Years before Netflix bought and released the fourth season of Black Mirror, long before Bandersnatch allowed you to reach through the screen and play puppet master, Charlie Brooker started a show with a modest three-episode season on British television Channel 4. He had a straightforward goal for the anthology series: extrapolating society’s growing reliance on technology, specifically “the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
15 Million Merits was the first installment ever written on that premise (though it aired second in the first season after The National Anthem), and if you are ever trying to convince someone to give Black Mirror a try, starting with this one is an excellent suggestion.
Before being launched into global fame as the star of Jordan Peeles’ horror Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays Bingham “Bing” Madsen, a man who lives in a world of screens where every surface offers vapid entertainment or near-constant advertisement. Sound familiar? This story takes our obsession with entertainment to the next level. The decor of Bing’s home is all shades of grey, right down to the clothing of its inhabitants. There is not a single window or door to the outside world. The only splashes of color come from the screens on the walls and the few living things within the facility: a green apple, the color of a man’s skin, or a woman’s lips. Oh, and the yellow uniforms of the overweight, custodial underclass who are subject to mockery and abuse.
This episode was made on a meager budget, so rather than digitally adding the content of the screens in post-production, they were created beforehand and played on the screens while the cast acted in front of them. Also, this episode was filmed on a single set. The result of this actually emphasizes the visuals of the episodes. The sets are very basic and monochrome, with harsh right angles rather than smooth edges. Except for the screens. They draw the eye with bright colored graphics that range from cartoonish to pornographic, luring the audience into Bing’s day-to-day stupor.
“15 Million Merits” is structured like a classic underdog tale. The only escape from the stratified class structure is through Hot Shot, an American Idol-esque talent show. If they can impress the panel of judges, they may be released from their tiny colorless cubicle-cells and repetitive servitude. However, entering the competition costs an unimaginable amount of “merits.”
Bing spends his days on a mechanical bike, supposedly creating power through his efforts. He earns “merits” for his work, which can be spent on necessities like food or toothpaste, on entertainment, or accessories for his
Bitmoji “Dopple” avatar. Almost everything in his life is virtual, from the goods he can spend merits on to the vending machines he gets food from; even his interactions with others tend to be through their Dopples. Everything physical seems perfunctory, only required to enable their re-entry to the virtual world. The people here seem like strangers to one another, hardly speaking and spending their free time alone in their small cells with their screens.
Bing spends the first act of the episode in near-silence, with a glazed-over look in his eyes. When he is finally brought out of his shell, it’s like he needs to re-learn how to interact with another human being. This person is Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). Upon hearing her singing in the bathroom, he is entranced by her voice. For the first time, Bing speaks with passion about his frustration with their meaningless lives, and he encourages her to try and elevate her talent. He says that it is “real” unlike everything else they waste their merits on, and so he gives her his inheritance to try and escape from their hamster-wheel lifestyle.
Being brought behind the curtain of Hot Shot, Bing starts to realize that it is not what he was expecting, instead finding it shallow, sensationalist, and contrived. This is no different from modern fame; where, although some do truly start at the bottom and work their way up, many celebrities have connections or wealth that helped them to get started.
This underdog tale does not have a happy ending. Abi’s escape from mundanity is not at all what Bing expected. He is horrified by the outcome of the talent show, and when he returns to his life, he sees it in a new light. When he rages against the prolific advertisements that he is forced to watch in his own room, he smashes his screens. The illusion of his screened room as anything more than a cell is shattered.
When he returns to Hot Shot, clearly with a secret agenda, we as an audience root for Bing to succeed in breaking out of his meaningless world, even for just a moment. This is the most passion shown in the entire episode; Kaluuya shows his range in this episode by moving from a numb, dull stare to this sweating, screaming frenzy. Like an avenging angel, he lays down pronouncements of pettiness, shallowness, viciousness, mendacity, and materialism. He holds a shard of his broken screen to his throat as he compounds upon the inherent complicity of every judge and audience member in a heartless system. And they break into wild applause, loving his authenticity.
This theme of fame as a commodity for social mobility is one that Black Mirror revisits in season four episode “Nosedive,” which shows an equally stratified society in which your class is ranked by how many “likes” you get. The analogy in these episodes to modern phenomena such as reality tv, so-called “Instagram influencers,” and celebrity worship is evident. The ultimate irony of this series is that it is using the exact medium being criticized in the episode to present its message.
The anthology format means that the episodes vary wildly in setting and story, but the underlying message that runs through every episode is that no matter how far fetched of a sci-fi future is presented, our society is truly not that far from it. “15 Million Merits” equates the audience to the crowd of
Mii Doppels cheering and booing other peoples’ suffering. Black Mirror is, in fact, a direct shot at audience members to reassess their own priorities and relationship to technology. Brooker explains the meaning of the name Black Mirror:
“What I took it to mean was when a screen is off – when a screen is off it looks like a black mirror. Because any TV, any LCD, any iPhone, any iPad – something like that – if you just stare at it, it looks like a black mirror, and there’s something cold and horrifying about that, and it was such a fitting title for the show.”
Black Mirror has never been one to shy away from an unsettling ending. Despite breaking protocol and reaching out to all those people, his passion is co-opted and he becomes ingrained in the very system that he hated. His eyes have glazed over again as he performs his rants in a weekly feature. Despite earning the fame that the worker drones held up as an escape from their servitude, Bing seems to have reverted to going through the motions, albeit in a more luxurious habitat. In the last shot of the episode, he looks out over a peaceful forest, but it is unclear whether that is indeed a window or just another screen. The latter is more disquieting…and far more likely.