Black Mirror 101, “The National Anthem”

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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40 Responses

  1. Avatar Glyph says:

    Excellent recap, and I’m glad you…maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word for something so intentionally discomfiting, but appreciated it.

    What I liked about it:

    1.). It would have been easy to present the PM as venal or corrupt, in some way “deserving” of the calamity that befalls him, but we never get the sense that he is anything but a fundamentally decent man who is truly concerned about the princess’ well-being. There are the scenes you mention where the Administration take stock of public opinion, as to be expected, but they aren’t particularly over-emphasized and don’t tip the show’s hand into broad “look, these clowns will simply do ANYTHING for approval/votes”. It’s a fine line and I think the show walks it beautifully, showing how everyone is sort of locked into this course (or thinks they are, with no one stepping back to question why). That the show goes all the way there is shocking, and the final shot of the PM alone at the bottom of the staircase is heartbreaking.

    2. As you say, the Princess wandering the streets alone, disoriented and in shock, with no one available to help her because they are all glued to screens is striking.

    3. I do think it says something about how the previously unthinkable becomes “acceptable” simply because we are all going through it, and how that’s sort of…weird. I mean, for most people goatse was something they never really WANTED to see, and yet we pranked each other with it, and now this thing that would have been considered clearly obscene (perhaps the kind of image that would be banned) not too long ago, is now just sort of this funny thing that happened on the Internet.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

      @glyph, the idea that everybody would be watching the PM follow orders suspends disbelief. Based on real life, we know that a significant part of the population would be completely oblivious to the situation. Some people don’t follow the news no matter how sensational. There are people in the developed world that have no idea about the Hebdo massacre or much of anything else. There will also be others that are aware of what is going on but don’t watch for a wide variety of reasons like they are really religious and perceive this act as obscene or they don’t want to reduce themselves to barbarity. Good television would take this into account.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

        @leeesq – unlike Hebdo, this was an event “promoted” in advance, “starring” one of the most well-known faces in the world. If Obama were going to sodomize a sheep on live television I imagine quite a few Americans would hear about that, and tune in.

        Not everyone, of course not; for a number of reasons some wouldn’t – but more would than wouldn’t, even if it was a later surreptitious viewing of a clip of the event, on Vine or YouTube or whatever. Sending GIFs of it would be the new Rickrolling.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

        the idea that everybody would be watching the PM follow orders suspends disbelief.

        I agree. I think the intention of the “artist” was for the country to unknowingly choose which kind of country it was and thus get what it deserved. If The People were “good”, everything would have turned out fine. The episode illustrates the consequences of that other possibility

        We don’t get to see what happens in the Good People country, but I sure hope that’s the world we live in, and not the one we see in this episode.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq – About this dichotomy you have seemingly set up between “good television” and “realistic”.

        The show’s creator has explicitly cited Twilight Zone as a model.

        Is TZ realistic?

        Or is it good television?

        Must we choose one or the other?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Vikram, it is potentially ethically possible to kind of watch the PM follow orders and be a good person. When people drive by an accident on the highway, the ethical thing to do is not to ignore it but to look slightly and than avert your gaze. In this way, you acknwoledge the accident but do not make a spectacle of it. A person could potentially turn on the spectacle but avert their attention rather than watched transfixed out of a sort of solidarity. In that way you acknowledge what the PM is having to go through without completely ignoring it.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

        This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

        For over an hour though?Report

  2. Avatar zic says:

    The general-public reaction shots are some of the most powerful TV I’ve ever seen.

    And I hated the ending. Hated it.

    I’m also intrigued by the ‘performance artist,’ who’s fate I’ll not reveal. But there’s something there, an exploration of creation as destruction, that’s a hallmark of the show, a delving into black water while seemingly keeping your feet dry.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to zic says:

      This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

      I agree the audience reaction shots were great; particularly as some people’s interest turns to “what am I doing?”

