You’re just too good to be true
I can’t take my eyes off you
You’d be like heaven to touch
I wanna hold you so much
At long last love has arrived
And I thank God I’m alive
You’re just too good to be true
Can’t take my eyes off you
As Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” hits at the end of “Smithereens” one cannot help but hear it as sung to a smartphone.
Black Mirror has a history of using music in this sort of way. It can almost feel too on the nose—for example, when “San Junipero” ends with Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”—but it doesn’t. It fits, and making me hear an old song in a new way is frankly something I love about the show.
The chorus of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is particularly haunting given that we ultimately learn that our friend Chris (Andrew Scott) has taken Jaden the intern (Damsen Idris) hostage because Chris’s fiancée died in a car crash after he was looking at his phone—though officially the other driver was blamed because he was drunk.
Chris blames himself, of course, but also seems to blame Smithereen, a social media app that is even more pervasive in the world of this episode than Facebook is in ours (the latter being mimicked more by the other social media site in the episode: Persona). Chris has been driving for a company called Hitcher (which is basically like Uber or Lyft), but only in an attempt to snag a Smithereen employee. He has just been parking outside of their offices in London each day waiting for someone to hail a ride.
He wants to talk to the founder of Smithereen, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), and ultimately he does—although everyone tries to keep Bauer from making the phone call, from the FBI to those who are technically his subordinates. This gets to something about bureaucracy, if we want to call it that, which “Smithereens” plays with in a subtle yet important way.
It’s most obvious when Bauer starts on a rant to Chris about how the thing that he started (Smithereen) took on a life of its own that he now cannot do anything about, with a whole department devoted to making it ever more addictive, for example. It’s like what Freud said about the sorcerer unleashing forces he could no longer control as we moved into the 20th century. He was thinking of the telegraph and the locomotive, but the point lands all the more when it comes to things like the internet…and smartphones.
It can be easy to forget at this point that the first smartphone was released only a little more than 10 years ago. These devices have seeped into our everyday lives in such a pervasive way that my memory of that time when I would always have a book with me on the subway feels abstract and distant. I remember when I got my first text message. Now talking on the phone feels weird.
I walk through the world and it seems like everywhere everyone’s face is in their phone. It’s a pet peeve of mine when it means that people aren’t paying attention to where they are going. They are making it my job to make sure I don’t run into them, and I think that fails every ethical test I could apply. But I’m not innocent, either, as I wait for someone to react to something I post online. There is a weird kind of high to it, and of course the apps themselves aim to drive that; they want to keep us looking, and tethered.
Without a working phone, for however short a period of time, one now suddenly feels an uncanny anxiety and loss of world. What if something is happening and I am missing it?
It’s absurd, of course, as we lived perfectly well without these things, and it wasn’t even that long ago. Thus we get the flip side to this new social-media-infused era of late capitalism: the trend to unplug and meditate.
This is what has led Slavoj Žižek, and others, to claim that Western-style Buddhism is a perfect supplement to capitalism. Meditation, mindfulness, unplugging from our hyper-technological world for a 10-day retreat—none of this bucks the system we live in; at best it offers an individual a needed respite from it. Actual Buddhism tells us that desire is the cause of suffering. Shit like what Billy Bauer does in this episode amounts to taking a breather because it’ll help you come back fresh to make even more of that money you want.
He may rail against the system for a moment, but he isn’t doing anything to try and change it. And, in fairness, perhaps it is true that he is meaningfully powerless at this point. If he were to try to do something radical, surely the forces of the corporate structure of Smithereen would get in his way even more than they do with regard to the scenario in the episode, where they collude to first try to keep him off of the phone, and then to feed him some focus-group-tested bullshit about how to talk Chris down.
All the latter wants is for Billy to talk to him like a human being, and he gets that. But do we believe that Billy is being authentic as he talks to him, or is he cynically thinking about how this whole incident could affect his company?
Let’s say we buy it. Does it matter? If he is genuinely empathetic to Chris after hearing his story, if he genuinely doesn’t want him to commit suicide because he is a caring human being, if he genuinely feels trapped by the machinations of the corporate machine that he created, then the question is: should we care? Perhaps he is the sorcerer who has unleashed forces beyond his control, but he still unleashed them, and as the episode ends he returns to his meditation, as though he is trying to psychologically disengage from the repercussions of a world he has had a hand in creating.
And let’s talk about that ending. Billy asks Chris if there is anything, however small, he can do for him, which leads Chris to ask him to make contact with the head of Persona in order to provide Hayley (the woman with whom Chris has a one-night stand earlier in the episode) with the password to her daughter’s account.
She desperately wants to know why Kristen killed herself, but we don’t get to see what she finds out. Equally, Jaden—clearly affected by the story Chris told Billy on the phone—tries to keep Chris from killing himself instead of fleeing to safety once he’s been freed.
These are the truly human moments in the hour; these are the moments of hope.
Chris gets the information to Hayley solely because he cares for her. Even though there is little chance she will find the answers she is looking for, at least this can get her out of her obsessive daily spiral. Jaden goes for the gun simply to try to keep Chris from using it on himself, because he now sees his captor as a man who is hurt and broken, and he can’t help but react as a human being in light of that.
But this causes the police, who see the struggle at a distance, to authorize snipers to open fire. And, thus—I am pretty sure—both Chris and Jaden die.
We don’t see it, of course, as the credits roll and there are only quick hit scenes to inform us of what happened after that point, but I would be interested to talk to anyone who didn’t come to this conclusion. This is what Billy Bauer learns before returning to his meditation, and if it gives him any pause it is but for a moment. This is the world, after all, and it’s a cruel place overrun by forces beyond our control. There may be small moments of humanity, or compassion, but the machine crushes on. So:
Now, once more, return your attention to the breath. Notice how your breathing continues…all by itself…Your mind may wander…simply watch it go…calmly…and without judgment.