Black Mirror: The National Anthem ★★★★½

I remember seeing this episode sometime last year or something for the very first time because I had heard great things about Black Mirror and wanted to know what it was about and what it was like. I quickly found out that there is no simple answer to that question as the anthology format of the series means it can be pretty much anything it wants. Comparisons have been made saying that this is a modern The Twilight Zone, which I cannot comment on because I will admit that I have never seen a single episode of the show, but the fact that this episode was so good and I think the idea of shows that have a different story every episode is so ingenious [it] makes me want to watch the rest of Black Mirror and Twilight Zone because of it.

Now, I must say, when I first saw this episode, I loved it for many of the same reasons that I am about to talk about in this specific review. However, I was so disturbed by it that I decided I needed to take a break from the show before watching it again. That RARELY happens to me. Usually, when I see a film or TV show that is dark and disturbing for a specific narrative purpose, I am okay with having watched it or am excited to continue watching the show. With this episode, however, I just had to take a break. I'm gonna be honest, that is a testament to how well the filmmakers for this episode executed the story in this episode. Seriously, I have no words to describe how this story shouldn't work in so many ways but does in so many ways.

Let me start off with the fact that this episode does something that I have never seen in any form of media before, at least not done this well. It is an absolutely perfect mixture of political and societal satire and realism. Those contrasting styles shouldn't work together at all, but somehow, Otto Bathurst and Charlie Brooker find a way to combine these two things and make them fit together perfectly. The effect this episode has on you when you watch it for the first time is definitely diminished the second time you watch it simply because the over-the-top premise is best experienced if you know nothing about it. That's why I'm avoiding talking about the major story line of this episode: I don't want to spoil ANYTHING for you. Just watch the episode. Please. Here's what I will tell you: the first half of this episode is absolutely ridiculous in the best of ways. Everyone involved in the episode is taking this scenario super seriously except for the characters directly involved with trying to figure out how to navigate the situation appropriately, who recognize the concept is completely stupid and over-the-top. The episode knows immediately what tone it needs to set in order for the audience to be engaged and it establishes that it knows it's a dumb and very weird premise. As the episode continues, however, and you realize the final outcome might be unavoidable, you slowly start to realize how incredibly, unbelievably accurate this episode is if this scenario, God forbid, were to happen in real life. That subtle shift from satire to realism is what makes The National Anthem so unique.

This episode is a genius commentary on media, on the way it laps up stories, on the way that people react impulsively and emotionally to stories they probably know barely anything about, how politicians and other famous figures make up an image to display to the public, how damaging one single post on the Internet can be, how people view some stories as entertainment and don't take the time to think about the real people behind them, and so, so much more... and it absolutely knows it. It understands completely what message it's trying to tell with the way people react to media stories and it uses that understanding to its advantage to make a point about how we can really make any situation entertaining in our eyes. What I love about this second viewing is that there are character decisions that I didn't understand at all the first time I watched this episode that I understand and absolutely adore now-- the prime minister getting angry for the wrong decisions being made, his wife saying that the public and maybe even she will never see the prime minster in the same way again, the manipulation at hand between the different media companies to get the story that they want-- it's all great stuff. There's a chilling scene near the end of the episode involving a sonic tone on TV screens, and you can hear it throughout the entire town because no one is in the streets and no one is driving around-- they're all inside glued to the TV screen. It's such a chilling image and I didn't even notice it the first time around and I love it.

Before I go any further, I have to say: Rory Kinnear is absolutely phenomenal here. This role is so demanding and emotionally difficult. How in the world do you put yourself in an emotional situation like this? Kinnear finds a perfect way to do it with his natural delivery, his incredible emotional scenes, and his genuine looking reactions. Yes, the acting in this episode is phenomenal all around, but if the lead role was miscast or misdirected, the entire episode would crumble around it. The director and writer asks a lot of Kinnear for this episode, and he absolutely nailed it. This brings me back to the film making-- the direction is on-point, particularly with the pretty intense action sequences that have you glued to the screen the entire time (especially one involving storming a campus), and I love that a lot of the news footage in this episode looks authentic. I genuinely cannot tell you which newsreel scenes are real and which ones are fake, that's how realistic they look. Charlie Brooker's script, like I said, finds that perfect balance between satire and reality that I honestly never would have even thought was possible to create but has been created here. It's absolutely incredible what the filmmakers were able to do in just 45 minutes, and it's marvelous.

Now, there are some stand out flaws here and there. There's a certain appendage that just doesn't quite look real (you probably know what I'm talking about if you've seen the episode), some of the overhead shots look like they're composite CGI shots and are a smidge dated, some of the people feel like caricatures for most of the episode (I get it, that's what they were going for, but still, even the entirety of Downing Street feel like actual people and some of the citizens just don't at all), and there's a really weird edit where you see the prime minister sitting in the car, they cut to when he's out of the car and closes the door, and then they cut away immediately to the next scene. That was a jarring edit that was really poorly placed, in my opinion. Aside from those minor flaws, however, this is a masterpiece in television storytelling. In 45 minutes, The National Anthem gives an astounding message about the media and our obsession with it by combining elements of satire and realism like no other TV episode has ever done and it adds a compelling, thrilling, morally confusing story and fantastic performances, writing, and direction to boot. What more could you ask for in a great TV episode?

Letter Grade: A

Of course, all of these episodes being stand-alone episodes, they are all uploaded to Letterboxd. I plan on watching the rest of the series, which means I plan to review every individual episode of Black Mirror (along with Bandersnatch because I've got a cool way to approach reviewing it and I don't see why I shouldn't) at some point. I don't know how soon I will review all of them (or even the next one, to be honest), but I absolutely want to continue watching this show. Yes, I will be watching the show in order. I know it doesn't matter what order I watch the episodes in, but I like watching things in order. So there.

I hope I didn't talk about plot details of this episode enough for you to know what the heck it's about or how it ends. Please just watch it knowing as little as you possibly can. If you like creepy stuff, you are going to adore this episode.