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  • Writer's pictureKaty Craig

"The National Anthem"

Black Mirror Season 1, Episode 1

Prime Minister Michael Callow faces a shocking dilemma when Princess Susannah, a much-loved member of the Royal Family, is kidnapped. Image taken from Netflix thumbnail. Caution: Spoilers ahead.

"The National Anthem" is an episode of the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror that explores the intersection of technology, politics, and media in a society that is obsessed with public image and sensationalism. The episode is as shocking and disturbing as its subject and themes, and I usually urge new viewers to skip this episode and come back to it after watching a few others first.

The UK prime minister is faced with a difficult decision when a beloved princess, think Princess Diana in the early 90s, is kidnapped and the kidnappers demand that he perform a degrading sex act on live television in order to secure her release. Despite all his efforts to contain the news the kidnappers trump that by using YouTube and the Internet to force the news and their demands to go viral.

The themes of "The National Anthem" include the dangers of media sensationalism and the power dynamics at play in politics and media. Viewers are gleefully horrified by the kidnapping, the demands, and later the dismemberment of the princess' finger and the media becomes frenzied risking life and limb to get details. This episode highlights the way in which technology can be used to manipulate and control people, and it suggests that our reliance on it can lead to a lack of genuine human connection, an erosion of empathy and compassion, and a decline in our sense of morality. This is in full display by the callousness of viewers' comments regarding the princess, the prime minister, and whether or not the ransom demands be met.

The most disturbing aspect about this episode are the viewers shown reacting to the news. So many are callous and desensitized and make glib jokes. Removed from the horror of the demands on the Prime Minister, they're free to dehumanize both victims, and their loss of agency, privacy, and dignity. The person who seems to suffer the most is the Prime Minister's wife.

The prime minister is torn between his duty to protect the princess and his desire to preserve his own reputation and political career. The media becomes obsessed with the story and the public becomes divided over whether the prime minister should comply with the kidnappers' demands. In the end, the prime minister decides to go through with the act in order to save the princess, but his reputation is permanently tarnished as a result. I believe he ultimately did it because as his wife tells him, "they are all already seeing it. In their heads."

The episode also touches on the theme of the blurred lines between public and private life in the age of social media, as the prime minister's personal and professional lives are put on display for the entire world to see. True, public officials should expect a loss of privacy but some areas of life should be off limits to the public, even for the British Prime Minister.

Truly disgusting behavior and pointed out by the tortured artist turned kidnapper who points at the darkness inside so many people who delight in sensational and often horrifying news and videos.


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