Welcome to our weekly video series Sight Unsound where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
If you weren’t terrified of the future last week, you certainly will be this time as we present the second part of Sight Unsound’s analysis on Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.
And for those who prefer a long-read, the full text from the video is copied below. If you haven’t watched the first part of the visual essay, click here: Beyond Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits.
The only way out
The only way out of the drudgery of cycling for a living is to be successful on the ‘talent show’ Hot Shots. A singing show similar to The X-Factor. This element of the episode depicts societies hunger for fame and the importance that we place upon those who have achieved it.
It’s interesting to note that it is impossible to reach out of the drudgery through hard work alone. It is that the work simply supports your chance to be noticed as a ‘talent’ and only those judged ‘worthy’ enough are allowed to reach the higher echelons of the society. It mimics the current trend for professions like: ‘reality TV star’, singer, or ‘Youtuber’ regularly topping the list of professions that young people pick as their most desired job when they grow up. We’re in a world where it’s these occupations that garner many more accolades and have a higher perceived status than others do.
When Abi sings for the judges the world seems to stop, transcending the totalitarian technocracy. It appears that everyone in their respective pods is listening to her, transfixed by the beauty of her voice. Her words are wholesome and gentle, promising a better life for all. Innocent and tender they are at complete odds with the system. Ideas that she cannot possibly have discovered in the world that she inhabits, but ones that speak directly to her and the rest of the populous. She’s an instant hit.
However, it’s not her voice that the judges are interested in and they offer her the opportunity to become a Wraitbabe on the pornography channel. Drunk on the compliance drink she was given and seemingly ecstatic to be free of her previous life she agrees, while the audience never feels that she fully understands the ramifications of her decisions. She is now destined to become a hyper-sexualised object that the crowd will be able to consume free of guilt as they are told that this is acceptable for them to do so.
It’s this point in the episode where Brooker is at his most radical, bringing to the forefront of the narrative his views on the culture of the starlet and how the industry corrupts them by either forcing them to become sexual objects, or making them feel that they need to in order to succeed.
What is worth noting is that when Abi accepts the judges offer and the crowd are on their feet applauding, we see the female judge shed a single tear which she quickly wipes away. This could be read one of two ways. Either she’s genuinely moved by this young woman and her ‘talent’ of being beautiful. Or it could be a tear of sympathy, realizing the future torments that she has subjected her to by allowing this to happen. Maybe it’s even one of empathy, having been placed in a similar position to her previously, which allowed her to have the life she does now, but at a great personal cost.
Fade to black
After his awakening to the truth of the system in losing Abi, Bing sets himself off on the final part of his mission. Forgoing all of the “comforts” of this world (such as refusing food and declining to skip adverts) and working on his bike day and night he is able to earn the fifteen million credits needed for him to return to Hot Shots and confront the panel of judges.
Once he has gained the required sum he heads to audition himself and is able to convince the handler backstage that he has already taken his ‘compliance’ drink, showing us that he has an understanding of the system; realizing the tricks that it plays on those unfortunate enough not to see through its charade.
When he is finally on the stage he holds the shard of screen against his neck and forces those present to listen to him.
“All you see is not people, just fodder – fake fodder!”
Here Brooker is projecting his own protests against society: all we know anymore is fake, and the only kinds of dreams we have are those of consumption. He goes on to suggest that we are becoming too numb for anything free and real and beautiful to exist. Abi could have been valued for her singing, but she was forced to be sexualized as this would make the most of her talents for those who control the machinery of fame. Bing tells the judges:
“When you find any wonder whatsoever you dole it out in meager portions, where it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, ‘till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride, day-in and day-out. Going where? Powering what? All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens…”
The public should now be awake, they should understand the fruitlessness of their ventures and feel the shame that should accompany their compliance in such a system. It seems that the ingredients for revolution could be in the air.
However, the establishment is able to play its trump card. The judges offer Bing a place within its fold, absorbing him into its own infrastructure so that he may be controlled, and his message mediated. Bing accepts. What other choice does he have? The crowd cheers.
Brooker admits that he wished to end all Black Mirror episodes on a devastating note, similar to those of The Twilight Zone. This is the case at the close of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ where Bing discovers a new life away from the drudgery of constant cycling for credits and now resides in a much nicer dwelling thanks to his new found fame as a privileged member of the commentariat.
After he finishes his broadcast for the day, Bing lovingly places the shard back into a black box. Ensuing that it is locked away so as not to be directed at all things all the time and only brought out for ‘special’ occasions. It would be dangerous for the establishment should he fully actualise this resentment and decide to return to the revolutionary figure he once could have been.
However, in so carefully guarding it he acknowledges that this is the site of his power – the reason that he now is able to enjoy the life that he does. Potentially this is a moment where Brooker admits the source of his own success and the pride/twinge of guilt that he feels about it. He, just like Bing, has had his own voice co-opted by the establishment, even within Black Mirror, as a product that is brought and sold. Simply enjoyable, escapist entertainment that we want to consume.
In the final frames Bing steps towards a view over a dense green forest and looks out over it. This could be read in two ways. Firstly, it could echo the previous references to Logan’s Run. In stepping out of the systems of control Bing finally reveals to us that the world outside the pod is still “normal”. There was no cataclysmic event that brought the world to its knees which forced it to become what it is. Rather it slipped into these ways through choice, or with only a small amount of persuasion.
However, another reading could be that Bing is not looking at the outside world through a window, but is still viewing everything through a screen. It’s just that the one that he has now is far grander. He is still controlled, but is allowed to experience things away from normalcy because of the privileged position that he occupies.
Then the picture cuts to black, and there we are – watching only our reflection in yet another screen. A cold and horrifying experience.