself that no matter what happens, he's going to die today.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Chris passed it a long time ago, when his fiancée died in 2015.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: The episode makes a point of showing how far the so-called social networks have moved away from their original goal of connecting people to just regarding their users as data cows to be milked for all they're worth. Smithereen's top management couldn't act more antisocial if they tried, being concerned with nothing but profit and PR, and the one person among them who does still care about people is powerless to do anything about it.
  • FBI Agent: Special Agent Ernesto Cruz from the San Francisco Field Office liaises with both Smithereen and Chief Superintendent Linda Grace during the hostage situation.
  • Fictional Counterpart:
    • Greater London Police stands in for the real-life Metropolitan Police.
    • Persona is an obviously fictional equivalent to Facebook.
    • Hitcher, the rideshare company Chris works for, is a fictional equivalent to the real-life rideshare app Uber.
    • Smithereen appears to be similar to Twitter or Facebook.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Before the main plot kicks off we're shown that Chris is a member of a grief counseling support group who regularly attends and listens to others' stories but never shares his own. Turns out he's decided the only person he can tell his story to is Billy Bauer.
    • During the meeting, we see Chris is very uncomfortable listening to Hayley talk about her daughter's suicide, and the effect it had on her. Chris himself is suicidal, and has already put his plan into motion.
  • Freak Out: Chris is basically having one long freakout throughout the course of this episode, but it gets particularly bad when Jaden tells him he's just a kid with no power at the company — both realizing he's fucked up his one shot at achieving his goal and that he's now committed to traumatizing and brutalizing an innocent bystander.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: All over the place with the references and callbacks.
  • Gun Struggle: At the end, Jaden tries to talk Chris out of killing himself and even tries to wrestle the gun out of his hands.
  • Hate Sink: David Gilkes, the hostage negotiator, is technically just doing his job (albeit not very skillfully). However, his self-obsessed attitude and the impression that he's more concerned with showing how smart he is than with saving lives makes him the only truly unlikable character in an episode where everyone is otherwise sympathetic.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The password to Hayley's daughter's Persona account is the registration number of the sailboat they'd taken a vacation on, clearly visible in the photo of the two of them Hayley keeps by her bed.
  • Hollywood Hacking: A minor example but one that sticks out for anyone who's been in a similar situation: If they're following modern info-sec best practices, Hayley's daughter's actual password shouldn't be stored in plaintext anywhere on Persona's servers; "God Mode" would let the company give Hayley a link to reset the password, but not tell her what the original password was.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Deconstructed with Billy Bauer — he's a Benevolent Boss to all his employees no matter how low they are on the corporate ladder and seems genuinely heartbroken by Chris' story, but with how massive Smithereen has become, he doesn't really have any real power in the company anymore and has effectively been reduced to a "face" and figurehead at this point.
  • Hostage Situation: Chris takes Jaden, an intern from Smithereen, hostage in order to be able to demand to speak with the CEO of the company.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • There's some major op-sec failures by both sides of the standoff — it's more forgivable for Chris who, however smart he is, is not a hardened criminal and not in the most stable frame of mind, less so for the actual police. Notably, disaster ensues when Chris lets slip the lie that his gun isn't real to the cops — because of the extremely amateurish error of not muting his own phone mic while he's on hold. However, he discovers this mistake because of the cops' even bigger mistake of letting random civilian bystanders — bystanders who openly have their phones out and are obviously posting on social media — close enough to an active crime scene to overhear their own radio chatter.
    • A big point is made of the police snipers being unable to get a clear shot at Chris because Jaden's head is always in the line of fire. However, Chris' car is standing in the middle of a wide open field with at least a hundred meters of nothing in almost any direction. The snipers could've relocated to literally anywhere at any time to get a better shot, but instead they stay rooted to the same spot for the entirety of their deployment.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Chris's fiancee, Tamsin, who died in a car accident. Literally. While a drunk driver became The Scapegoat, Chris holds himself responsible for being distracted.
  • Impossible Task: The theme of this episode is people holding onto grief by setting themselves one. We're introduced to the idea with Hailey trying to brute force her way into her daughter's Persona account to try to get answers about her death. Chris is the reverse — he knows the reason for his fiancée's death and has decided he can't move on until the secretive CEO of Smithereen himself has also heard it.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Billy's subordinates and their FBI liaison are depicted as Obstructive Bureaucrats who only prolong the situation by stringing Chris along and dragging their feet on getting Billy involved. But it turns out they were right that no one could predict what Chris would do when his demands were met and he might follow the phone conversation by turning the gun on someone now that he has nothing to lose. They just didn't know that person was himself.
