Episode 336: Black Mirror – The Pig Effing Trolley Problem

The Overthinkers tackle Black Mirror, now available to US viewers on Netflix.

Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, Ryan Sheely, and Matthew Wrather are joined by guest podcasters and significant others Rachel D and Fiona S to overthink Black Mirror.

→ Download Episode 336 (MP3)

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12 Comments on “Episode 336: Black Mirror – The Pig Effing Trolley Problem”

  1. Appleby #

    Surprised and glad to hear Black Mirror getting some discussion, you’ve got to come back and do it again after watching series 2 as well. Either that, or a different Channel 4 show (not BBC. Different state broadcaster entirely): Babylon.

    Do you guys know who Charlie Brooker, the guy who wrote Black Mirror, is? It felt like that was really missing from the discussion around episode 2. You can (and should) read some of his articles and watch Screen/Newswipe (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59OJ17raqWw). The basic point is that he has a role in British culture which is very close to that of the protagonist by the end of the episode. It doesn’t change the substance of the story much, but it made the whole thing much more effective for me.

    That ties into a point about Pete’s suggestions for how to make the two episodes he saw “Better”, and Matt’s Donkey F*ing conundrum. Each episode ends with a similar note: people get what they want, but the results aren’t as expected. The Lawyer proves he’s right in Ep3, the protagonist makes his voice heard in Ep2, and everyone gets to watch the PM turn X-rated Kermit in Ep1. They have to get what they want in order for the darkness to reflect back.

    When you do (and I really hope you do) Series 2, try to get Tim Swann or another Brit involved so you can get a native perspective.

    PS. Surely there are numerous examples of the US negotiating with terrorists? The Iranian example comes to mind immediately. The US and the UK together on Good Friday. And the metaphor for representative democracy definitely holds, remember the bowl of s**t speech from The Wire? The exceptionalism that popped up part way through just seemed a little odd.


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      I knew Charlie Booker was a cultural commentator before he became a television creator, but it didn’t occur to me that Bing could be seen as a black mirror for the show’s creator. That’s fascinating, because Bing seems to be a giant sell-out at the end. Or is he genuinely trying to make a difference, and just getting rich in the process? It’s pretty fascinating.

      As for the note of exceptionalism, I want to apologize if it came off that way. But I do think it’s hard to imagine any American president even remotely considering a public submission to terrorist demands, even much more mild ones than the episode presents. It wouldn’t be seen as a noble act of selflessness. It would be seen as an intolerable show of weakness.

      (That’s not to say that the government doesn’t negotiate with all kinds of unsavory people to secure the release of American citizens ALL THE TIME. But there’s a big difference between closed door negotiations and public humiliation.)

      But I think the difference here is the unique position of the royal family, and especially the princess (thinly fictionalized here, but we all know who it is). In America, we don’t have anyone so universally beloved that the public would demand we pay any price.

      So let me ask you as one of the Queen’s subjects, does the Prime Minister’s capitulation in this episode seem plausible? Because people would never ever forgive him for letting her die?


      • Appleby #

        It’s totally plausible, in that it’s what politicians have to do every single day of their jobs. In the metaphorical sense, they must f pigs, eat bowls of doo doo, and generally demean themselves in an effort to placate a mindless storm of opinion all the time.

        That’s why I feel this is universal. The US may not have a person who someone would be expected to ritually humiliate themselves for, but I doubt Obama liked the taste in his mouth over the years when he opposed gay marriage (along with the million other compromises politicians have to make for the sake of their image, the party, the country, etc.).

        The metaphor may be slightly more applicable to the UK because of the relationship between the Government and the Civil Service (see Yes Minister, Yes Prime-Minister, and The Thick of It), but maybe not…

        This tension between the inhuman demands of politics and the limitations of the people trying to satisfy them was further explored in the Season 2 episode The Waldo Moment. Seriously, just watch and then discuss season 2! I mean, look at the posters they did for it: http://www.inquirelive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/black-mirror-season-2-tv-show-poster-01-1131×546.jpg

        Just one more bit of local flavour:
        Rather than Shatner, the casting choice for the National Anthem looked to me an awful lot like Mark Oaten, whose story isn’t really the same, but (at the time) it may have seemed like the horrid peak of the tragic gunge that pumped through Westminster.


        • Stokes OTI Staff #

          Yeah, it’s a metaphorical pig that he effs, right? And at the end, it’s not because the terrorist asked for it, but because the public did. The public demands that he do something unconscionable, so he does it. Jack Bauer came up on the podcast. Let’s say that instead of the pig, the President is asked to sign off on the systematic torture of prisoners who have never been afforded a trial. Can we imagine a US president doing that? (In an UNWD between the two of those, by the way, sign me up for the pig.)

          I think though that if we’re going to start playing “in real life, nobody would actually – ,” we need to start with “in real life, no terrorist would actually demand that a politician perform an act of public bestiality.”


          • Stokes OTI Staff #

            p.s. Sorry, didn’t finish my thought. So: “In real life, no terrorist would demand that a politician perform an act of public bestiality, BUT, if that ever DID happen, it would make the terrorist seem so insane that no politician would go through with it — and no public would demand that the politician go through with it — because it wouldn’t even cross anybody’s mind that the terrorist might be negotiating in good faith.”

