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Black Mirror: The National Anthem

"It's history, this."

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 was kidnapped and a bizarre ransom video was posted on Youtube, Prime Minister Michael Callow spent the entire episode being herded by public opinion toward the only possible choice that public would accept – to accede to the kidnapper's demand and have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

At first, Callow thought it was a joke, and then he outright refused. As the episode progressed, he got this look of confused dread on his face, like a man in a waking nightmare. Going through with it stripped him of his dignity as both a human being and a world leader. And yet, it was 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 loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Excellent review, Billie.

    This is such a difficult show--I agree that I, too, have no desire to watch this episode again, even though I thought it was remarkably well done.

    To get a bit meta, I think that's part of the point: why on earth would we watch an episode of TV about a government official having sex with a pig? And yet we do, for the same sort of giggles-->shock-->disgust sequence that the episode portrays. We are drawn to watching it, and then regret not being able to unwatch it.

  2. I can't remember when an episode of television freaked me out to this degree. I watched it two nights ago and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Everyone I talk to about it just grimaces and comments on the fact that they would never watch it.

    My response? You'd watch if it were really happening. Of course you would, in the same way we couldn't stop watching that Bronco on the California highway or the implosion of New York landmarks.

    That's what made this such compelling television. Thanks for getting me to watch it.

  3. This episode totally destroyed the last Bond movie for me. I saw poor Rory Kinnear, and all I could think every time he appeared in TV was "pig fucker"!!!!

    What is amazing is that this episode is the soft one in all of Black Mirror's first season (I haven't seen the second one yet).

    Kudos to Charlie Brooker. TV wipe is excellent too.

  4. Never has a show or movie affected me like this episode did. It ruined my face for an entire day. Hours later I would realize I was staring off into space with my face all scrunched up.

    I was terrified they'd take it a step too far and I'd have to stop watching, cause Oh I am such a baby. But they walked that line with such grace.

    What still gets me is how realistic the whole plot is. I tried for so long to think it was too fantastical to ever actually occur, but it's just not. Our world is weird and moves very fast these days.

  5. Life imitates art. I almost can't believe this, but David Cameron apparently did something sexual with a pig head.


    jenallday, I just reread your comment and the first paragraph made me laugh out loud. :)

  6. Charlie Booker tweeted "Shit. Turns out Black Mirror is a documentary series." and "I hope White Bear doesn't come true next."

    Bwhahaha. What a weird world we live in.


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