    • The FBI and Smithereen's other concerns that if you give an extortionist what they want their demands might escalate and you have no way of holding them to their end of the bargain are also perfectly justified... As we saw vividly demonstrated on a past episode of this very show.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Averted. Despite the whole hostage situation taking place just outside of London in the Oxfordshire village of Ewelme, the local Oxfordshire police appear to allow the Greater London Police to take control of and engage with the situation fully.note 
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The police hostage negotiator David Gilkes, who wastes no time jumping to conclusions from the information the Smithereen team gathered on Christopher to put together a totally incorrect Driven by Envy portrait of his motivations (that he feels bad because his life is a failure and wants to be Billy Bauer), and thinks he's got a foolproof strategy for talking him down. Unfortunately, Christopher is Genre Savvy enough to know that talking to a police hostage negotiator at all is a mistake if he actually plans on getting what he wants.
  • Last Request: Billy is so distressed by the thought that Christopher is about to kill himself after their conversation that he begs Christopher to tell him some request he can grant him, however small. As a last Pet the Dog moment, Christopher uses this wish on behalf of his one-night stand, Hayley.
  • Lima Syndrome: Downplayed, but it's pretty clear that Chris envisioned Jaden was higher up on the corporate latter and when he turns out to be a kind, normal intern in his early 20s, he freaks out and no longer threatens to hurt Jaden to his face. Although he states that he will kill Jaden to the police and Smithereen staff, it's clear it's a bluff.
  • Madness Mantra: "This is my last day... This is my last day..."
  • Messianic Archetype: When we finally see Billy Bauer at his meditation retreat, he's dressed in sandals and a robe and Looks Like Jesus. He even at one point refers to his unlimited superuser access to the Smithereen app as "God Mode", and Christopher's desperate quest to speak to him feels a lot like a metaphor for Job seeking answers from God. A subverted trope, though, in that Billy, though seemingly a decent guy, isn't particularly wise and in the end doesn't have the power to save anyone. Lampshaded when he's woken from his meditative trance and told about the news and his reaction is a very human "Fuck!"
  • Motive Rant: It turns out, all Chris wanted to do is deliver one to the founder of Smithereen before he offs himself.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Billy takes the time to ask the name of the Smithereen employee who brings him a sat phone and laptop. He's also genuinely concerned for the safety of Jaden, an intern he's never even met and probably never would under normal circumstances.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: Part of the point of this episode is demonstrating how scarily close major tech companies have come to being this. While the Police and the FBI are scrambling to figure out who Chris is, Smithereen makes clear that they know pretty much everything about him, based solely on the phone number he called from. When Billy Bauer decides he wants to talk to Chris, he not only ignores demands from the FBI and his own staff to stop, but seems genuinely perplexed that they're even trying to obstruct him.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Although the Smithereen app itself has some similarities to Twitter and some to Facebook or Instagram, Billy Bauer himself is very clearly based on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his habit of traveling the world taking long meditation retreats. Some tech reporters would say that Billy's self-deprecation that he doesn't even know what the actual purpose of his own app is anymore after it's changed so many times is much more clearly applicable to Twitter than Facebook.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Chris leaves his one-night stand before the morning.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Hayley Blackwood, a mother who attends Chris's group therapy sessions who lost her teenage daughter to suicide.
  • Punk in the Trunk: Chris plans to travel with Jaden in the trunk of his car but the plan is foiled by Jaden's Claustrophobia.
  • Rabid Cop: The London police snipers are awfully eager to put a bullet in Chris' head, and they visibly resent being told to stand down at first. Making matters worse, they're also by far the worst police snipers in recent TV history, missing their target not once but twice over a relatively short distance and despite plenty of setup time. From their perspective it's pure dumb luck that hostage taker never intended to actually hurt the hostage.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • Billy Bauer is neither the Corrupt Corporate Executive we'd been led to expect nor a wise guru figure who has any answers for Christopher. He's going on these meditation retreats because he himself is a deeply troubled young man who bluntly tells Christopher his stockholders have taken all his power away and he has no idea how to stop what Smithereen has become.
    • Christopher is a smart guy who spent a long time planning this caper... but it nonetheless all goes south very quickly once the unpredictable element of taking a live human being hostage comes into it.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Christopher does a lot of wild ranting and gesticulating with a loaded gun, with his finger on the trigger, seemingly avoiding I Just Shot Marvin in the Face by sheer luck. Seemingly justified once he reveals that the gun isn't even real... except that this, unfortunately, turns out to be a lie. It is justified by the fact that he's both an untrained gun user and, it rapidly becomes clear, quite seriously mentally unwell.
  • Riddle for the Ages: We never find out the outcome of the hostage situation, and can only surmise from seeing Billy's reaction to it that it was negative. We also never find out if Hayley ever actually got any answers about her daughter's death from her inbox. (Topher Grace revealed that he alone among the cast was told what he was seeing when he gets the news about the resolution of the hostage situation on his phone, but is committed to never revealing it.)
  • Ridiculously Long Phone Hold: Played for Drama. Smithereen keeps Christopher on hold as a gambit so they can listen in to what's going on in the car, and joke about using a "relaxation" playlist to try to calm him down. They don't realize that the romantic love songs they're playing are just getting him more keyed up, since his whole motivation for his crimes was his Lost Lenore.