      What is it you hated about the ending?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        The wife’s response. A year later. If that’s the measure of her marriage, it was over long before her husband ever became prime minister. Her total self-absorption and disregard for what he went through — a kind of rape, I’d say — disgusted me.

        There’s this edge throughout what I’ve watched thus far, too; a lack of bringing a feminine sensibility to the production; female characters that feel like they’re responding not as real women, but as men think real women would respond. Not overt, but that ending and a few things in the next two shows reinforced the feeling.

        That said, I haven’t watched past episode 3, since that’s my review, and I hope that subtle niggling is vaporized with sudden insight that feels real.

        That complaint minor, and dwarfed by a huge casting bravo; the actresses look like real women, not the girl-women we see airbrushed and starved to ‘perfection’ cast in most American TV and movies. These women have crows feet, less-than-perfect hair, and a variety of real-woman sizes and shapes, without it being a joke or caricature. This is a beautiful thing to see on TV.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

        @zic – hmmm. Given time constraints I think they used some shorthand. Tod saw her as symbolic. I personally saw it not as her self-absorption at all – she appeared to love him quite a bit, was very concerned before he went through it, and was apparently the one person in the country not to watch as it happened. She also tried to contact him immediately after, but he was sick with disgust and would not answer her calls.

        I read it as him shutting her out due to shame and self-loathing, presumably for quite some time after the event; perhaps he was now ready to try to open back up and reconnect with her, but the damage has been done, not through any fault of hers (or his) but due to the situation that was forced upon them.

        Granted, that’s me reading into the situation, not anything that was shown, but I think it’s plausible that a marriage can fall apart in the wake of a traumatic event. Since he is the protagonist we see it from his “side” but I see no reason to assume that it’s her “fault”. She wasn’t presented as shrewish or anything prior to that scene.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Glyph says:

        @glyph before, the only explanation for her behavior is in how she begs him not to go through with it beforehand. I’d have to watch again, but that scene felt really selfish to me. That was what he had in his mind when he didn’t answer her phone call; not just disgust with himself, but know that he’d disgusted her, gone against her wishes.

        Women, successful political wives, are pragmatic.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Glyph says:

        zic,

        There were a few situations where suspending disbelief was required for that plot line to advance. Given that, the wife’s roll on the context of the show – black mirror, afterall – was to accentuate that her objections were all about how she’d be laughed at as a result his engaging in public pig-related-affections. She didn’t care about his personal insult, his career, any of the straight ahead politics or morality or principle. None of it. I thought it was a very nice counterpoint to the decision-making the PM was engaging in, myself.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Glyph says:

        how she begs him not to go through with it beforehand. I’d have to watch again, but that scene felt really selfish to me

        If begging him not to was selfish, it has to be the most excusable example of selfishness ever.Report

  3. Avatar Zac says:

    As someone who’s been a huge Black Mirror fan since its debut, I’m excited to see it getting discussed here. Any chance you’ll be doing reviews of the other episodes? I’d love to see the League’s take.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Zac says:

      Hey @zac – we plan on doing all of Season 1 at least. Vikram will be recapping S102 next Sunday, and zic will be doing S103 the Sunday after that.

      Would you be interested in recapping any of the S2 episodes, as a guest post? If so, let me know and I will shoot you a mail at the e-mail address you use on that reply.Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Glyph says:

        Ooh, I would love to do that; if it’s alright, I think I’d be best suited to talking about the new Christmas special, because there are a couple of things in play there that I feel like I could actually analyze with something approaching depth. Does that count as Season 2?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        I’m not against the idea, but as the Xmas Special hasn’t aired in the US except on DirectTV, and AFAIK there is no other legal way to see it currently, you may not get a lot of response from the regulars here (at least, I haven’t seen it, though I want to).