    • Connor Moran #

      The official US government policy on hostage taking, from the US Secretsry of State’s manual is:

      The U.S. Government will make no concessions to individuals or groups holding official or private citizens hostage. The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of U.S. citizens who are held hostage. At the same time it is U.S. Government policy to deny hostage takers the benefit of ransom, prisoner releases, policy change, or other acts of concession

      7 FAM 1823 (emphasis in original). Available here: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/86829.pdf

      It doesn’t specify pig-effing, but I think that would fall under “acts of concession.” (Or maybe “policy change?). The policy is usually stated as “we will not negotiate with terrorists” but really it’s “we will not give anything to someone who takes a hostage.”

      With regard to the Iranian situation, there are two possible incidents you could be referring to–the Iranian hostage crisis or the Iran-Contra affair. During the hostage crisis the US government did negotiate, but with the government of Iran, not with the hostage takers. The Iran-Contra affair is more complex, involving the sale of arms to Iran in part in order to secure Iran’s assistance in getting some hostages held by an Iraninan-linked group in Lebanon. It’s complicated but suffice to say that exchange does not exactly reflect official US policy in a variety of ways–people were indicted for it.


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Appleby and Stokes –

    You guys are right of course. I’m being too literal about the rediculous situation, when it’s clearly supposed to be symbolic (much like the bikes in the second episode, which are hard to rationalize).

    HOWEVER… I still feel like the episode feels off to me. If it’s meant to be a satire of how politics works, then I think it fundamentally misunderstands how politics works. I think even if the Prime Minister WANTED to submit to the demands (let’s say it was his daughter) his party would never stand for such a show of weakness. Or maybe they would privately insist that he do it to save the princess, but then publically throw him under the bus and distance themselves from his acquiescence.

    I realize that I’m insisting on House of Cards solutions to a Black Mirror problem, but I’m a bit of a political junkie and it’s hard for me to turn that off.

    Bottom line, if the episode is supposed to be about how politicians will do absolutely ANYTHING the public wants them to, then I fundamentally disagree. The problem with our democracies is not that they are TOO responsive to the public. Kind of the opposite (says the leftie whose party is out of power).


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Yeah, it sounds like the show that you WANT to watch is something more in the speculative fiction vein, where you take an unrealistic situation and then play out the consequences of that situation as realistically as you possibly can. So either “given that a terrorist has made a demand, what would the prime minister actually do,” or “given that the prime minister has been coerced into effing a pig on live television, what would the actual personal and political consequences be?”

      I think that when you phrase it that way, it’s clear that this isn’t what the episode is trying to do. But I’ll give you this: the show you want to watch sounds like it would be rad as hell. It’s not even a House of Cards solution to a Black Mirror problem, it’s a West Wing solution to a Black Mirror problem. Someone greenlight this immediately.


  3. Timothy J Swann #

    Thank you Appleby for mentioning the key thing about Bing being Brooker. 15 Million Merits is my favourite episode of the whole show, and I was so invested when I watched it that he kill Wraith, Hope and Charity that the twist hit me hard. I always saw the bikes as “employment” in a sort of Victorian workhouse way, like the original Treadmill, with its moral component.

    As for the National Anthem, I recall that the real event it was based on was “Bigotgate” where Gordon Brown called a woman a bigot (and she was one!) and was heard because his mic was left on, and the press and public opinion forced him into an apology in a humiliating way that totally eclipsed the whole election campaign and completely obscured anything about policy, so to me there was something in there that “populist” papers like the Sun would push for such humiliations of those in power on the supposed name of the people but really to reinforce their power.


  4. Timothy J Swann #

    Oh and I feel that it’s worth mentioning that Episode 2 was cowritten by Konnie Huq, Brooker’s wife and former presenter of one of Britain’s biggest children’s shows but also of one of the X Factor shows, so may have some relation to her experiences with that.


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      Might have to watch episode 2 again. I think the Network comparison is apt, but it’s even darker. In Network, the network is exploiting a crazy guy who doesn’t know he’s being exploited (at least that’s how I remember it). In “15 Million Merits,” Bing is NOT crazy, which makes him either a sell-out, an idealist working from within the system, or playing some sort of a long game we can only speculate about. It makes the whole thing into a conflicted meta-statement about the show itself. Booker is making a TV show about the dangers of mass media, and he not only understands how inherently problematic that is, he makes a great hour of television out of it.


      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        I did finally watch the rest of the show, and one thing that stuck with me about episode 2 is the subplot of the plainer girl who likes Bing and the repeating motif of the trick to take the apple from the vending machine.

        Why does Bing like Lady Cybil rather than the girl who has been nice to him and works with him? We get the sense his feelings develop from her singing and from him seeing her in the elevator, which are I know common places to start feeling such things, but also not the most authentic ways to experience the presence of another human being.

        In particular I thought it was interesting how Bing used the trick the first girl had taught him to impress Lady Cybil, and then used it again and again to get on the show. It spoke to me about a subversion happening of authentic connection within Bing’s character.

        That far from Bing’s affection for Lady Cybil being this elevated sincere thing that stood apart from the projection and hyper-reality of the cycle-world, it was endemic of it. She was an object of desire for him that he wanted to watch. On one hand, Bing criticizes spending merits to make your dopples look good…

        …but on the other there’s that long, lingering shot of Lady Cybil’s lipstick in the elevator, which to me stood out as the biggest difference between her and the plainer girl (who was actually quite attractive, but just not dolled up or performing the role of being desirable).

        So he’s criticizing the kind of signalling that he is also responding to. I agree with Blinks that Bing is recursive, conflicted and self-criticizing — he shows a lot of the preferences and behaviors he claims to be above and responds to the same incentives that he indicts.

        This of course doesn’t invalidate his experience, which is why the episode is so great. It makes it tragic, ironic and compelling.


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