Black Mirrorthon Pt. 2: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
One does not simply watch one episode of Black Mirror.
Two is my limit. After that I become too anxious to deal with the world.
Title: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
Director: Euros Lyn
Writer: Charlie Brooker and Kanak ‘Konnie’ Huq
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jessica Brown Findlay, Rupert Everett, Julia Davis, Ashley Thomas, Paul Popplewell, Isabella Laughland
Premise: The world has become a largely interior, automated space with little personal freedom or expression whilst constantly surrounded by giant screens. To relieve the tedium of riding stationary bikes to generate power, citizens can buy virtual experiences and decorations for their online avatar or try their luck on talent show ‘Hot Shots’.
Review: Holy damn, that’s good world building. This is some of the best science fiction design and creation we’ve ever seen. ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ gives us a perfectly realised dystopia with minimal dialogue and does it better in a 60 minute episode than some sci-fi shows manage in an entire season. Yes, there some things left unexplained but it’s nothing we need to be emotionally invested.
The world of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is sleek, shiny and utterly bleak. Regardless of how large a room is – such as the work rooms lined with stationary bikes, the stylised black walls, floor and ceiling makes it feel oppressive. This goes double for the living quarters entirely made up of floor to ceiling screens. We never learn exactly what the bikes are powering, nor what events lead to this world and it’s ultimately not important. It encompasses the themes of the episode and fills it with enough relatable characters to do the job.
Then there’s the TV shows that play in a constant loop everywhere the denizens of this world cast their eyes. Rustic scenario and country paths to ride along exist but they’re constantly interrupted by blaring, visually messy reality shows. ‘Hot Shots’ is the the most relevant to the plot, the carrot dangled in front of punters to give them something to yearn for, it’s clearly modelled on the Idol and X Factor shows, complete with a Simon Cowell type played by Rupert Everett. Then there’s the degraded pornographic channel ‘Wraith Babes’, providing gruesome and distasteful close ups of women. Additionally there’s ‘Botherguts’, the new form of discrimination that has been generated around fat shaming. Obese people who can’t keep up with the physical work are relegated to the lemon uniformed janitorial staff and treated as open game for the rest of society to mock.
What’s taken me two chunky paragraphs to explain is carefully unfolded, almost entirely through visuals, over the course of the first act. It really is top class writing and directly. It’s great having a stoic protaganist we can follow along with rather than endless exposition. Speaking of protaganist, here we have Bing (the talented Kaluuya from Get Out and Black Panther). Bing is unable to engage with the world around and strives to find something real to latch on to. He’s inherited a small fortune from his brother and mostly uses it to skip past advertisements for ‘Wraith Babes’ and ‘Hot Shots’. It’s not enough to simple avert your eyes, and you get bombarded with a high pitched whine until you resume viewing.
Bing finds his ‘real’ thing to connect with when he overhears a new worker, Abi (Brown Findlay) singing in the bathroom. He approaches her and offers to pay her entry fee into ‘Hot Shots’, as he convinces her that people need to talents to feel real emotions and connections more than he needs the money. Eventually she agrees and the two grow close. Upon arriving at the ‘Hot Shots’ audition round, Abi is forced to drink a drug to make her more compliant before performing. She stuns the judges and the audiences with a heart breaking rendition of ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’ by Irma Thomas, but the judges coerce her to become a performer for ‘Wraith Babes’ instead.
Left alone and further disillusioned with his world, Bing puts into action a new plan. He lives frugally until he can afford another 15,000,000 merits entry fee for ‘Hot Shots’. He gets onto the show, avoids drinking the compliance drug and confronts the judges and audiences by holding a shard of glass to his own throat. He rants about the state of the world before the judges convince him to make his ‘schtick’ a regular feature on TV. Bing accepts and becomes part of the system he railed against.
There’s so very much that plays into the impact of this last minute turn. Bing’s signature shard of glass becomes a popular avatar item for his fans to play. The treasured origami penguin Abi gifted Bing is replaced with a lifeless wood carving. The pointless ‘bigger room with a bigger screen’ is exactly what he accepts at the end of it all as an empty reward. Bing acted as our own personal avatar in this cold world, and seeing him get drawn into the system is akin to seeing ourselves fall into it, something we end up feeling like we would do in the same circumstances.
Somehow the missing parts of the story add to the world. We never learn what is being powered by the endless cycling and, in the great scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the pointless work achieving the workers points to be spend on pointless virtual items. At the end of the episode we see Bing looking out over a lush, forested landscape, but we never learn if it’s a real view or a high grade simulation.
I absolutely love the supporting cast in this episode. They only get a few lines of dialogue apiece but they add a huge amount to the world and the principal cast. There’s the girl who hopes to catch Bing’s eye and has her heart broken by his interest in Abi (something Bing remains oblivious to throughout), the ginger haired co-worker struggling to find his sense of identity and the crass loud mouth who’s embraced the society he inhabits. Kaluuya proves himself to be a more than capable leading man years before he had his break out role in Get Out. He’s an immensely intelligent performer who understands how much a character can exist under the surface. Prior to this he’d mostly had a recurring role in Skins (for which he also wrote scripts). The guy is a real talent.
Also worth noting as an example of the details the people behind Black Mirror include in their stories…when Abi accepts her fate as one of the exploited women on ‘Wraith Babes’ the only female judge on the panel quickly wipes away a tear. Whilst not explored further there’s a suggestion that she’s not a completely willing participant in this process and is genuinely saddened by what is happening in front of her, the clearly practised and planned routine to trap women into a life of public degradation. This may also lead to her insistence on letting Bing speak when he appears on the show months later.
For the longest time this episode would embody what Black Mirror was. Sharp, witty, powerful and draining. This should be script-writing 101 for anyone interested in sci-fi. It absolutely sets the bar for future stories.
That Moment When You Feel Your Stomach Drop: Bing is trapped in his living quarters while an obviously drugged and incoherent Abi is about to make her debut on ‘Wraith Babes’. He’s without the currency to turn it off, can’t shut it out and it driven to an explosive outburst. It’s gut wrenchingly hard to watch.
Links to Other Episodes: The first rendition of ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’ appears in this episode, sung by Abi on ‘Hot Shots’. This mournful tune recurs a number of times throughout the series.
Ranking Black Mirror: As said above, this episode set the bar for the series. It easily takes the top spot. For now.
- ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
- ‘The National Anthem’