Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits

There are a lot of deep and complex messages in this episode. It was also full of dark and subversive imagery, and carries with that imagery a level of ambivalence and ambiguity that was both frustrating and brilliant. In short, this was an amazing hour of television.

What a fierce and brave take on the decline of social interaction. Personally, I don't care for social media. It feels false to me, like little tidbits of life packaged in ways that make us think we are getting something real. This episode captures that feeling completely. That our digital avatar defines us for the rest of the world. That life is nothing more than rote actions without any meaningful outcome. That as a society, we simply consume the entertainment we are given, without much thought to what that entertainment is.

Could we devolve to a point where we have no real money, and all of our actions are just clicks of 'like' or 'dislike' or 'yes' or 'no'? Technology has already progressed to a point where a lot of the things depicted in this episode are dangerously close to being real. Not that this kind of dystopia is all that possible. Like all great sci-fi, this was just an interesting allegorical vision of the road we might be on with our current technology, and how it might ultimately affect our society.

Our main protagonist, Bingham 'Bing' Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya), was a reflection of the numbness this kind of society would create. His boredom and his intentional disconnect from the people around him, was such a stark and blatant symbol of what was wrong with this world, that he works well as our primary character. The episode plays almost like satire, until he meets Abi Khan (Jessica Brown Findlay) and his lack of external emotions changes completely.

Bing's immediate reaction to her was more than just a sudden change of expression; it was also in his body language and posture, as if suddenly he had something bright to look forward to, something, or rather someone, real. Abi seemed to fix something fundamental in Bing, who clearly craved a life beyond the banal and monotonous routine he had been forced to live. It's clear that his life until the point he meets her had been a facade, a numb mask hiding his true feelings.

Abi for her part comes across as sweet, intelligent, and a touch naive. She clearly likes him, and they have a nice uncomplicated chemistry. Their relationship (if you can call it that) was sweet, but was it real? Can people become romantically attached in that world? Are relationships allowed? Marriage? Kids? Can they have a life together? Or is the only possibility for them to try out for Hotshot? Even when he explains where he got his money (the untimely death of his brother six months earlier), he shows almost no real emotion. Does this mean that family no longer matters? But that idea doesn't entirely work, because Abi mentions her family with a bit more fondness. She talks of a song passed down from mother to daughter, and that might just be the most real thing in this entire episode.

That song was beautiful too, and her voice while singing it was haunting. It wasn't perfect, she's a decent singer but nothing super special. But I could totally see how Bing saw her differently. I think he latched on to her singing because it was pure, genuine. The question is; why Bing was willing to throw his brother's legacy to her without much of a second thought. I guess to him it felt right. Until, of course, it turned ugly.

Abi's audition scene was horrifying. Her performance was beautiful and tragic, and in the next moment she was torn down and railroaded into utter humiliation. From that moment on Abi was lost, a broken shell. It wasn't the sexual component so much that did it, although it was for Bing, but that brightness had been extinguished.  Even in that first interview before her first performance, something was already missing.

The rest of the episode was all emotionally uphill, from that awful moment where Bing was forced to watch her first performance because he couldn't afford to dismiss it anymore, to his brutal speech about the stagnant state of the world. It was all heart wrenching. Except that in the end, nothing really mattered. Abi was lost, and Bing sold out. Sure, he had a monument to her in his lavish and stark black and white apartment, with that wooden penguin. But for the most part, Bing didn't change a thing. There was no Big Brother watching and controlling. Even his dissenting opinion was rolled up into the entertainment cycle like a shock jock keeping things just a bit real in a world of artificial emotions.

Bits:

There were several people the episode focused on, and the most interesting aspect of these secondary characters was how much the events of the episode had no effect on them at all.  Even the woman who had a crush on Bing didn't change in the slightest.

When Bing suggested that Abi's song was the only real thing he'd experienced all year, he motioned off camera, which then panned over to reveal the truth of this world. Floor upon floor of duplicate rooms, with thousands of people all doing the same thing. A literal treadmill, or in this case spinner bike, existence.

The things Abi and Bing talked about purchasing with Bing's millions were totally pointless, even her suggestions of a wall buddy that guides your dreams. Bing was right in his gesture. It was a good thing to do to give her a chance to live out a dream.

It's interesting how the audience followed the judges, like they had no opinions of their own. I wonder though, was going back to the bikes so miserable? Couldn't she have gone back and saved up for a few years until singing was a more viable option? Or was there a hint that life expectancy was so low that three years was actually a risk?

Bing's private world was almost worse than the bikes. There were the aggressive commercials, and the way the room has an annoying red alert which slams down whenever someone dares to close their eyes. Plus the fact that Merits are subtracted no matter if the show was watched or dismissed, and if that commercial/show was dismissed it just skips to the next one without pause.

Selma was the current Hotshot winner, and she seemed to be living the high life. There was a brief snippet of her singing, and I think she was only marginally better than Abi. I think the difference was in Abi's beauty, which was her superior asset in the judges' minds, and thus far easier to exploit in this world than her singing talent.

Wraith mentioned that Abi will be medicated from that point on. That she won't even really know what was happening to her, except for pure pleasure. That was perhaps the most shuddery thing in this very unsettling episode.

And Pieces:

The digital avatars everyone had were called Dopples (short for Doppelgangers?). They looked a lot like current avatars used in a bunch of different games and game consoles.

A mouse icon can be seen in the background behind the judges during the scene after Bing's big rant.

Amazing opening shot with Bing in bed surrounded by a void of black nothingness.

Bing had 15,152,599 at the start of the episode. In the next scene he was down 152,000 Merits, so I guess some time must've passed.

Abi made Origami penguins, but she couldn't display them because physical objects aren't allowed for those in the bike class.

Abi talked about an app that realigns your behavior, another off-handed comment that was also a very shuddery idea.

The mark on Bing's hand was a nice way to allow for the passage of time. The woman who marked Bing with the star said it lasted only two months.

Cuppliance is a drink that contestants are forced to consume. It did something to them but the effects were never explicitly explained.

This was a brutal and uncompromising commentary on social media, commercialism, capitalism, and the disconnect between real people that many are experiencing because of the internet. Most of the themes and messages are dark and ambiguous, but there was some real moral weight to the actions of the characters. This was one of the most powerful hours of television I've seen all year.

4 out of 4 Origami penguins

J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related. He reviews Arrow and Farscape and cool new movies that strike his fancy.

2 comments:

CH said...

Thanks for reviewing this series, Agents of DOUX. It's a wonderful commentary on technology and social media, a sort of new age Twilight Zone.

I've watched several episodes of Black Mirror, and this is the one that stays with me most. JD, this is a lovely review, capturing everything I thought and more.

My understanding of the Cuppliance was that it made the contestants compliant to the judges' requests. Thus, Abi couldn't really have refused their request. That's how I interpreted it anyway - it wasn't that going back to the bikes was so terrible, it was that her will to make the choice was taken from her after drinking the Cuppliance.

That's why Bing didn't drink it but then he made the choice himself, which makes it worse in a way.

sunbunny said...

Definitely my least favorite episode. I don't know why. Maybe because this one feels like it's really set in an alternate reality whereas the others feel like our world but with a tweak. I do like the end though, dismal as it is. No matter how much we pretend to have principles, we'll all sell out in the end. I thought Bing was a great representation of politicians and members of the media who start off their careers truly wanting to make a difference, but eventually realize it's hopeless so they might as well get what they can for themselves.