On Public Humiliation and Voyeurism: Black Mirror S01E01

If you’ve never heard of Black Mirror before, I guess you’ve been hiding under the same rock I’ve been under. Somehow I missed this show popping up in 2011 and running through 2014. Like a lot of British TV, "seasons" are short and episodes are long. This is not a show you should binge-watch, as every episode requires some mental digestion and processing.

Black Mirror bears a resemblance to The Twilight Zone, with an emphasis on the potential consequences of technology, so it’s pretty heavy into the sci-fi genre. Every episode features a different story, narrative setting, and cast. If you love British actors, movies, and TV, you will recognize a lot of your faves (for example: Hayley Atwell, and actors from Harry Potter and Downton Abbey). 

Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reviewing every episode, and leading directly into the new season coming in October. Spoilers are likely inevitable, so if you are interested in watching the show, you might want to watch the episode before reading my review on it.

Another word of warning: Black Mirror doesn’t shy away from sexual content, which is oftentimes disturbing. The first episode, in fact, is pretty wicked in this regard. Not sexual violence, exactly— just disturbing sexual content and implications. With a dash of bestiality (no worries, this is not a recurring theme in other episodes). [Editor's note: The rest of this post abounds in spoilers for the first episode.]

“The National Anthem” is an episode about the fictional Prime Minister of Britain, Michael Callow, who wakes up one day to face a shocking dilemma. Princess Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont, has been abducted, and a video of her appears on YouTube with her being forced to read the abductor's terms for her safe return. Turns out that in order for her to live, the Prime Minister must have sexual intercourse with a pig on national television, and the demands come with some highly specific technical requirements to ensure that the act isn’t faked. 

The PM’s office tries to keep it contained, but with the video on YouTube, that ship has sailed. The UK media initially agrees to keep the story quiet, but when the American media picks it up,  British media feels it cannot remain silent any longer and runs the story. 

It’s important to note that while the plot involves the Prime Minister and his office trying to get ahead of this and find a way to cheat it, the most important role does not have a single human face: YouTube, Twitter and the dregs of the commentariat loom large over the story. 

Seriously, the people who wrote this episode know their social media very, very well

You also have plenty of scenes that focus on the reactions of regular British citizens, and the episode believably tracks public opinion as it shifts from sympathetic towards Callow—with no expectation that he will go through with the act—to practically demanding that he cave into the abudctor's sordid demands in order to save the princess. A last-ditch attempt to find the misplaced noble in an abandoned building turns out to be a decoy and becomes disastrous when military forces injure a reporter in the process. With that failure and the public’s opinion turned ugly, Callow appears to have no choice: looks like he’s going to have to fuck a pig on TV. 

I won’t ruin the ending for you. Let’s talk about how frighteningly realistic this episode is, because it’s easily the most realistic of all the ones in seasons one and two. 

This can happen. The way the episode was written, it is extremely—frighteningly—plausible. For example, there is a scene where Callow’s wife made the dubious decision to read YouTube comments on the abduction video, and one of the comments laughingly talks about how she, Jane Callow, will be sucking bacon off her husband’s cock. 

Anyone who has ever experienced the absolute cesspool that is the YouTube comments knows this is exactly how it would be, especially in talking about a woman. The Twitter trends, the way public opinion shifts very swiftly and darkly, the fact that the public seems incapable of looking away from the spectacle: it’s so horrifyingly real and such a statement on humanity. We learn later that Bloom, the abductor, does all this to make a statement about how people are so distracted by media that they fail to notice what is happening in the real world. 

Given the terrible violation of Leslie Jones recently and the release of her nude pics to the public, there is so much to parse in this episode regarding the general grossness of the Internet, how people treat other human beings with such disregard, the hive-mind mentality of Twitter and social media in general—and even the way Jane Callow is treated despite the fact that she really has nothing to do with any of this.

And Bloom’s point (that people are easily distracted from real life by crap on a screen) is a valid one, even if he makes it in an extreme manner. I am reminded of the comment made by Roman poet Juvenal in 100 AD: panem et circenses, or bread and circuses. Stupid distractions keep the public from becoming involved in politics or things of import. This topic has been covered before in great detail, (yes there are 4 different articles there) with the media failing to cover important world events and instead focusing on celebrity trash (like Justin Bieber's run-ins with the law, for example). "The National Anthem" is about British citizens, but honestly, it could just as easily have been set in the US. If anything, I am vaguely surprised it isn't, because I always had the impression that UK audiences are less ignorant than we are.

Is there any greater circus act than Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube getting all excited about the latest celebrity nude pics—or about whatever the outrage du jour is before it blows over within a day or two? And what does it say about us when we are willing to engage in gross voyeurism at the expense of a human's dignity whose main sin is that they happen to live in the public eye? 

Bread and circuses, my friend. Bread and circuses.

You can watch seasons one and two and the Christmas special of Black Mirror on Netflix right now in the US, with a longer run of season three about to premiere on Netflix on October 21, 2016.

Ivonne Martin is a writer, gamer, and avid consumer of all things geek—and is probably entirely too verbose for her own good.