This is the first entry in our Black Mirror Rewind series. The article contains heavy spoilers.
Black Mirror Season 1 Episode 2
There is no shortage of futuristic, dystopian literature for modern readers to obsess over. The two that have risen to the top, however, present markedly different interpretations of how humanity will ultimately come to enslave itself.
George Orwell’’s 1984 presents a world in which a small ruling class has finally scored a decisive victory against the rest of humanity. Party members have little rights and even less privacy. The world is divided into three super-state’s whose only purpose is to maintain a state of constant war so the overworked citizenry barely has a moment to catch its breath, let alone enact any meaningful political change.
Why? Because this is what the 1 percent has always been trying to do in Orwell’s perspective. The rat race is exactly that and the rats at the top finally found the perfect way to stay ahead forever.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley takes a different tact to predicting a future dystopia. Rather than war being the force that keeps society in order, and certain people at the bottom of that order: it’s peace. The citizens of the World State city of London in 2540 have a near crushing excess of peace. Citizens are birthed through an artificial process to make sure their bodies can accommodate the pre-prescribed class system they’ll be placed in.
The world is an assembly line, modeled after Ford’s factories. And it all kind of works – as long as individuality and actual freedom isn’t a priority. Huxley’s vision of the future world is us entertaining ourselves to death (as Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book appropriately Amusing Ourselves to Death, that contrasted 1984 and Brave New World).
Black Mirror got off to a hot start. “The National Anthem” may be a divisive episode but it’s hard to argue that it’s not one of the most distinctive Charlie Brooker-esque episodes of the series. Brooker opens his show with an ultra modern satire of our tech-saturated world. But that was the present or very near future. In episode two, Brooker and Black Mirror turn their attention to the future-future, as all “speculative fiction” must inevitably do.
What archetype dystopian future does Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” choose to model itself after? Orwell’s or Huxley’s? The answer ends up being: a little bit of both.
“Fifteen Million Merits” is an over-stuffed, chaotic episode of the show. While, “The National Anthem” was a tightly-plotted almost Jack Bauer-esque 44-minutes of chaos, “Fifteen Million Merits” is 61 minutes of leisurely world-building. Which makes sense as there is a lot of world to build.
“Fifteen Million Merits” features so many elements that could have been the sole focus of a single sci-fi story, rolled into one over-sized episode. Conceptually it just has so much going on. In just this one episode alone, Black Mirror forwards:
– the replacing of human beings with virtual avatars
– the introductions of video screens everywhere
– the idea of not being able to escape unwanted advertising without paying money to skip it
– a society in which fit people ride on stationary bicycles to earn money, while overweight people have to be their janitors
– a closed-society in which all food comes out of a vending machine
– a dystopian hellscape where the only way out is an Idol-esque talent show.
That’s a lot, and there’s more! We didn’t even mention the “Cuppliance” milk. “Fifteen Million Merits” at times feels like every futuristic science fiction idea rolled into one hour-long package. Brooker has taken the ultimate nanny-state control portions of 1984 and folding them into the entertaining-ourselves-to-death portions of Brave New World.
And it works. Largely because the human story within it works.
Black Mirror continues (or begins) its proud tradition of unearthing talented British actors for American audiences with Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Bingham “Bing” Madsen in “Fifteen Million Merits.” Bing as embodied by Kaluuya is a perfect entrance into this brave new world for the audience. His performance is almost Gosling-like in its lack of reaction to external stimuli. Though it’s clear from just the subtlest expressions on Kaluuya’s face that his armor is not because Bing has no emotions. It’s because he has too much and has had to learn to guard them.
We follow Bing as he goes through his day-to-day routine. He’s woken up by the screaming digital chicken in his tiny apartment made entirely of screens (just imagine Brooker leaning across the sci-fi writes’ dinner table with his fork and snatching this right off of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’s plate). Then he pays a couple of “merits” to ward off unwanted advertising and gets to work. Naturally this means plopping down right in front of another screen, peddling away on an exercise bike as he watches his “dopple” bike through a digital meadow in front of him.