        Are you aware of any legal (or quasi-legal) way to see it? I know Tod found all of S1 on YouTube but I haven’t checked it for White Christmas.Report

  4. Avatar Zac says:

    Well, without explicitly implicating myself, I will simply say that I am not particularly familiar with viewing it via legal channels.

    That being said, I checked and it appears to be available in full on Youtube.Report

  5. Avatar Marchmaine says:

    But why?

    That is the question I kept asking myself watching the clock tick down. I’m gratified that they provided an clean answer… but isn’t that the point we should all be looking at?

    Otherwise the fascination is just that this is a brilliant mash-up of three dorm-room favorites: who-would-you-do combined with would you do “x” for $1 combined with 24, the series. And, as any 18-yr old learns, the only way to win is not to play at all (to borrow a phrase).

    I thought the most interesting line in the episode was in the voice-over at the end:
    ‘Vg jnf bar lrne ntb gung gur Gheare Cevmr-jvaavat negvfg, ‘Pneygba Oybbz, ‘pbreprq gur Cevzr Zvavfgre vagb pbzzvggvat na vaqrprag npg.
    ‘Nf gur naavirefnel neevirq, bar neg pevgvp pnhfrq pbagebirefl ‘ol qrfpevovat vg nf “gur svefg terng negjbex bs gur 21fg praghel”.

    The answer to that controversy, for me at least, would help me determine whether this is a show of subversive satire aimed at the dominant little “L” liberal establishment, or a dorm-room conundrum procedural. On the strength and potential of the first episode I watched the second, and am still pondering.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Marchmaine says:

      You mean why did Charlie Brooker make this show or episode? This is spoiler-free, not sure if it will help:

      http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=U2YPxSDIoPE

      And thank you for mentioning dorm-room games, I forgot to say that in my comment: based on this episode, the writer’s fear appears to be that social media and instant Internet feedback has the potential to help shove democracy into some demented game of “Truth or Dare”.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Marchmaine says:

      @marchmaine,

      The answer to that controversy, for me at least, would help me determine whether this is a show of subversive satire aimed at the dominant little “L” liberal establishment, or a dorm-room conundrum procedural

      I find it interesting that you feel the need to categorize this show – fit it neatly into an explanatory structure or ideological framework or etc – in order to understand it when (from my pov) the point of the show was to reveal how incapable our explanatory frameworks are when it comes to accounting for human behaviors and reactions. All the tension in the show derived from trying to figure out what the kidnapper wanted, determining his end-goal, sussing out his motivations, dealing with the consequences of being blackmailed and having to go thru with it… That everything turned out alright in the end for the main participants is just the final twist of the knife: once an action is valued simply for being a spectacle – valuing the role of spectating! – conventional logic doesn’t matter anymore. Something like that anyway.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Stillwater says:

        @stillwater I find it interesting that you thought the show illustrated how incapable our explanatory frameworks are when accounting for human behaviors. 🙂

        I found the show utterly predictable and not an ounce of tension in whether he would do it. Quite possibly, I am more experienced in the inevitable outcomes of stupid dorm-games.

        I certainly appreciate the social commentary on us as bystanders… I thought it well done. But as I say, the only real question – In my mind – is whether something larger than prurience is under the microscope.

        But my categorizing this is not political despite my use of the term liberal. My question is whether the show itself rises to the level of, well, art.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        I found the show utterly predictable

        Really? I didn’t, I have to say. Svaqvat bhg gung gur ubfgntr jnf serrq va n irel choyvp cynpr ng gung 30 zvahgrf orsber gur cebprrqvat jrer fpurqhyrq gb ortva jnf naq jrag haabgvprq jnf n gjvfg V qvqa’g rkcrpg. Bar gung nzhfrq zr terngyl, V nqzvg.

