“Fifteen Million Merits” is the second episode of the first season of Black Mirror. It was directed by Euros Lyn and written by Charlie Brooker and Kanak Huq. The main characters of the episode, Bing and Abi, are played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findlay, respectively.
This episode details a drab world where thousands, if not millions, of people are stuck underground, forced to exercise all day in order to generate power for the outside world. Each person works away on cycling machines, slowly producing merits. Merits are an electronic currency needed to buy everything essential for survival: food, water, hygiene products, entertainment. The people are passivated by mass entertainment, enticed by programs that make their lives seem less boring or awful. There seems to be only one way out of this place: to win on “Hot Shot”, a program very similar to American Idol or the X-Factor. The cyclers can only audition for this show if they purchase a golden ticket, costing 15 million merits. In a world where skipping an advertisement costs 6,500 merits, 15 million is a fortune.
The episode features Bing, who meets Abi one day after hearing her sing. With the money that he got from his dead brother, he buys her a ticket for “Hot Shot”. She makes a great performance singing, but is not good enough. They do, however offer her a shot on the pornography program, “Wraith Babes”. She accepts this, and later sends Bing into a fit of rage. After liberating a shard of glass from his wall, he decides to go on “Hot Shot”. He makes it to the stage, performs an unimpressive dance and then threatens to kill himself on stage. He then delivers a speech, trying to bring attention to many of the problems that Bing and many of the other cyclers faced. Unfazed, however, the judges offer him his own show, a chance to escape cycling. He accepts, and trades his cage in for a larger one.
Historical and Cultural Context
Black Mirror was written, filmed and released for the United Kingdom. A lot of the distrust that the show displays is due to the rapid adoption of American technology across the world in the last decade. Another part of this feeling is distrust towards America and the technology it is pumping out at an incredible rate.
At the time that this episode was being created, ranging from 2010 – 2011, many things were happening across the world. For one, Apple released the iPad in 2010, which brought the internet to many young children due to ease of access and size. The iPhone 4 was also released and 1.7 million units were sold in the span of three days, even though the antenna had major difficulties. 2010 was when internet connected devices started to become ubiquitous. The start of the new decade was when US made technology started to dominate the world. It was around this time, too, that social media networks started to take off, starting to become more and more widely used by people all across the globe. 2010 marked the moment in time when people started to adopt the internet as their peer group, replacing friends and social interactions with “friends” and “likes”.
Even though the episode was filmed in the United Kingdom, the themes of slavery that are touched upon are quite relevant to the United States. The United Kingdom did have its own struggle with slavery and still has troubles reconciling the afterlives of slavery. In medieval England, most, if not all, of the lowest class of society was forced to work on their Lord’s fields as serfs. They were unable to move freely and had no rights or freedoms.
As England became the United Kingdom, the country gained a lot of worldwide influence, and with their seafaring tradition, became a major part of the transatlantic slave trade. British ships would export goods from Europe to ports in Africa which would then be traded for slaves, and the slaves would be brought to the New World where they were sold for other goods such as sugar. These goods would be brought back to Europe to start the loop all over again. This triangular trade continued until 1807 when the slave trade was outlawed. The United Kingdom saw a large and popular abolition movement, pushing to end slavery. The abolitionists were successful in 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. This put all of the British Empire’s slaves on the path to freedom by the end of the 1840’s (Sandhu, Sukhdev).
Although the slaves were freed peacefully in the United Kingdom, the British still went through the similar bouts of racism and oppression of the British Africans, known as Black Britons. The 1970’s and 1980’s in the UK saw police implementing stop and search rules, usually on black teenagers, often leading to scuffles between the police and the black teenagers. Similar to America, racism often lead to Black Britons, usually teenagers or young adults, being injured or even killed in a few circumstances (Dabydeen, David). The major difference between the UK and the US is the difference in the severity of the racism. The United States was much worse with respect to African Americans. In fact, several Black Britons even became knighted lords at times when black people in America were segregated entirely.
Themes and Styles
The design of the sets in this episode was chosen carefully to try and represent a depressing and drab future. The main color present is black. Black floors, ceilings, walls, combined with a low level of lighting make the episode literally dark. And with the minimalistic décor, the design paints a bleak environment, setting the tone for the episode.
This bleak tone, combined with the fact that the people in this place have to cycle every day for what seems to be an unending amount of time shows the feeling of entrapment. This is how the theme of slavery emerges in the work, and another theme of distrust and future weariness also becomes present throughout the work. These themes become visible because it is the technology here that helps to enslave these people and keep them productive and passive.
This episode takes a dark look on the future. It makes it look like dystopian but something that could also happen. When it was created in 2011, the episode said a lot about the state of society. When Bing delivers his speech two of the lines he speaks paint society quite well. He says:
… all you see up here, it’s not people, you don’t see people up here, it’s all fodder. And the faker the fodder, the more you love it, because fake fodder’s the only thing that works any more… All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves, is buying shit.
These statements, while crude, refer to society’s lust for entertainment, especially reality TV, social media, and celebrities that people feel “close” to. The faker the people are, as in the more they fit to a stereotype and the more they resemble their audience, the more the audience loves it, because that was the only thing that worked. And for many, to make themselves feel better, shopping was the release. Even during a recession, people would buy useless things for outrageous amounts, all on credit.
Between 2011 and today, not much has changed. The use of technology has grown exponentially and connections to the internet are everywhere. Entertainment of every single kind is mind-bogglingly ubiquitous. “Fifteen Million Merits” shows that in today’s society, the existence of a thing like the cyclers isn’t too hard to conceive of. All in an attempt to create “real” entertainment that an audience can feel inseparably close to.