“Fifteen Million Merits” establishes the status quo of its unique world better than perhaps any other episode of Black Mirror. That’s pretty remarkable with how complicated and foreign that world seems at first. But just by cycling us through Bing’s daily routine, we’re able to get acclimated and find the similarities to our own. It’s important legwork for the episode as it only has 15-20 minutes to get us up to speed before presenting the typical “and then one day everything changed” trope.
For Bing, the day that everything changes is the day he meets Abi Khan (another excellent Brit Jessica Brown Findlay). Abi turns up in the elevator in the morning and they begin a flirtation all too familiar in a dystopia: furtive glances, bathroom smalltalk (unisex bathrooms!), origami making, etc. Soon, Bing and Abi have become close enough to share their hopes and dreams with each other.
Abi can sing. One of the only ways out of this awful, monotonous routine is to go on the reality show “Hot Shot” to audition to be a singer. Only problem is that it costs 15 million merits. It just so happens that Bing has those 15 million merits – having inherited them after his brother died.
The nice part about this early relationship-building with Abi and Bing is how subtly Brooker builds it within the constrictions of the world around them. Bing gifting Abi a “golden ticket” to appear on Hot Shots is a massive gift and an important moment for both of them. But due to the abject weirdness of the world around them, the mechanics of the exchange involve Bing requesting the ticket from the four screens in his room, then clicking on a “gift” icon and dragging and dropping it to Abi’s cartoonish dopple. Such a huge moment experienced through such frustratingly corny online avatars. Even acts of selflessness in Bing and Abi’s world must go through the dumb software of an oppressive state.
Bing and Abi go to the Hot Shot audition the next day. In the elevator on the way, they hold hands, which is one of the few human and hopeful moments of the episode. Immediately after, however, they’re thrust back into their bleak world. A receptionist scans their faces, tattoos Bing’s hand and they’re thrust into a waiting room. Abi immediately gets chosen to be “previewed” – much to the chagrin of others waiting all week.
Abi is given “Cuppliance” to drink – milk that will make it a bit more suggestible and is marched in front of the judges and a full audience of dopples. Abi’s audition is a series’ highlight for Black Mirror. It combines all of the uncomfortable elements of real human emotions and contrasts it with unfeeling, uninterested technology.
Credit to Findlay as Abi’s rendition of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” (which will eventually become an important song and Easter egg for the series) is truly excellent and the actress wrangles real humanity out of the performance. Still, it’s all mitigated by the strange factors at play like the fact that she just drank of cup of compliance, that the audience is filled with Mii-like avatars, that she’s wearing plain gray sweatpants and a plain gray sweatshirt.
Abi’s performance is really the aesthetic mother of everything that comes after it in Black Mirror. It’s a flash of humanity in a sea of machines. Like a dandelion sprouting through a crack in the concrete. Of course the concrete eventually wins. The judges – Hope (Rupert Everett), Charity (Ashley Thomas), and Wraith (Ashley Thomas) like her performance. It’s just that they have enough singers. They’re sick of singers. We’ve entertained ourself half to death with singers. It’s time for something different. So they suggest that Abi can join Judge Wraith’s porn studio Wratih Babes. She says yes. Because Cuppliance.
Here I thought we were done with the “down on her luck girl being forced into porn as a tragedy” trope. But in this new dystopian environment it’s fresh and devastating once again. Abi isn’t just some down on her luck girl. She’s a cog in a machine. And watching the machine decide the destiny for this particular cog that doesn’t want it is awful.
Even worse is later on when Bing returns to his room and he no longer has the funds to skip an advertisement for Abi’s first porno. That really was a stroke of genius on Brooker’s part. The next stroke of genius is “Fifteen Million Merit’s” conclusion.
It’s cathartic and exciting to watch Bing work like a mad man to get back up to 15 million merits. It happens so fast but we don’t need to see the particulars. We’re on a path for vengeance and it’s exciting to see it develop so quickly. Before long Bing has the funds. He also still has an empty carton of Cuppliance from his first trip with Abi – and a shard of glass from smashing his wall screen.