        I’m still uncertain about what the writer’s final message may have been, tho, and that little nagging feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable. I certainly don’t pretend to understand what that Real Message might be. So I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. Just contingently doing so. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Stillwater says:

        Agreed on the twist… most have focused on how it reflects on us, the chorus if you will, my only thought was what it revealed about the perpetrator; that and his final act. I almost think the show starts with those two things. But I agree that that is where lies the mystery.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Stillwater says:

        @marchmaine

        Prurience here is a vehicle to explore ‘viral,’ and perhaps the measure of its success is that the show seems relatively unheard of in the US; the show itself, despite the prurience of the first episode, is definitely not viral in US media in the way Sherlock or Downton Abbey.

        It reminded me most of the writing of William Gibson’s sci-fi set in the near-future, how when neruomancer came out, there was casette tape in the gutters, and by the time we got to Count Zero, there was fax paper. Similar events echoe and refract in the real world; Snowden and videos of drug rapes, celebrity nudies, beheadings.

        There were numbers of ways that could have produced a viral message; I’d suspect the pig and the princess were selected from a number of options to explore instant and world-wide video-gone-viral as a method of exerting power, I don’t thing viral messaging was selected as a way to have the PM shank a swine.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Stillwater says:

        @stillwater Qvqa’g gur negvfg nyfb unat uvzfrys orsber vg ortna?Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Stillwater says:

        zic – on the non-spolierly front, from a different subthread, there is a cliche (somewhat misogynistic in and of itself) that British actresses tend to me more ‘plain jane’ than their Hollywood counterparts. (‘Brit Hot’)

        To answer your question, no I don’t think so, there is a scene of him watching the live stream after various audience members’ faces start to show disgust and revulsion. Then we see the Princess, and then the final scene with him.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Stillwater says:

        there is a cliche (somewhat misogynistic in and of itself) that British actresses tend to me more ‘plain jane’ than their Hollywood counterparts. (‘Brit Hot’)

        Huh, I was not aware of this cliche.

        I have noticed that the casting director of this show seems to have an eye for very attractive brunettes.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Stillwater says:

        Glyph, I don’t think it necessarily applies to the UK that well but in Europe, not being drop dead gorgeous isn’t necessarily a detriment to an acting career as it is in the United States, especially if you are a woman. There are plenty of European actresses that are drop dead gorgeous but many are not at Hollywood standards either.

        A good example of this is the movie where Catherine Zeta-Jones played a gourmet chef. Its based on a German movie and the actress playing the lead in the original German movie is not close to the Hollywood ideal.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        Glyph,

        I don’t know nothin about the cliche (tho I like the phrase “Brit hot!”), but I have noticed, and even had discussions with other folks about, the British tendency to cast and present female actresses as “normal” looking. Or how ever that needs to be phrased to get the point across. They are very attractive in a non-Hollywood way might be more accurate phrasing. Yet another: they look like real people, not Barbie dolls.

        I dig itReport

  6. Avatar zic says:

    A few sub-themes.

    1. The PM was raped.

    2. There some issues of why he was raped to discuss; but it’s built upon the imperative to protect to be manly. Shanking the pig, despite being humiliating, was more manly then not shanking the pig.

    3. Performance art. This is street art; like grafitti. It’s skateboarding in public places. In your face, and meant to be offensive. Je suis Charlie.

    4. Still think it’s lacks feminine sensibility; rescuing the princess and PM’s wife defining herself by how people think about her sex-life with her husband. The only real thing, from my woman’s view, was the when the PM arneyl fgenatyrq gur oybaq ovgpu. That was good TV.

    And I still think the crowd shots the best thing ever. They told the story about us, awakening for a few moments, to conscience simultaneously. I loved that. That’s viral, too.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to zic says:

      I agree with number 4. Another example being the news reporter going to the bathroom at least one too many times; by then it was gratuitous and aside from that, disrupted the accounts receivable on who owed who a favor.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    A little text on a snowy but not snowy enough day to pad the gifts of gab. I’m surprised they closed the schools in the outer suburbs, but I guess didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco from a few weeks ago.

