Black Mirror 101, “The National Anthem”
Spoilers herein, as well as disturbing sexual content. Also, as this episode has a political bent, the normal Mindless Diversions house rule of “No Politics” is suspended on this post – but if you go there, please keep it civil. When commenting, please use Rot13 or a couple lead-in sentences of spoiler-free boilerplate, so as to prevent spoilers from showing up on the front page.
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror was billed as a dark, futuristic, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi series. Its pilot episode, “The National Anthem”, was therefore something of a surprise to me.
It certainly is neither futuristic nor Twilight Zone-esque, and I’m struggling to consider why anyone might consider it science fiction. The types of technology used in the show are not so dissimilar to those used in today’s vapid but still wholly contemporary NCIS procedural franchise. But make no mistake, Brooker’s show is dark. In fact, it’s more than just dark — it’s giant-black-hole-that-sucks-out-all-possible-light dark.
It is also among the best — maybe even the best — political/social satire I have seen produced for television, ever.
First, let’s take a quick look at the show’s basic plot:
“National Anthem” takes place in a parallel-universe Great Britain that looks like a carbon copy of our own. Its plot centers around the kidnapping of that universe’s version of Kate Middleton, and the kidnapper’s ransom demand that makes a rather bizarre and perverse demand of that universe’s David Cameron: If the country wants its beloved princess back alive and unscathed, the kidnapper’s solitary exaction is that the Prime Minister have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.
An attempt to trick the kidnapper with green-screen special effects so that the PM does not have to commit bestiality is found out, and the kidnaper sends back a severed finger. Having no choice, the PM acquiesces to the demands. The princess is returned unharmed (it turns out it had not been her finger, it had been the kidnapper’s), and at the end of the show the country rallies behind the PM for his sacrifice. Hooray for the good guys!
“National Anthem” is cloaked as high-brow political-thriller; its performances, direction and cinematography are done with such straight face that its black comedy slides into you like a knife. For while it has the look and feel of a high camp Masterpiece Theatre special, it is in fact burlesque to the point of absurdity. And through it all, Brooker manages to hold up a circus mirror — darkly blackened, indeed — that shows us our own modern political apparatus and media-driven appetites with a little too much clarity.
One of the most fascinating threads in “National Anthem” is one which I confess I didn’t notice until after I had finished watching it: Inside the hallowed walls of government, those who are making the Big Decisions never really ask themselves the questions one would assume those in power would be asking in such a scenario: There is no real discussion about whether or not the kidnapper will release the hostage regardless, nor is there any real discussion of what giving in to the demands might mean in terms of future state security. And there is absolutely zero discussion about the morality of either rutting with a pig, or, conversely, declaring the value of the life on one young woman as lesser than the public dignity of one older man. The administration’s initial decision not to give in to the demands as well as its later change of mind is based entirely on what kinds of responses from voters they are seeing on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media. Indeed, that the general mood of the populace on such mediums proves to be fickle, untethered, and easily swayed either never even occurs to those pulling the levers of state or is too weak an incentive to contradict their own self-created Skinner box levers.
Today’s news media comes off no better. Before the newsrooms can verify the unbelievable story they have been handed and before they can take the time to determine whether reporting on the story immediately will result in unnecessary harm to the PM, the public, or the princess, social media and the internet forces their hand. Because people are talking about it on the Internet is is deemed newsworthy, and the cable news networks trip over themselves to avoid being the last ones reporting an absurd story they cannot confirm. (If that doesn’t hit a little too close to home, you haven’t been paying attention to the news. Reporting unconfirmed, sensational speculation just in case it turns out to be true is pretty much cable and network news’ mission statement.) Added to this is the character of the plucky young news-gal reporter with moxie, a cliched and cardboard television staple that Brooker turns on its head: In “National Anthem”, the young reporter cares little about ethics, facts, or accuracy, and is instead driven by the simple desire to become a cable news celebrity.
But the real genius of “National Anthem” is its portrayal of the character who comes off looking the most ugly: Us. Interspersed between the scenes of the government and the media’s vapid craving of attention are glimpses of the general populace, and it is these scenes that hold that black mirror directly up to each of us.
Early on a viewer nonchalantly muses that terrorists must have beheaded someone. There is no horror or concern in his voice; if there is any small emotion at all it is the pleasure that comes with being the one the first to know what is soon to become common knowledge on Twitter. When the PM finally takes to the airwaves to do the, err, porking, everyone gathers around the nearest screen to be entertained by the spectacle. When one horrified woman attempts to turn off a television, those around her stop and admonish her. (“This is history,” one of the transfixed rationalizes.) In fact, as we learn later, as the PM is defiling himself the princess has already been released and has been wandering about London. That no one seems to notice or care that she is walking about speaks volumes about what it is that is truly important to the populace at large.
Afterwards, that same populace turns the PM into something of a folk hero. In the show’s epilogue, where we see him one year later, his approval ratings are through the roof. As observers of Sarah Palin and Rob Ford already know, in today’s multi-media world a politician being turned into a reality-TV star doesn’t just breed shame, it also fosters good will and extreme loyalty. In this era of cable news, political blogs, and Youtube we do not look to politicians to govern — we look to them to entertain us. Sitting quietly and getting s**t done is so passé, so paper media. We want our new, modern, successful politicians to spend their time doing talk shows, railing about the other side of the fence with spit-flecked bluster, and spinning easily debunked whoppers the size of Leviathan. We don’t really care what they do when they’re behind the wheel of the State, so long as they give us a good show; in 2015 the bread is no longer required, as long as the circus is shiny enough.
Indeed, the capper to the entire show is that the kidnapping itself was done not as a political statement but as performance art. As the public debates the degree of greatness of that art, “National Anthem” suggests that we are even willing to forgive terrorism so long as it entertains us sufficiently.
The very last scene in “National Anthem” shows us what we already instinctively knew: The PM’s personal dignity, symbolized by the character of the First Lady, is an unrepairable shambles. When we gaze at the PM’s face for the very last time, it becomes clear that the price he has paid for fame and power has destroyed whatever happiness and nobility the man may have once had.
But that’s alright. We love him all the more for it.
 Or so I’m guessing. They play NCIS at my gym in the early morning, so I’ve only watched pieces of it here and there without the sound.
As best I can tell, NCIS is a show about a military police team that hires only models, has its female officers wear sexy schoolgirl outfits rather than uniforms, and generally deals with crimes that seem to have nothing to do with the military.
It also appears to have been granted a technology budget by some congressperson whose entire campaign war chest is funded through Halliburton contributions. So, for example, if the commanding officer wants to talk to someone in the next room then instead of just walking 20 feet the procedure is to have high-def cameras project that person in real time onto jumbo-tron screens as everyone else whisks away at virtual reality screens that make CNN’s Election Night Situation Room look like a set of vacuum tubes tied to a Light Bright with a string.