by Billie Doux
I'm honestly not sure if this episode was brilliant or awful. Perhaps it was both.
The internet and today's social media have completely changed the nature of information. Once something is out there, it simply cannot be contained or controlled by anyone, even the most powerful people in the world. After the popular Princess Susannah is kidnapped and a bizarre ransom video is posted on Youtube, Prime Minister Michael Callow spends the entire episode being herded by public opinion toward the only possible choice that public will accept -- to accede to the kidnapper's demand and have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.
At first, Callow thinks it's a joke, and then he outright refuses. As the episode progresses, he gets this look of confused dread on his face, like a man in a waking nightmare. Going through with it strips him of his dignity as both a human being and a world leader. And yet, it's interesting that the helplessness and horror of the situation generated universal sympathy and respect for Callow. The public en masse thought the act itself would be fun to watch, but it wasn't; as it was happening, they looked disgusted and sick, even though they couldn't look away. A year later, Callow's poll numbers were actually higher, but interestingly, his marriage was clearly over. Callow's wife Jane seemed to take it all personally, like her own humiliation was more important than Princess Susannah's life, like Callow was cheating on her by complying with the ransom demand.
The situation was outlandish and unbelievable, but the treatment was completely realistic, as if we were watching what would actually happen -- the unsuccessful attempt at creating a special effects substitute film with a porn star, the clinical advice Alex gave Callow not to rush it, the pill (Viagra?) and the visual aids that made it seem much like the PM was being forced into donating a sperm sample. I think the writer, Charlie Brooker, was also making a fascinating point of how obsessed the public is with sex scandals. If someone had noticed that Princess Susannah had been released when it actually happened, Callow wouldn't have had to go through with it. But no, everyone in the entire freaking country was indoors glued to their televisions. I hate to admit it, but I probably would have been, too. (At the same time, I'm very glad they didn't show us the actual sex act.)
(Seriously, forget Callow. The real victim here was the pig. An hour? Poor thing.)
I also liked the emphasis on the obvious, that the traditional press was muzzled while the video was trending on Twitter. This sort of thing has been happening for awhile now. I wonder how long it can continue? Malaika (the reporter) getting shot while following a lead felt genuine, too, and illustrated how the hunger for fodder for the twenty-four hour news cycle has gotten dangerous as well as ridiculous.
The final reveal that the whole thing was intended to be an art work made me groan out loud, but it made sense. Art critics have said (and I don't agree) that a piece of art isn't good if it doesn't make you uncomfortable. That's how "The National Anthem" made me feel: not all that shocked, not really amused, but uncomfortable. If I hadn't promised to review it, I wouldn't have watched it a second time.
Bits and quotes:
Gold acting stars for Rory Kinnear as Callow. That was not an easy part to play. Lindsay Duncan as the cold and factual Alex Cairns was also impressive.
Callow: "What do they want? Money? Release of Jihadi? Scrap third world debt? Save the fucking libraries?"
Please do save the fucking libraries. I care about libraries.
Callow: "Well, I'm not fucking a pig. Page one, that's not happening."
Callow: "If there are hacks sniffing around, shut them down. Bright red D notice. Super fucking Godzilla injunction with ten inch Whitehall fangs."
Guy: "It's trending on Twitter."
Callow: "Fucking internet."
Malaika: "It's like 9/11's happening and we're broadcasting sandwich recipes."
Woman: "The Guardian are running a fucking live blog, and a short think piece on the historical symbolism of the pig."
I can't quite give this episode a four. How about three out of four sandwich recipes?
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.