    1) My take is that the format is less police procedural a la NCIS:CSI:L&O and more Bizarro West Wing. And that’s the part that works best.

    2) “One of the transfixed” is none other than (sbezre) chauffeur to the Downton Abby estate, Thomas Branson. He must have not moved to America after all. In reverse spoiler territory, I thought that him being a bigger ‘name’ than most of the people would mean he had a bigger part. But that’s probably American bias in two parts. a) the leads are probably bigger actors in the UK (I didn’t know until I looked it up that the PM was in James Bond movies) and b) an endless stream of police procedurals makes me always look at Chekov’s Guest Star for the main third act focus.

    3) Along the lines of the questioning by Big Decionmakers, I think they erred by not making explicit talk on whether the PM should just resign. (something with far more precedent in the UK than in the US*). This makes it more difficult to determine if the characterization of the PM leans more to the tragic or contemptible sides of the scale. There is a clear imperative for political self preservation throughout the narrative, (and then stated bluntly that there was both personal and political self preservation at stake by the third act), but by not fully discussion the options during the ‘game plan’ segments, they made the moral calculus as determined by the show’s creator more difficult to ascertain.

    *but even the West Wing made a believable enough story arc of the President hanging it up for a bit when his daughter was kidnapped.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kolohe says:

      This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

      What would showing resignation talk have accomplished, either from a plot POV or an overall believability one? I have to believe that the kidnapper’s threat would simply have been modified to say “…and don’t think that simply resigning will save the princess either”.

      Do you mean after the fact?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        This first sentence is simply a bunch of pointless blather to prevent spoilers showing up in Gifts of Gab on the front page and can be ignored or skipped.

        IOW, this act was seemingly not *aimed* at the PM for any reason other than that he happened to be the PM; he was just part of the “art”, and resigning would have just put someone else in his place.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Glyph says:

        To be clear, and to fill up some space, I am in no way commenting on the realism of the show – though which I think it is congruent enough to reality to serve its themes well. And when it deviates, it does so for specific reasons. The show uses hyperbole to drive home its point like it was teed up for Rory McIlroy on the 18th hole at the Open Championship. (i.e. the streets being so empty that nobody, not even the police, notice the biggest bolo in the free world since the Lindbergh baby wandering across the Thames until she passes out)

        You’re absolutely right that the ‘art’ was aimed more at the office than the person, but part of the ‘art’ – and the show that was seen in our world – was how a man handles the Kobyashi Maru captain’s chair. Since it’s an anthology, there’s no backstory that pre-defines how the man got to 10 Downing Street, so they need to make use of some time – economical use to be sure – to let us know whether or not the man is worthy of the job. (Or make the point that no person is worthy of the job)

        The opening scene is great, and the PM has a very human reaction which makes him sympathetic. Most later vignettes indicate that he values his status as PM more than anything else (e.g. the fist clench when everything seems to be coming up Milhouse). But a scene that demonstrated whether or not he was willing to give it all up – or that he couldn’t – would have solidified the characterization on either side.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Glyph says:

        But that said, and a little bit more here because I didn’t answer the 2nd question, on the subject of ‘realism’, I don’t think The People(TM) are quite as morally vacuous as the show makes them out to be. One can easily find, for example, videos of Al Qaeda and ISIS atrocities, but the world are not transfixed by them. Perhaps more analogous, one can find (I believe, not 100% certain), photos of Princess Diana after her car accident in Paris, but that too holds no wide appeal even with the voyeristic paparazzi being forever linked with her death.

        It would have definitely been a different direction with him quitting after his ordeal, and that by itself might answer my criticism. It would have depended on what happened to his relationship with his wife, I guess.

        (on a separate note, they didn’t do any epilogue with the news reporter, the one that went to the scene, right? I was expecting something in the chyron crawl, but they totally cheated and used the same lorem ipsum block for all the scenes between the credits. I want my easter eggs, dammit!)Report

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