Black Mirror: The National Anthem
British prime minister Michael Callow is woken up by a phone call to inform him that that Princess Susannah has been kidnapped.
In a ransom video, the kidnapper says that the only way to ensure her safe return is to have sexual intercourse with a pig, live on national television, by 4 p.m. that day.
The video was posted in YouTube, which has allowed tens of thousands (and later millions) of people to watch it, despite the government’s efforts to take down copies of the video. They also issue a D-Notice to the media requesting that they do not run the video, which holds for a while.
While Callow is determined to put a stop to it before 4 p.m., his home secretary secretly makes arrangements for a porn star to be broadcast with the prime minister’s head superimposed. A person at the studio sees the porn star being brought in and tweets a photo, after which the kidnapper sends Princess Susannah’s severed finger and an additional video to a news outlet. The video warns the government not to try any trickery. Public opinion shifts after seeing this, and the majority of the public now thinks that Callow should do it for the sake of Susannah.
Meanwhile, an armed team raids the location to which they traced the YouTube upload, but instead finds a decoy doll and shoots a member of the press who was secretly streaming the operation.
With the deadline looming, Callow’s home secretary tells him that his public image and family’s personal safety will be jeopardized if he does not comply with the kidnapper. He reluctantly agrees. Possession of a recording of the broadcast will become illegal at midnight, and a nauseating tone is played on stations before the broadcast begins. 1.3 billion people watch.
Princess Susannah is found soon afterwards on the Millennium Bridge, and the home secretary covers up the fact that she was released thirty minutes before the broadcast began for Callow’s personal sake. The finger sent to the media was actually artist Carlton Bloom’s, who orchestrated this kidnapping as a performance art piece. He hanged himself during the broadcast.
A year later, we find the Callow is still in office and his approval ratings have actually improved by 3%. At home and behind closed doors, however, he begs his wife to speak to him as she silently walks away.
Old vs. new media
One theme of this episode is the proliferation of social and viral media. Although Black Mirror often deals with slightly futuristic scenarios or technology, this episode is extremely strong because we can imagine it reasonably happening in our world today.
The entire incident is only able to happen because the video was originally uploaded to YouTube. While the video spreads rapidly on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, traditional TV news is left covering unrelated issues because of the D-Notice.
The government only has tools to slow news of the kidnapping as it’s covered in traditional media, but they have no control over how it’s shared internationally through social media. They’re left scrambling to try to organize a response.
The people are able to triumph over the government because they have the tools to quickly spread information without being censored, but the internet also becomes a viscous hive mind that wants to see the prime minister humiliated.
Public opinion also plays a huge role in pressuring Callow to go through with the sex act. In the beginning, only a quarter of people think that he should go through with the kidnapper’s demands. However, once “Susannah’s” finger is sent to the media, public opinion shifts so that 86% of people think that he should take one for the team.
Although it’s what people think they want, it’s clear from their reactions to the actual 4 p.m. broadcast that most people are disgusted. And an hour later, as it’s still going, people can’t tear their eyes away from the screen but nobody looks entertained.
There’s a parallel from these people watching Callow have sex with a pig, and us watching them. We can’t tear our eyes away from it either.
People are so absorbed with the vile broadcast that they don’t even notice that Princess Susannah was released before it even began. We see an eerily empty Millennium Bridge, and nobody finds Susannah until after the broadcast because everybody is inside watching. They’re captivated by the theater of it all, and forget that it’s all happening because of a kidnapping.