This week Charlie Brooker and his wife/co-writer Konnie Huq explore the dark side of ‘instant fame’ in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, yet again managing to up the ante in an engaging and visually stunning drama that surely has to be amongst the best television of the year.
In an alternate, dystopic Universe people spend their days peddling away on exercise bikes to power the oppressive screens they are forced to watch and in order to earn merits, which they spend on food, virtual clothes and hairstyles for their avatar ‘doppels’, as well as the opportunity to enter Hot Shot, a talent show clearly loosely modeled on the likes of The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, which appears to offer them a way out of their mundane lives as glorified beach donkeys, or does it?
In the opening scene we’re introduced to Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) in his cell-like bedroom, surrounded by floor to ceiling interactive screens that we straight away realize shape and dictate how he lives his life. From the avatar cockerel that wakes him up in a morning and the incessant reminder of how many ‘merits’ he’s earned to date, to the garish porn screen that seemingly pops up at every opportune moment demanding to be taken notice of. Evidently the protagonist’s life is filled with information that seeks to engage and distract him, and yet as he wanders to his bike amongst his fellow ‘cyclists’ it’s patently obvious that Bing is withdrawn from his surroundings, in stark contrast to Dustin, his gung-ho neighbour who clearly revels in the foray of cruel, infantile programmes such as Botherguts where fat people (who are singled out by wearing lemon and forced to do menial labour) have various things chucked at them for ‘slacking’, and the parade of ‘nasty girls’ on offer for his visual consumption on Judge Wraith’s compulsory porn channel. Despite this, Bing does have somewhat of an ally in the shy girl three bikes down from him,- Swift, who is clearly romantically interested in him, but also shares his disillusion with their world’s lack of tangibility and authenticity, handing him his packaged apple from the vending machine and remarking, “Almost the only real thing here and that’s grown in a petri dish.”
It is however Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) who catches his attention when he overhears her singing in the unisex toilets, and who he pursues to tell her how special and unique her talent is, offering to gift her the fifteen million merits it would cost to buy a ticket to audition for Hot Shots, which were in turn gifted to him by his brother who essentially pedalled himself to death. With the ominous and jaw-dropping backdrop of thousands of pedalling rooms behind them, Bing urges Abi to accept the merits in an attempt to get both her talent recognised and to alleviate the mundanity of his own life: “You have somthing real… I look around here and I just want something real to happen.” Accepting his gift they cheerfully go along to the auditions and are both branded rather painfully like cattle with the show’s logo on their hands, before being to taking to what resembles a holding pen for prospective contestants, some of whom have already been waiting there for a week. Jumping the queue Abi is lead to the stage, but not before she’s implored to drink a carton of ‘Compliance’, which not only spaces her out, but also appears to be the Ronseal of beverages as exemplified by her resulting deference and eagerness to please the ironically named Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas), Judge Hope (Rupert Everett) and Judge Charity (Julia Davis).
The audition itself, after a hesitant start, is beautiful with Abi giving a heartfelt rendition of Irma Thomas’ ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’, but the judges’ reaction and her subsequent fate is fairly horrific and heart-breaking. Judge Hope, looking like George Michael and sounding like Simon Cowell, whilst complimenting her voice, believes that her beauty will be too distracting for her to be taken seriously. Taking that a step further Judge Wraith is more interested in her lifting her top up and parading her breasts than her vocal talent, which spurs him on to offer her a place on his porn channel instructing her to “Forget about shame. We medicate against it” and offering “pleasure forever” as a horrified Bing looks on from the wings and is eventually bundled away by the crew. Still unsure of what to do Judge Hope proceeds to guilt trip her into considering the ‘opportunity’ she’s been given by pointing out the spotlight she’s now standing in is powered by people peddling who’d probably never get the chance that she just has, and is aided in his emotional blackmail by the mob audience made up of ‘doppels’, each one representing a real person who collectively urge her to “Do It!” until her resolve breaks and she accepts a life of drug-induced haziness and sexual slavery.
A little while later a distraught Bing is forced to watch a stoned Abi’s ‘debut’, where zombie-like she states, “It’s a dream. I get to live in a beautiful place and wear lots of beautiful things. It’s a dream.” Unable to swipe away the stream and incur a penalty, or even close his eyes because his merits were depleted when he unwittingly pushed her towards her awful fate, he smashes himself into the screen and attempts to use a shard of glass to cut out the logo stamp that still remains on his hand, before deciding on a better course of action: to enter himself into the show and get some sort of revenge. Finally after months of stock-piling his merits by incessantly peddling and living off other people’s leftovers, and working on an at least passable dance routine, he eventually has the 15 million he needs to buy his entry ticket and tucking the shard of glass into his waistband makes the same journey he did earlier with Abi, intently standing in the same waiting room and then making his way onto the stage to face the same judges. To the initial bemusement of those watching Bing does begin to perform the routine, but soon stops, pulls the glass from his waistband and holding it to his throat threatens to kill himself if he isn’t listened to properly, demanding they show emotion “like you’re feeling, not just processing.” In a scathing attack on their society he berates the judges for seeing “fodder” and not real “people” and for encouraging a system where people laugh themselves “feral” at so-called slackers because “We’re so out of our minds in desperation, we don’t know any better.” He goes on to undermine everyone’s preoccupation with “buying shit… shit that’s not even there” and the “meaningless series of lights” that envelop them all “while we ride day in, day out. Going where? Powering what?… Boils down to fuck you all!… Fuck you for happening!” After his speech there’s a pregnant pause, but it’s broken by Judge Hope unexpectedly praising Bing’s diatribe as “The most heartfelt thing I’ve seen since Hot Shot began” and offering him a 30 minute slot on one of his streams twice a week. Mirroring the scene with Abi, yet again the avatar audience urge the protagonist to “Do it!” The choice is either death or fame, of sorts.
