Monday, October 11, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: The National Anthem

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Today we go way back to where it all started with Black Mirror's series premiere and my #9: The National Anthem.

The Talent: 
As would be true of most Black Mirror episodes, Charlie Brooker turns in the script. Otto Bathurst, a television director with mostly British credits, takes the reins. While there are some familiar character actor faces, the cast is fairly unrecognizable (at least to your average American). 

The Setup: 
In what is most likely Black Mirror's least altered universe, everyday London is shaken when a beloved member of the royal family is kidnapped. The ransom video is chilling...and odd. For the return of the United Kingdom's Princess Susannah, Prime Minister Michael Callow must have sex with a pig, on camera, for the world to see.

The Ending: 
After sorting through every possible attempt around the terms (body double, CGI, police investigation to locate Susannah), know...

has sex with a pig on camera for the world to see.

Susannah is returned unharmed, the kidnapper found on a noose of his own tying, the first lady still disgusted by her husband one year later, and the world pretty much continuing as it was, the whole ordeal a footnote in Callow's now successful term. 

The Theme:
There are a few ways to look at what The National Anthem is trying to do: a damnation of a highly connected world that forces the general populace to take part in something as awful as pig rape, the clinically detached laws of politics that put the latest polling numbers ahead of anything as trifling as a human life or pig's dignity, and, if you want to be meta about the whole thing, a sort of thesis for what Black Mirror intends to do: hold a slightly skewed reflecting device up against our own society and challenge our own morality. 

The Verdict:
Considering where Black Mirror would go over its 6 season (and a disappointing interactive movie) run, it's rather fascinating in hindsight that The National Anthem serves as the pilot. It's the least fantastical in terms of its world, with really no science fiction or slightly altered technological leaps that would become so expected in later episodes. 

But in a way, that's kind of perfect. The National Anthem feels raw, as if it's Charlie Brooker's barebones introduction to a world on the other side of the pond of The Twilight Zone. There are some plot threads that feel slightly messy (the journalist's ill-fated scoop was apparently supposed to connect us to the hospital staff's whole facility pause to watch the event, which perhaps explains why both character groups feel slightly unfinished) but on the whole, this episode wastes little time and manages to throw out its questions without demanding any answers. 

Technology Tip:
While The National Anthem's drama is heavily affected by the prominence of social media, there's not really much that could have been done that differently in order to change the outcome of events. There is a rather hilarious moment where traditional news media outlets are working through what language can be used on air, only to be outscooped by the internet, where no rules apply.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 
Can I really quantify this with a number? Those who suffer here, to a wide variety of degrees: PM Callow, his in-name-only wife, anyone with a television screen...and the pig, who never consented to intercourse with a human, much less for said act to be televised. I don't know...7?

Quality Scale: 
Let's stick with the theme and go with a 7/10. For the premier of a series, The National Anthem is a confident, blackly funny introduction to the Brooker universe that wisely doesn't aim to do too much. 
Enjoyment Scale:
While it's far less flashy than most of what would come after, there's some clever humor that manages to settle the action without ever minimizing the fact that this is a pretty awful moral situation. Is it fun to watch? Kind of. We'll stick with what's working: 7/10
Up Next (Month): We'll keep the October spirit pumping in November for Black Mirror's most horror-themed installment, Metalhead

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