  • Ripped from the Headlines:
    • Not only does this episode explicitly take place in 2018 and use no technology that doesn't exist in real life, and not only is it ostensibly about the real-world problem of distracted driving due to smartphone addiction, but it's also eerily reminiscent of the 2018 YouTube headquarters shooting. And it wasn't even the last time an unstable individual threatened violence at a social media company because he felt they wronged him.
    • To a lesser degree, Chris' basic plan involving driving for an Uber/Lyft-style company under false credentials, waiting for someone who fits his target profile to hail a ride, then lying about a detour on the GPS to get his victim alone. It's an all-too-common template for crime, and women who use these apps talk about the need to stay safe by having your own GPS app turned on during the ride. Jaden, unfortunately, didn't heed this advice.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Chris's stated motive against Smithereen, though he balks at killing Jaden upon learning he has little power.
  • Rule of Three: Subverted. After their Smoking Hot Sex, Chis watches Hayley as she tries out new passwords to her daughter's Persona account. There is a buildup towards the third attempt but it fails the same way as the other two did.
  • Safe Driving Aesop: Chris causing an accident with two dead because he was checking his phone certainly gives pause.
  • Scenery Porn: The landscape shots deserve many awards, showing both urban and rural London, the Los Gatos area of California (filmed in Kent), and the fake Furnace Valley (a more mellow Grand Canyon; filmed in Spain) based on Fiery Furnace, Salt Valley in Utah. The episode is also rather limited to these locations and gets a lot of different shots in; nature is beautiful, a further addition to the 'phones are bad' narrative.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!:
    • Connection as in "God Mode" root access to the system he originally designed, which Billy tells his aide is the only real perk left at his job. When Billy becomes convinced he's morally obligated to give Christopher what he wants to put a stop to this mess, he hangs up on the FBI when they object. And when his own team tries to stop him, he hangs up on them as well, and uses God Mode to contact Chris unilaterally.
    • Similarly, Billy is able to call in a personal favor with Curtis, the CEO of Persona, to give Hayley the password to her daughter's account, in contravention of the company's privacy policy (and US federal law).
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Jaden is the best-dressed person Chris has seen come out of the Smithereen office in weeks, with a very fashionable suit. Turns out that's because he's just a kid in his first week of an internship and he was desperate to make a good impression on the executive he'd been assigned to meet, with no idea that in this case his clothes would tragically make him a target. Jaden doesn't help his own case by copping a bit of an attitude to Chris when he first gets in the car and trying very much to play the role of the cool, confident executive, not knowing that it was hardening Chris' resolve to take him hostage.
  • Shoot the Hostage Taker: Initially defied, as Chief Superintendent Linda Grace tells the armed officers she hopes to resolve the incident without bloodshed as the force recently dealt with a controversy when officers accidentally shot an unarmed man. However, she changes her mind and orders a critical shot to be taken once Chris starts firing out the window of the car, which ultimately ends with a police sniper shooting in at him.
  • Social Media Is Bad: Christopher goes on a tirade about how youth these days are always on their phones, and blames the car accident he was in on how addictive Smithereen is.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Downplayed, but Jaden clearly becomes sympathetic to Chris's plight by the end of the episode, even shedding tears and fighting with him over the gun with which he intends to kill himself after he lets Jaden go.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: Andrew Scott uses the same explosive bursts of rage he showed off as Moriarty to great effect here.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom:
    • Billy Bauer claims to be one, as he never intended Smithereen to be so powerful. Chris is a much more traditional example, as he was distracted by Smithereen during the car accident that killed his girlfriend.
    • The random person left a comment on Chris' photo while he happened to be driving on an empty road probably didn't expect it to result in Chris's fiancee dying as a result and Chris planning a long con in revenge.
    • There's also Jaden's boss who assigned him to meet the incoming executive at Heathrow and be her gofer for the day, only to get a phone call an hour later saying he's being held hostage by a madman.
  • Visual Pun: When Billy starts demanding he be allowed to speak to Chris man-to-man against the objections of his staff and the FBI, he stands with his modernist transparent house behind him, picks up a rock and flings it angrily into the ravine. I.e. while he's thinking about how he and Chris are possibly Not So Different, he's a man living in a glass house throwing stones.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Jaden throws up from stress/Chris’s erratic driving. His head is covered by the bag, but that doesn’t make it less unpleasant to watch.
  • Weapon for Intimidation:
    • Once he finds out Jaden is just a kid with no power at the company, Christopher loses any will he had to actually kill him. He even reassures him that the gun is a fake and his life is in no danger. Unfortunately, the cops hear him thanks to the Smithereen staff bugging his phone, and he's forced to prove to them he was lying.
    • The whole reason the Chief Superintendent delays authorizing lethal force is a Noodle Incident involving an old man with a starter pistol who was shot by police a week ago, resulting in a shitstorm of negative PR for the department.

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