He doesn’t have to wait long to be previewed as the judges want to see an “ethnic one.” Bing introduces himself as an “entertainer” and steps onstage. He promises the judges a “sort of performance” and then does exactly that. He dances a bit to the Wraith Babes song* before cutting the music short and holding the shard of glass to his own throat.
*Which is seemingly N.E.R.D.’s “Lap Dance” which has to be the best use of that song ever
“No one stops me. Not until I’ve said my peace and then you can do what you like,” he says.
“I haven’t got a speech. I didn’t plan words. I didn’t even try to I just knew I had to get here, to stand here, and I wanted you to listen. To really listen, not just pull a face like you’re listening, like you do the rest of the time. A face that you’re feeling instead of processing. You pull a face, and poke it towards the stage, and we lah-di-dah, we sing and dance and tumble around. And all you see up here, it’s not people, you don’t see people up here, it’s all fodder. And the faker the fodder, the more you love it, because fake fodder’s the only thing that works any more. It’s all that we can stomach.
“Actually, not quite all. Real pain, real viciousness, that, we can take. Yeah, stick a fat man up a pole. We laugh ourselves feral, because we’ve earned the right, we’ve done cell time and he’s slacking, the scum, so ha-ha-ha at him! Because we’re so out of our minds with desperation, we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves, is buying shit. What, I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new app for our dopple, it doesn’t exist! It’s not even there! We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful. You couldn’t. Yeah? It’d break us. We’re too numb for it.
“I might as well choke. It’s only so much wonder we can bear. When you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meager portions. Only then until it’s augmented, packaged, and pumped through 10,000 preassigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day in day out, going where? Powering what? All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and fuck you!
“Fuck you, that’s what it boils down to. Fuck you for sitting there and slowly making things worse. Fuck you and your spotlight and your sanctimonious faces. Fuck you all for thinking the one thing I came close to never meant anything. For oozing around it and crushing it into a bone, into a joke. One more ugly joke in a kingdom of millions. Fuck you for happening. Fuck you for me, for us, for everyone. Fuck you!”
It may as well be Black Mirror and Charlie Brooker’s thesis statement in support of humanity in a sea of uncaring machines. As delivered by Daniel Kaluuya it’s an incredibly display of raw human emotion.
“That was without a doubt the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on this stage since Hot Shot began,” – Judge Hope says. Bing has hit on something real, something that everyone agrees on. “Authenticity is in woefully short supply,” Hope adds. So he buys it. Bing gets a spot on Hope’s stream. Thirty minutes. Twice a week.
Bing remains a cog in the machine but a nicer cog. A cog with a better view. He broadcasts a show daily from a new apartment in which he holds the shard of glass to his neck again and spits out more vitriol against society. They found something real and something scary. So they turned it into a product. Maybe “Fifteen Million Merits” is more Brave New World than 1984 after all.
Still, one thing that “Fifteen Million Merits” takes from 1984 is its devastating depiction of hopelessness. We think we know what the term hopelessness means intellectually. We imagine we’ve felt it but it’s likely few of us have. It’s why the welcome sign to Dante’s Hell says “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Hope is the last thing you lose, even after you’ve lost your own corporeal form. What “Fifteen Million Merits” does is borrow from 1984 to get as close to approximating hopelessness as possible.
Bing presents us and his own audience with something real. It’s the dandelion between the cracks growing stronger than ever. And then “Merits” goes right around and shows that even that, even reality, can just be commodified and bought away.
There’s technically a Shared Black Mirror universe now. And “Fifteen Million Merits” comes much earlier within it than one would expect. Episodes that occur simultaneously alongside “Fifteen Million Merits” or even after it chronologically don’t come close to achieving the same levels of 1984/Brave New World levels of dystopia. If Brooker could strike one Black Mirror episode from the official canon to exist on its own, I’d have to imagine it would be this one.
The victory of the rich rats over the poor rats in the race; the victory of technology over man, or even just man’s endless appetite for entertainment and bullshit over himself is so complete and so thorough in “Fifteen Million Merits” that it becomes one of the series’ bleakest and best episodes.
Forget a boot stomping on a human face forever. Instead imagine a human hand slapping its owner’s face forever and chanting “stop hitting yourself…stop hitting yourself….”