In Black Mirror’s restless flitting between genres, the series has occasionally touched on the cop procedural, in the process illustrating the awkward fit between the subject matter and creator Charlie Brooker’s techno-fixation. So many modern stories about police work involve some element of computer fantasy, albeit one that usually takes a more unassuming form, such as the guys in “the crime lab” running “some tests” and magically obtaining the clue that saves the day. Brooker develops and foregrounds this idea, first in the deductive race against the clock in “Hated in the Nation” and now the real-time hostage situation in “Smithereens.” In both instances, the panopticon of social media proves a boon to the boys in blue (or bobbies, whichever you like) while exposing the limits of traditional police work — an idea with lots of potential, glazed over in favor of well-trod action beats.
The case specs: Suspect is Christopher Gilhaney (Andrew Scott, known to many as Fleabag’s Hot Priest), a rideshare driver in London wholly encapsulated by the word “disgruntled.” He resents his crap job and the pings it sends his cell phone to interrupt his guided-meditation sessions. More than that, he’s cross over his general lot in life, the biggest piece of which must have something to do with the grief-support meetings he attends. The official profile assembled by law enforcement categorizes him as “high-intellect, low-income,” a personality type sardonically if truthfully identified by one officer on the scene as “often angry people.” Indeed, Christopher spends most of his time frowning, an unfortunately funny expression for Scott to plaster onto his face, and a hint at just how far over his head this performance has gotten him.
The perp has taken a hostage, one Jaden (Damson Idris), a lowly intern employed by social-media platform Smithereen. Not that Christopher can tell, misled by Jaden’s first-week-on-the-job suit combo into thinking he’s nabbed an executive and then impotently howling, “Modern companies, everyone looks so fucking young! How’re you supposed to get a sense of the fucking hierarchy?!”
At this point, the shtick appears to be cyber–Coen brothers, with a nincompoop comically floundering his way through a scheme at best half-baked. That’s about how things play out, as Christopher’s vehicle skids into a farmer’s field and he improvises a dramatic last stand, but his snafus aren’t here to get laughs. There’s a reason that he hasn’t thought about an exit strategy, just as there’s a reason he waits outside Smithereen headquarters to pick up passengers.
Christopher wants to get on the horn with Billy Bauer, the little-seen sage remotely running the show at Smithereen. That would be Topher Grace, doing a slightly less engrossing impression of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey than Armie Hammer did in last summer’s Sorry to Bother You, all of his scenes contained to an isolated mountaintop locale to simplify shooting and scheduling. Because a whole lot of corporate strata separate Jaden and Billy, Christopher’s real task shifts from kidnapping to the act of navigating a complicated phone tree designed specifically to keep regular schmoes from talking to important people. To get the phone call for which he’s dynamiting his entire life, Christopher will have to stay on hold, and the soulless Muzak piped in to fill that silence may be more of a mental stressor than the sniper rifles trained on his forehead.
With his speculative-fiction approach one reality removed from our own, Brooker enlivens the usual clichés of the live crime scene, from the gruff back-and-forth between authorities on site to the abductor’s slow descent into personal collapse. The legwork of gathering facts and making connections would usually fill the body of an episode like this, as the police put shoe leather to pavement knocking on doors and taking down quotes. Here, everything happens instantaneously, the speed of investigation hypercharged by our digital enclosure.
With absolute power to conduct surveillance (gotta love those contract agreements!) and unencumbered by warrants, the higher-ups back at Smithereen can ascertain information exponentially faster than John Q. Law. Our technological capacity has evolved far beyond the laws we passed to control it. Not to put too fine a point on it, Billy refers to his ability to monitor everyone’s actions, everywhere and at all times, as “God mode.”
That’s a strong concept with lots of avenues for deeper exploration, and Brooker blows right past them on his way to the same old conclusion about smartphones exacerbating our worst qualities. As in Gossip Girl, the automatic spread of intel to every character provides a nifty narrative wrinkle, and yet Brooker’s goal of denouncing the tech behemoth flattens it out. Christopher’s game plan, if it can be called that, involves getting ahold of Billy to deliver a more rehearsed version of the sputtering diatribe he barks at Jaden earlier on — shrinking attention spans, no real connections, incessant tap-tap-tapping, you know the drill. Even so, he gradually shows us that the real problems live inside him,and that he’s only projected them onto the menaces we keep in our pockets.
The climactic chat between Christopher and Billy clarifies what Scott’s performance doesn’t have the precision to communicate itself. Namely, that he’s come completely unhinged and has probably been so from the jump. Scott gives us such broad apoplexy that it feels like he’s starting at a ten and leaving himself nowhere to go, a classic actor’s gaffe, but the final act confirms that the smartphone just provides a vessel in which to keep his innermost pain.
The big monologue reveals that Christopher’s dead fiancée lost her life in a car crash owing to his own carelessness. “I killed her over a dog photo,” Scott unconvincingly whimpers, seemingly uncertain whether the moment should be played hysterically or for genuine pathos. He’s channeled all the rage he feels for himself to the app that distracted him while behind the wheel and ultimately to a man who claims that even he can’t control the monster he’s created.
“Technology reflects our flaws back at us” amounts to a rather thin-gruel final note, buttressed as it is by some extraneous frippery with a grieving mother trying to get into her dead daughter’s not-Facebook on one side, and the risible final montage with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” on the other. Then there’s the contrived non-ending, which thinks it’s wrapping things up with a bang that fizzles out in practice. Brooker gets backed into a corner along with Christopher, left with fewer and fewer options, and like Christopher, he decides that prematurely ending things exempts him from inventing a way out.
As the populace of the U.K. gawp at the results of the shootout dénouement on their assorted devices, Brooker settles for proving the point that the absorptive quality of the smartphone can’t be healthy for us, only for the umpteenth time. We never get to find out whether the police gunners pick off Jaden or if Christopher survives, as that would require Brooker to make a more decisive stance. He allows himself to slide out of the theoretical stakes of his own story, in which the elusive villain turns out to be some guy and the mad prophet of truth turns out to be a sad, lonely nutjob. As an hourlong standoff (though it’s actually a very long 70 minutes), the episode functions well enough, but whatever augmentation it gets from the sci-fi angle falls away with a finale that feels several system updates old.