Charlie Brooker is famed for his sarcastic critique of modern society, and particularly scathing and pessimistic humour directed towards the media. Black Mirror portrays the dark side of technology in the near future, and the title was inspired by both the Arcade Fire song and the bleak sensation of looking at a “cold, shiny screen“. Spoiler warning.
In the first episode, “The National Anthem“, Rory Kinnear plays a Prime Minister faced with the difficult situation of negotiating the kidnapping of Princess Susanna (with clear allusions to Kate Middleton, the nation’s darling). The ransom contains the simple and bizarre demand that the Prime Minister have sex with a pig live on TV, with technicalities that make it almost impossible to fake.
The ransom video spreads virally through Twitter and Youtube and is censored by the government, but not before the hostage situation becomes a national controversy. The hashtag #pigfucker is used by the public to ridicule the embarrassing but also precarious circumstances, and ironically this hashtag trended in real life after the episode was broadcast.
The Prime Minister is faced with an almost impossible choice: go through with the demand and sabotage his career and private life, or refuse and risk the execution of the Princess.
With the public mocking, the cabinet at a loss, and the royal family breathing down his neck, the audience watches Prime Minister Callow break down.
The scene where Prime Minister Callow actually commits the deed is harrowing. For the viewers in the real world, it is a surreal experience; the scene cuts between the politicians in the studio and the public’s reactions. All mocking and anticipation is stripped away as we watch a broken and desperate man. The cinematography creates an unrelenting focus on the sense of the obscene. Bestiality is one of the last transgressions within modern society, so by using the breaking of this taboo as the crux of the plot, Black Mirror was effective at creating a morbid fascination for the viewer.
Princess Susannah is found alive and well after the transmission, but it transpires she was released before the captor’s deadline, unnoticed by the population captivated by the broadcast. The perpetrator is later discovered to have been a fictional Turner Prize-winning artist Carlton Bloom, who took his own life during the broadcast. Bloom’s intent was to highlight the public and government’s distraction from important events, and society’s fixation with technology and it’s impact on our identities and reputations.
A year later, the Prime Minister’s career is still intact; he has gained respect and admiration from the public for putting his dignity on the line, but his personal life is in tatters. whilst Princess Susannah has recovered and is expecting a child. The public and Prime Minister Callow remain ignorant that the artist released the Princess early.
Brooker’s dark message challenges our obsession with criticising public figures and the nature, definition and boundaries of art. As well as this, the episode focuses on the pressurised and co-dependent relationship between public, media and government. With cracking cinematography, a solid cast and a harrowing plot, this set the standard for the series.