Black Mirror doesn’t always go for a shocking twist at the end of each of its episodes, but there are many instances where the ending, whether unexpected of not, is left open-ended for the audience to draw their own conclusion. Such is the case with “Smithereens,” the second episode of season 5 which released on Netflix on June 5, 2019. In that episode, a man named Chris kidnaps an employee of a Twitter-like social media company called Smithereen with the intent of forcing a reckoning with the platform’s founder. The resulting confrontation involves the police, the kidnap victim, and Chris’ own desire to end his life, but we never get to see what actually happened after the final gunshot. So what really happened?
Some might not see any ambiguity at all in the credits sequence which follows, in which we see various reactions to the news of whatever happened in that field where Chris struggled over his gun with his passenger, who was actually trying to keep him from committing suicide. Because one of the first faces we see is that of Smithereen creator, Billy Bauer, his crestfallen expression would presumably indicate that Chris has been killed in the ordeal. All of the other people receiving notifications on their phones appear to glance at the alert with a moment of muted attention before they move on with their lives.
Whether Chris is actually dead doesn’t change the fact that society’s addiction to checking their phones is unchanged by Chris’ painful experience of having killed the love of his life by crashing his car while looking down at a Smithereen notification. Does Billy Bauer’s reaction imply that he may start taking steps to correct the course of his app that even he admits has gotten far off course from its original intent? Perhaps even his initial regret will pass with time, and his return to meditation is a realization that his creation is beyond his influence anyway. In either case, the montage of everyone checking their phones speaks more about the people reading the news with indifference than it does about the content of of what they’re reading.
For some viewers, the bigger question may center around which shot killed Chris, if indeed he is dead. On the one hand, he could have been shot by the police sniper, but she did miss the first time and her view is now obscured by the shattered plate glass of the car window. On the other hand, Chris’ handgun might have discharged either accidentally by Jaden, the Smithereen intern, or purposely by Chris himself, who despite his assurance that he would wait until Jaden was clear of the car may have resorted to finishing the job. The retort itself definitely sounded more like a rifle outdoors than a pistol in a confined space, but the lack of visuals keep the circumstances ambiguous.
And then there’s the accompanying press of the Enter key that coincided with the sound of the shot. Mrs. Blackwood had just typed in the password to her daughter’s Persona account, the one concession Chris was able to gain from his phone conversation with Billy Bauer. The grieving mother may have hoped that she would learn the reason behind her daughter’s suicide by exploring the equivalent of her Facebook profile, but as with the gunshot, the results of her search remain unknown, and the likelihood of her remaining in the dark are frankly quite high. Often we don’t receive the answers we seek especially regarding someone’s desire to end their life.
What Black Mirror is essentially telling us in “Smithereens” is that we don’t need to know those details to understand the message. In fact, the lessons we learn from this episode may actually depend on those facts remaining obscure. We don’t see what Mrs. Blackwood learned because she may have learned nothing at all. We don’t learn the fate of Chris because it’s the people’s reaction to the news of his ordeal that deserves our attention. It’s a bleak episode that uses our lack of fulfillment to deepen the sense of despair as we realize that, unlike most more predictive episodes of Black Mirror, this one is already happening all around us right now, and we don’t know how that’s going to end either.
Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.