Hey guys! Last week I did the first in the reviews series for Black Mirror, looking at the divisive The National Anthem.
This week, we’re taking a look at Fifteen Million Merits!
Just as a quick heads up, I’m going to refer to the main system as the ‘proletariat system’, as it’s essentially what the whole episode focuses on, as well as the relationship with the bourgeoisie. It’s pretty similar in a way to the old 1920’s films about the October Revolution in Russia. Take the film Strike, for example, where the proletariat workers are uniform, and any named workers become martyrs, while the bourgeoisie are individualised.
Each person occupies a small room surrounded by screens, which seems really claustrophobic, if you ask me! Their merits, the currency they earn, is spent little by little on things like toothpaste, vending machines with petri-dish and fake food, among other things we’ll get to later! I’ll admit, the tech is impressive, but my God!
The premise of the episode is when people turn 21, they are sent to this place to work. Each of the workers dons an all-grey uniform, and has to “put their back into giving back” by riding exercise bikes all day, in order to earn the merits. They’re allowed to customise themselves in the form of their dopple. But hey – skipping or muting TV adverts incurs a merit charge! And porn is heavily pushed to these people, too. One of them likes it…a little too much.
It’s interesting to see that, even in a system that has the workers uniform, they have another level below them, and that’s being “in lemon”, but we’d normally call them cleaners (don’t diss cleaners, they do a good job!). But they are categorised in this as the people that haven’t been pulling their weight in the workstation. We see this example, of a guy who had heart issues on the bike in the beginning of the episode, and was not allowed to sign back in the next day, having been demoted to being a Lemon.
But the interesting focal point of the story comes in the form of Hot Shot, a talent show not unlike The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, where people aspire to go on to be part of the bourgeoisie elite. One girl on Hot Shot discusses how one of the benefits of becoming a star via Hot Shot is actually the ability to pick out her own clothes, to be away from the proletariat system.
A new girl comes in, Abi, who wants to be on Hot Shot, and our guy Bing has a bit of a crush on her, and it’s pretty obvious. She makes an origami penguin which is really cute, but it’s a symbol of individuality that gets swept away by the Lemon’s broom. Bing convinces Abi to try out for Hot Shot, gifting his Merits to her so that she could enter. He doesn’t care for the customisation for his ‘dopple’, or ‘stuff’ as he refers to it as. He believes in the reality of Abi’s voice (in the toilet), but it’s sweet that he’d go so far for one person, and to go with her to support her. I was hard shipping them two this episode, and they’d only just met! And then she brings out the penguin as a symbol of hope. And I love how her room has a penguin on the screen too, for that extra visual purpose.
Oh my God, there’s a scene where there are rooms full of people working on the bikes. Oh my God.
The stage aspect is interesting, as Abi is required to drink Cuppliance before she goes onto the stage. Later, it’s so that she’s forced to go through with what she needs to in order to entertain the masses and the judges, interestingly named Charity, Hope and Wraith. Of course, the Cuppliance is aptly named, like ‘compliance’ in a cup = Cuppliance.
You can tell she’s nervous, and with Wraith wanting to see her boobs, but Abi is then prompted to sing, which she’ll sing Anyone Who Knows What Love Is by Irma Thomas. It’s such a beautiful song, and it does become a Black Mirror staple, as we’ll see in episodes later as one of the many cross-referencing Easter Egg. But Abi does have an amazing voice, and it still gives me goosebumps just watching it.
The judges were more focused on Abi’s appearance, figure and innocent look, and Hope gets into the idea that she could be an exceptional porn star. Just imagine wanting to be a singer and instead being pushed into becoming a porn star? Imagine the judges saying that what you want to do isn’t good enough, and give you an ultimatum – be a porn star or go back to the bikes. Imagine being in Abi’s position – having your dreams crushed, and feeling compelled to accept the judges’ offer in order to escape the never-ending future of bike work. It’s pidgeon-holing people, and that’s kinda what The X-Factor does for their stars – Steve Brookstein was dropped by Simon Cowell for wanting to write his own music instead of releasing a second covers album.
Of course, the fallout sends Bing into a deep depression, seeing Abi on Wraith Babes. And he doesn’t have the funds to skip her advert. And closing his eyes ensures that the screens literally scream at him to continue viewing. And he cracks, cracking one of the screens in the process. And if that isn’t good symbolism, I don’t know what is. But he gets an idea from this moment of insanity, seeing the empty Cuppliance and a fragment of the shattered glass. I couldn’t watch as he cut the stamp on his hand from when he accompanied Abi, that just…it freaks me out seeing stuff like that.
Bing starts working overtime and being frugal with his spending. He starts sneaking leftovers of other people, and working himself until he tires. He starts practicing dancing. You can tell he’s saving the Merits to get to the 15million, and it kinda hurts to see him put that much effort in.
He manages, and he has his plan set in stone. He buys the ticket and heads down to the audition department. You reckon he’s gonna slaughter some people, right? I kinda thought so too, the first time. He classes himself as an entertainer, and he uses the empty Cuppliance cup as one he ‘was given before’, before entering the stage, sans-Cuppliance.
The token song here is Lapdance by N.E.R.D. (now there’s a flashback), and it’s been used for Wraith Babes adverts, and I remember the actual music video having an X-rated version.
His plan boils down to dancing before pulling the shard of glass to his throat and has a rant about how the people biking are treated as fodder while the judges just sit there and how the proletariat . It’s basically an anarchist performance, and the judges eat it up. His authenticity is what allows him to get out of the proletariat system and into a slot on Hope’s streams. So he takes that offer, and now the performance that he did on the stage is now a mere performance on the streams. He lives outside the walls of the system, is able to drink real juice, and can look out into the horizon from his window.
Not gonna lie, I’d love his view in the future.
I feel that, in hindsight, the true message of this episode is that you tend to hate the system until you’re at the top of the heap. The fact remains that he’s now at the top of the system, having gone through the hardships of working for that meal ticket out of the proletariat system.
Despite his rant on-stange, and despite his recorded rants for views, the system doesn’t really change at all. He hasn’t changed the system, he just rose through the ranks and become part of the problem.
I suppose in a way it symbolises human greed. We always want more, no matter what we already have.
I love this episode, and it reflects what I learned when I did Film Studies for a little while in sixth-form. It reflects human greed, and reflects on what matters – individual lives. It questions how authentic your actions may be once you reach the heights that you once hated.