Among the TV series I have watched, the British series “Black Mirror” is probably one of the most shocking, thought-provoking, and creative. Filmed in 2011, for some people it might seem unreasonable to write a review on a show released five years ago. But I believe in some cases, such backtracking is not only useful, but topical and necessary—and “Black Mirror” is this kind of case. The problems it shows and discusses are a scourge of the world we live in nowadays, even though the show depicts them in a somewhat grotesque and exaggerated way, and getting people to think about current social wrongs. With all this in mind, I decided to review one of my favorite episodes of “Black Mirror”—the second one, titled “15 Million Merits,” directed by Euros Lyn (each episode was filmed by a different director).
Have you ever thought of western society as a global reality show, each participant chasing the ghost of ephemeral success? A show, in which people are not appreciated and valued, but rather evaluated and judged based on their external parameters or talents? A show, in which one person out of a million gets it all, while others are doomed to go through the same monotonous routine year after year, without a single blink of hope? A show where a chosen few decide the fate of the majority, and no one ever questions this way of things?
“15 Million Merits” shows the world what precisely embodies the described model. The whole world is a huge gym, where people endlessly pedal exercise bikes. They live in separate rooms; each of them is a cell constructed of wall-size TV screens, constantly showing silly comedy shows or commercials. People interact and communicate with each other mostly via the Internet, using virtual avatars; live communication occurs seldom, and only in gym zones (and still, the majority prefers to stare at the screens installed in the front of their exercise bikes that display the same comedies and commercials). The society is segregated by appearance: people with excessive weight are considered inferior, and have to serve those who are more fit. In their turn, fit people have to exercise a lot, because this is their only hope to change their lives for the better.
How? There are two reasons. The first one is credits. Credits are earned by simply pedaling exercise bikes, and are needed to buy food, skip constant annoying commercials (which you cannot mute or ignore—if you try to, a thunderous alarm signal turns on, and continues until you return to watching the commercial), buy new clothes and accessories for virtual avatars, and so on. Even squeezing toothpaste from a tube costs credits. But most importantly, credits are needed to buy a ticket allowing a citizen to participate in a talent show: the winner, chosen by three judges, no longer needs to exercise, and becomes rich, famous, and privileged.
This is the slave world everyone agrees with.
Bing, the main character, has inherited 15 million credits after his brother’s death—the exact sum of credits needed to purchase the golden ticket. Without knowing what to spend them on, he lives day after day, until he accidentally hears a woman named Abi sing in a bathroom. Bing realizes her singing is the truest, purest thing he ever encountered in this pitiful world, and offers all his money to her, so that she could participate in the show, break free, and bring at least a bit of happiness and beauty into it. Abi agrees. Bing sees her performance on the show, and she actually wins the contest… only to be told that society does not need singers at the moment. Instead, Abi is offered to become a porn actress; the choice the jury forces her to make is cruel—either this, or pedaling exercise bikes for the rest of her life.
Abi accepts the offer.
Broken down, Bing returns to his cell. Driven by anger and bitterness, he exercises twice as more than before, and spends almost nothing; he also learns how to dance, in order to perform on the show. Finally, Bing saves another 15 million credits, buys another ticket, and gets on the show—but before he enters the stage, he hides a shard of glass in his sleeve. After his performance, while the jury is pleasantly surprised with the expression of his dance, Bing, threatening himself with the shard, demands the judges and the audience (consisting of virtual avatars) to hear him out, otherwise he will kill himself on air.
Bing delivers a desperate, emotional, and sincere speech accusing the world order… and receives an offer to become an anchor for a new show. A show that would criticize the society and exploit Bing’s sincerity and despair. The alternative is the same as in Abi’s case.
The episode ends with another speech of Bing that people in the gym watch on their TVs. Bing still has the glass shard pointed against his neck, and his eyes still emanate anxiety and anger, but after the show comes to an end, we see that Bing broadcasts from a luxurious apartment. He carefully puts the shard in a special box, drinks a glass of orange juice, and looks outside the window of his new home.
The questions and problems “15 Million Merits” raises are obvious, yet too complex to name them directly. Through the grotesque and hyperbole, the director not only managed to create a horribly alike parody to the world we currently live in, but also to show how media, the entertainment industry, and routine, multiplied by silent connivance and consumerist mentality, can grind people’s dreams, hopes, dignity, self-esteem, and turn them into a product that other people will forget the next day they consume it. To me, this episode of “Black Mirror” is a warning about what can become of western society if people keep mindlessly accepting everything that corporations, governments, and entertainment industries feed them.
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