Cut to the final scenes, and in the peddling room it appears to be business as usual, except that Bing’s bike is now being used by someone else. It’s only when one of them channel hops through the streams that we realize he took Judge Hope up on his offer, and has become like one of the Pastors on the God Channel, waxing lyrical about the injustices of their society with great vigour and conviction: “The only thing stopping me from slashing myself open right now is I might not die right away and they’d find a way to charge my twitching, half-dead cadaver 20,000 merits for swabbing the walls clean.” He is, however, there for novelty value and is evidently perceived to be little better than the lemon-clad slackers, who are pointed and laughed at. Despite his lucidity, he can’t be taken seriously by a collective unable and/or unwilling to think for itself, effectively rendering Bing ‘the prophet without honour amongst his own people’. His new fame may have afforded him a better quality of life in a new spacious apartment, where his bike isn’t an extension of his being, but as he stands looking out onto picturesque scenery (it’s unclear whether this is a window onto the ‘real world’ or a convincing CGI replica of it), it’s seems obvious that even though the cell may be bigger and less oppressive, he’s still a prisoner to his environment.
Just how good ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is hit me in waves. It actually made me giddy, which was surprising considering the rather bleak subject matter, but it’s genuinely exciting to see high-concept drama with such depth and so many layers on a British terrestrial channel. Of course the idea of a dystopic society where those in power seek to control and utilize people through chemicals and various media is nothing particularly new. Huxley and Orwell were already there in the 1930’s and 40’s respectively, and there are echoes from their novels in Brooker and Huq’s work. ‘Compliance’ has a similar stupefying effect on the people who consume it here just as ‘Soma’ does on the characters in Brave New World. Likewise Bing hearing Abi sing for the first time is incredibly reminiscent of Winston Smith hearing the prole washer woman singing an old lullaby in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and both represent the perils of ignoring our pasts and constantly ploughing forward, not taking the time to reflect on our humanity and the value of the relationships we forge, which is why the continuous peddling is such an apt metaphor. There is no time for stasis, for quiet contemplation or reflection because the constant influx of information and distractions through their screens, that won’t even accept them closing their eyes, doesn’t allow it.
For those living in this particular dystopia ‘I Have a Dream’ is their aspirational theme tune, part of a ‘dream’ which involves accumulating things of monetary worth as exemplified by Selma Telse the last Hot Shot winner, who is practically deified because of her own worth as a commodity: “I love gold. I feel like it really expresses who I am.” But for most this ‘dream’ is as achievable as Joe Average winning the 100 metres final at the Olympics, no matter how much they’re encouraged to grasp at the carrot dangling before their eyes. The cruel reality of a system that defines a person’s worth in relation to their commercial prospects is demonstrated through the pushy girl who spends months waiting to audition for the show, but after an admittedly bad preview, is told by Judge Charity she’s “fundamentally unlikeable and really quite worthless”, and is probably sent back to a life of physical drudgery on the bikes, her ‘dream’ in tatters and her ‘destiny’ taking a completely different route to the one she anticipated. This pursuit of a life with ‘beautiful things’ away from the monotony of the everyday deflects focus from things of true worth, such as the origami penguins that Abi makes out of food wrappers and her rendition of an ‘old song’, which whilst in monetary terms are pretty much worthless, represent a more authentic mode of self-expression and a means to forge a real connection with Bing. This is in stark relief to the relationships they have with their ‘doppels’, who they spend their lives buying things for, but who ultimately aren’t tangible, and therefore really aren’t that important, no matter how much emphasis their society places on them. Working yourself to death to provide for what is effectively your imaginary twin is as ridiculous as it is insane, yet when certain behaviours are normalised they become as natural and apparently necessary as taking a breath of air. This is the warning at the heart of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.
On my first viewing it appeared that by taking up Judge Hope’s offer Bing had completely sold out, because what a corrupt hierarchy can’t control, it validates, assimilates and waters down. Swift’s disgusted reaction to his stream seemed to back this up, but realistically what other option did he have? Killing himself would have achieved nothing, and whilst he has become a legitimized part of the system, his voice is still a dissenting one, which is massively important. Even if nobody is currently taking what he has to say seriously, one day there is a chance, however small, that his words will resonate with someone in the same way that Abi’s song did with him and that they too will wake up from their stupor and make a stand. Bing isn’t Selma in spite of his new found fame. The things he cherishes the most in that final scene evidently aren’t gold or his furniture, but the shard of glass that saved him from peddling himself to death and the ornamental penguin that serves as a constant reminder of his love for Abi and her fate. This is someone who neither wishes to, nor wants to forget the past and what it’s taught him.
The more I think about it, the harder it gets to criticize ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. Bing’s speech alone is an astonishingly astute piece of writing, and yes, whilst characters like Dustin and Swift may not have had the depth that they might have had, this could just as much be a commentary on how a vapid society creates equally vapid citizens, as it is a reflection on the writers. In short I pretty much loved it, and if Black Mirror continues to improve each episode, not only will my excitement for ‘The Entire History of You’ be rewarded, but I’ll also be chomping at the bit for a second series.
Sky Plus for your brain. With my Sky box’s track record all I can say is ‘Eeeep!’