It looks like there are a total of 13 episodes altogether. So, I don't know; I can promise to do one for each contribution I get in the next week? If I get 11 new contributors I'll write about all the episodes...less than that, and no promises.
The remainder of this series will be paywalled for $2/month subscribers, presuming there's any interest.
And without further ado, here we go...
The first episode of the Netflix anthology horror show
Black Mirror, titled "The National Anthem," is generally seen in the
context of 2011 British politics. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker,
the plot is about the kidnapping of Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) by a
mysterious terrorist who demands in return for her release that the prime
minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) fuck a pig on live television. Callow
is an obvious analog for David Cameron—even more obvious in retrospect, since some time after the episode aired rumors began to circulate that he had had sex with apig as part of a college hazing ritual. Princess Susannah is an amalgam of
Princess Dianah and Kate Middleton—an environmental advocate and celebrity
adored by the public. The episode is, then, about the hapless vileness, and
vile haplessness, of national politics—it's a contemporary satire.
British politics is not the only inspiration for the episode, however. . "The National Anthem", intentionally or otherwise, references what may be the single most famous
rape scene in cinema: the traumatic homosexual assault in Deliverance (1972). In the Georgia wilderness, two feral, slavering hillbillies capture Atlanta tourist Bobby and force him to strip and squeal like a pig at gunpoint before raping him.
As contemporary satire, "The National Anthem"
sardonically critiques social media and public sadism, which implicates those
who watch Callow's debasement, whether on television or on Netflix. The Prime
Minister at first refuses point blank to have intercourse with a pig, even to
save the popular royal, but events—or rather, the public and the media—conspire
against him. Susannah's hostage video is posted to YouTube, and quickly leaks
to the public and the media, despite the governments efforts to contain it. A
plot to digitally place Callow's head on a porn star's body is foiled when
someone snaps the star's picture while he's en route to the studio. After the
kidnapper sends a severed finger to the authorities, public opinion swings against Callow, and, as a creature of public opinion, his fate is sealed.
So, in hilarity and horror, the public who has forced
him to have sex with a pig watches him have sex with a pig, helpless witnesses
to their own callous moral calculus. When one woman in a crowd, disgusted,
tries to turn off the television, a man beside her stops her. "This is
history, isn't it?" he says. The Netflix viewer may condemn that guy—but after
all, the Netflix viewer is watching too. Social media has crowdsourced sadism;
we're all responsible for revenge porn.
If "The National Anthem" is seen as an heir of Deliverance, on the other hand, the film is less about implicating the viewer, and more about implicating the filmmaker. "The National Anthem" is in this respect similar to Psycho, or The Birds, or other Hitchcock films, in that it is an elaborate mechanism for violating its protagonist. Like Marion Crane, Callow is dropped into a plot that leaves him pinned on the screen by the remorseless camera's eye in a tableau of penetration and horror. If he does not save the princess, his advisor finally tells him, he will be the most despised man in Britain, and the government will not be able to (or won't bother to) protect him, or his family, from violent retribution. It's no accident that the advisor who delivers this blackmail ultimatum is a woman (Lindsay Duncan), underlining Callow's emasculation and helplessness.
The episode does sympathize with Callow to some extent.
He movingly declares his love for his wife before he begins with the pig,
prompting sympathetic groans from the television audience which let you know
you're supposed to feel bad for him and feel guilty for enjoying the rush of
empathy. The camera also shows Callow afterwards in the bathroom weeping, vomiting and devastated, a broken man.
But the episode is also arranged
for sadistic glee and mockery. Brooker even provides a tell, in the
after-credits revelation that the kidnapping plot was organized by an artist as
a kind of performance art piece. Callow's humiliation was arranged, and
meta-arranged, by a shadowy director to make a statement about the public, the
government, and Technology Today.
What is that statement exactly, though? Well, in part the
statement is that Brooker dislikes David Cameron, or, at least, enjoys the idea
of bringing him down a peg. As Callow's wife Jane (Anna Wilson-Jones)
perceptively tells her husband, his humiliation doesn't depend on actually
fucking the pig. As soon as the idea is out there in the world, people will
begin thinking about Cameron, or Callow, and the pig. That's why slander, and
particularly sexual slander, is so demeaning. It makes people see you as an
object—of ridicule, of pity, and of disgust.
The use of sexual assault to upend the social order and ridicule
the powerful is a well-established trope. In Deliverance, the rape of Bobby is presented as a revenge of the marginalized country upon the unaccountable, smug city dwellers. Similarly, in I Spit on Your Grave, Straw Dogs, and The Hills Have Eyes,
well-off, urban women are humiliated and raped as a kind of class revenge. The
effete power structure is overturned, as the virile lumpen seize power through
There are a couple of differences between these B-movie
schlock revenge fantasies and "National Anthem". In the first
place, rape/revenge, by its nature, insists on a just distribution of violence.
Audiences may get some catharsis from the way that poor rural men in I Spit On
Your Grave reverse power dynamics in a gout of blood, sex, and violence…but
that audience (and the filmmaker) then takes just as much pleasure as the process is reversed and the rape victim becomes the perpetrator, literally castrating her
attackers as she turns them into impotent slabs of bleeding meat.
In "National Anthem," though, there is no
revenge. The artist who arranged Callow's humiliation kills himself; Callow
never gets anything like justice, much less retribution. And, since he is
denied the narrative closure of rape/revenge, he never becomes an actor in his
own life—which means that he is always passive and thus always, in Hollywood's
bland moral logic, contemptible. A year after his rape, we see Callow with some
reporter's narration, attending public events, kicking a soccer ball, and
generally looking cheerful and blandly prime ministerial, perhaps buoyed by the
fact that his poll numbers are up. But when he enters his own house, away from
the cameras, his wife stalks away from him as he calls her name helplessly.
If Jane had been sexually assaulted, and Michael had
reacted by shunning her: well, feminism has provided us with a way to talk
about why that's wrong. When the victim is a man, though, it's often more
difficult to acknowledge, or even to see, rape. Jane had begged her husband not to go through with the kidnapping demands. He did so anyway, and she blames him for it.
More, the filmmakers seem to agree with her, at least to some degree. Callow has gained political advantage from his actions; he was manipulated by fickle public opinion and opportunistic, weasily advisors. Plus, he's David Cameron, and who doesn't hate David Cameron? Callow's ridiculous where he should be dignified; he's weak where he should be strong; he let himself be hurt. He's not a man. And when a man isn't a man, he deserves what he gets.
The up-to-the-minute obsession with social media and
hi-tech public shaming, then, is a slight of hand to distract viewers, and
perhaps the filmmakers, from a much older logic of shame and rape. "The
National Anthem" indicts viewers for being part of a culture of online
public shaming, while using its elaborate outrageous plot to underplay the fact
that the show is a snickering, victim-blaming depiction of sexual
violence. "The National Anthem" encourages you to salute, not the flag, but Charley Brooker and his virtuoso cleverness. He has orchestrated a rape, and gotten people to applaud him for it. That must make him The Man.
Note: i've been told the supposed revelations about Cameron and his pig didn't come out till after this episode...so I suppose this is weirdly prescient? anyway, I've tweaked the piece to reflect this.