The idea of what defines science fiction is sometimes confused with the concept of futurist fiction. Science fiction does not need to take place in the future, or even the not-so-distant future. These are stories of technology and science, and how their discovery and implementation affect and warp our understanding of traditional human morality, ethics or culture. You could theoretically tell a science fiction story set at any point in human history, simply by examining the fallout of technological development and extrapolating from there.
Black Mirror, as an anthology series, dabbles in both the grandiose and subtle implementation of science fiction as a genre. There are allegorical episodes about dystopian future societies utterly alien from our own, a la “Fifteen Million Merits.” And then there are the stories like Season Five’s “Smithereens,” in which everything that happens could legitimately happen in our own world, tomorrow. And who knows-it probably will, as likely as not. That feeling of plausibility works in “Smithereens’” favor.
Working even more in its favor, though, is a powerhouse performance from actor Andrew Scott, best known for having played the role of Moriarty throughout Sherlock, as well as his major part in the Season Two success of Fleabag. Here, as a character named Chris, he undergoes one of the classic Black Mirror mental breakdowns that have typified so many previous episodes, driving their protagonists past their respective points of no return. As an episode, “Smithereens” doesn’t always have quite enough to say to justify its 70-minute runtime, but we can never tear our eyes away from Scott’s unnerved, jittery performance.
Chris is a driver for a rideshare company, although don’t think of using the word “Uber.” This episode, in fact, is packed with extremely on-the-nose analogs. Notably, there’s “Persona,” a social network standing in for Facebook. And of course there’s “Smithereen” itself, which is more in the vein of Twitter. The commentary here feels a bit rote, a bit familiar. We don’t engage with each other, turns out. We spend all our time on our phones. We ache for genuine human connection. Or in other words: These are observations that every human on Earth has made on a weekly basis for the last decade. Chris feels the same, albeit with a more personal base for his grudge.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing poignant in the social media commentary of “Smithereens,” although most of the pathos comes courtesy of actress Monica Dolan’s briefly seen character, a grieving middle-aged woman who lost her daughter to suicide some months earlier. In the hope of understanding why her seemingly happy daughter went through with the act, she attempts every day to log in to the girl’s “Persona” account, but receives no help or sympathy from the service’s tech support, which claims to be protecting the “privacy” of the dead girl by keeping the account locked. Thus, it’s up to Mom to futilely try a few more random number and letter combinations each day, hoping to unlock the profile. It’s a powerful, Sisyphean piece of imagery in an episode that otherwise has to rely on performances over thematic substance.
Ultimately, though, this is Scott’s show. The episode revolves entirely around his poorly planned attempt to abduct a Smithereen employee, holding that young intern (Damson Idris, best known for FX’s Snowfall) hostage and demanding to speak to Smithereen founder and tech icon Billy Bauer (guest star Topher Grace) on the phone for mysterious reasons. One gets a sense, watching Chris, that he’s at war with himself over this decision, which translates to a spastic, explosive sort of nervous energy. We fear his intentions less than we fear his deteriorating state of mind, and what will happen when something else inevitably goes wrong.
Grace, meanwhile, is playing Bauer as something of a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, a visionary tech developer who has been left in the dust, feeling impotent as the thing he created takes on a life far bigger than he initially designed. We meet him on a Millennial Approved “tech detox” in the desert, a silent retreat for soul maintenance that is amusingly shattered by a single F-bomb when he’s informed of the hostage situation that is now brewing. We’re meant to empathize with him as well on some level, but it’s rather difficult to do, given that he takes no small amount of satisfaction from invoking his own “God mode” abilities to cast aside the personal privacy of all Smithereen users on a whim. In a critique of Twitter, do we really need to empathize with Jack Dorsey?
In the end, “Smithereens” is really about the quiet moments, whether they’re the pleading looks shot between Chris and his hostage during their police stand-off or Chris’s upbraiding of Bauer’s ham-handed attempts at “finding common ground” over the phone. The human drama here is often top notch, even when the plotting doesn’t quite know how to resolve itself. It makes for an uneven entry in Black Mirror’s fifth season, but it’s still no less of a head-turning performance by Andrew Scott.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.