Another theme that the episode carries through its length is that of the spectacle. The cyclers, in nearly everything they do, are spectacles. Everything they do is nearly designed to create a spectacle. This theme is created by the narrow design of the sets and the camera angles that are used for the episode. This makes it feel like everything that is happening to the cyclers is being seen and recorded. A spectacle is being made of their lives. And the peak of their lives is to get onto the show “Hot Shot”, which has the purpose of finding the cyclers that are best at being spectacles.
The whole reason that the cyclers are underground is to generate power for the outside world. However, no system for energy conversion is perfect, and humans especially are very wasteful with energy. Cycling is the most efficient form of exercise, but the most in shape person would cap out at around 20% efficiency (“The Energy Household of the Body”). Due to this it would be far more power could be generated by burning the food that the cyclers use to sustain themselves. This would have to mean that the cyclers are not down there to generate power. It is likely that they exist down there as fodder to generate content for some outside world that is never seen. This is evidenced by the fact that everything underground is driven by entertainment and exploitation.
The writers of this episode use the themes of slavery as presented in the show to discuss an emerging new social dynamic that is a result of the rapid adoption of technology. The availability of the internet and devices with which to connect to it has made entertainment ubiquitous. This has had the effect of creating a population of people that are obsessed with entertainment, with staring at screens and separating themselves from reality. As a result, society has started to stratify into two groups: people with the means to distance themselves from reality, living in their own world, and those that work to create the escape. This episode drives this point by showing how people get enjoyment out of seeing others in pain.
In the world of “Fifteen Million Merits”, nearly everything that the cyclers do is designed to be easily exported as entertainment. Their pain is the main selling point, as evidenced by the large viewership of the show “Hot Shot”, where many people put all of their hopes on the line, only to get crushed by the system. As Elizabeth Alexander in, “Can You be BLACK and Look at This?” wrote, “Black bodies in pain have been an American national spectacle for centuries.” (Alexander, Elizabeth). Substitute “Low-class” or “poor” for “black” in this quote and it becomes relevant. The writers draw on this concept of the spectacle as it relates to the afterlives of slavery, as the cyclers are very similar to African-Americans in the freedoms that they have. By creating a cramped and painful environment, the writers are making a spectacle of the cyclers, and one that is readily consumed as entertainment. The cyclers, then, are slaves to the upper-class of people that consume this content. This dynamic exists in today’s world, but is not nearly as dramatic, as many of the ‘have-nots’ in society do become a sort of entertainment, but they are not totally forced to do it.
The writers of the episode also paint a toxic environment in which the cyclers exist. The cyclers form only a loosely connected social network, and very few of them actually have any real friends. Toxic communities can be found quite easily in today’s world. Just look at social media. In an interview with NPR, Charlie Brooker, the show’s writer, said the following on social media, “…I would say that probably around 2013, I was aware there was a general – I would say a change in mood online. I think more and more people became aware that social media was starting to feel like a more toxic space…” (Gross, Terry). In both situations, a toxic environment creates competition between community members, generating pointless drama, that may be amusing for people outside the community. The base toxicity of this environment is compounded by the fact that no person has any privacy. It is impossible to relax in a world where the walls have eyes. The lack of privacy in the digital world can feel Orwellian, but as William Wresch argues in his book:
In 1984 George Orwell had visions of state control brought about by watchers you could watch TV and it could watch you. He may have understood the goals of the police state, but he totally misunderstood technology. Who needs armies of people watching people when trivial computer programs and minuscule storage devices can effortlessly record every move you make? (Wresch, William, and NetLibrary, Inc.)
In both the world of “Fifteen Million Merits” and today’s society, a total lack of privacy helps to make life more of a spectacle. When everyone in today’s world has a camera in their hands everybody’s blunders and failures can be broadcasted all over the world. In “Fifteen Million Merits”, their slavery to the system meant that they had no choice. Everything they did was monitored in some way, and whether or not anybody was watching, it generates quite the spectacle.
Works Cited Add sources for Historical and Cultural Context
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Can you be BLACK and Look at This?” Public Culture. University of Chicago. 1994.
Dabydeen, David, et al. The Oxford companion to Black British history. Oxford University Press, 2010.
“Fifteen Million Merits” Black Mirror, season 1, episode 2, Channel 4, 11 Dec. 2011. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/70264858.
Gross, Terry. “’Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Worst Nightmares About Technology.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2016/10/20/498683379/black-mirror-creator-dramatizes-our-worst-nightmares-about-technology, 20 Oct. 2016.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. “History – British History in depth: The First Black Britons.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/black_britons_01.shtml.
“The Energy Household of the Body.” Physics in Medicine, University of Notre Dame, https://www3.nd.edu/~nsl/Lectures/mphysics/Medical%20Physics/Part%20I.%20Physics%20of%20the%20Body/Chapter%202.%20Energy%20Household%20of%20the%20Body/2.2%20Energy%20consumption%20of%20the%20body/Energy%20consumption%20of%20the%20body.pdf
Wresch, William, and NetLibrary, Inc. Disconnected Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age. New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Guzik, Keith. “Surveillance Technologies and States of Security.” Making Things Stick: Surveillance Technologies and Mexico’s War on Crime, University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2016, pp. 1–25. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ffjn82.5.
Miers, Suzanne. “Contemporary Forms of Slavery.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines, vol. 34, no. 3, 2000, pp. 714–747. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/486218.
Rimal, Rajiv N. “Media Campaigns and Perceptions of Reality.” John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, http://ccp.jhu.edu/documents/MediaCampaignsPerceptionsReality.pdf
Wortham, Jenna. “‘Black Mirror’ and the Horrors and Delights of Technology.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/magazine/black-mirror-and-the-horrors-and-delights-of-technology.html, 30 Jan. 2015.
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