Fifteen Million Merits
|"Fifteen Million Merits"|
|Black Mirror episode|
Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakens in his screen-covered "box" every morning.
|Episode no.||Series 1|
|Directed by||Euros Lyn|
|Written by||Charlie Brooker|
|Featured music||Original Score by|
|Original air date||11 December 2011|
|Running time||62 minutes|
"Fifteen Million Merits" is the second episode of the first series of British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. It was written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker and his wife Konnie Huq (credited as Kanak Huq) and directed by Euros Lyn, and first aired on Channel 4 on 11 December 2011.
In a world where most of society must cycle on exercise bikes in order to power their surroundings and earn currency called "Merits", the episode tells the story of Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), who meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) and convinces her to participate in a talent game show to escape the slave-like world around them. The episode is a science-fiction dystopia which features a parallel to reality shows and figures such as The X Factor and Simon Cowell.
The episode received positive reviews. Some reviewers praised the episode's visual style and thought-provoking nature, along with the actor's performances, and believe it to be superior to previous episode "The National Anthem"; other commentators criticised the episode for being unoriginal.
A society lives in an enclosed, automated space, with nearly every surface an interactive video screen with personalised entertainment and frequent advertising. They ride on stationary bikes to generate power in exchange for "merits", a form of currency. The society shuns overweight people, who are tasked with janitorial jobs and subjected to humiliation via a game show, Botherguts.
Bingham "Bing" Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) has recently inherited millions of merits from his dead brother. Overhearing Abi Khan (Jessica Brown Findlay) singing in a restroom, he encourages her to enter Hot Shot, a reality contest where winners are able to forgo bike riding and live luxuriously. Both thinking the entry ticket costs 12 million merits, Abi reluctantly lets Bing buy her a ticket. Bing then realises it costs 15 million merits, almost his entire stock, but he buys the ticket anyway. Abi goes to the audition with Bing accompanying. Abi is required to drink a beverage labeled "Cuppliance", and goes out to sing "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" by Irma Thomas for judges Hope, Charity and Wraith (Rupert Everett, Julia Davis, Ashley Thomas, respectively). Though impressed, they say there are no more positions for singers, and Hope suggests she is better suited for Wraith's pornography show WraithBabes. Despite Bing's protests from the wings, Abi caves into pressure from both the crowd and judges and accepts.
One day, while watching entertainment in his personal cell, Bing sees an advert for WraithBabes featuring Abi. Bing is forced to watch the ad as he cannot afford to skip it, and when he looks away, a high-pitched noise sounds until he looks at the screen. Bing angrily bashes one of the screens, shattering it. He picks up a shard of glass and cuts into the back of his hand where his Hot Shot temporary tattoo from the audition is. He hides the shard under his bed, along with the waste container from Abi's Cuppliance. He spends the next few months single-mindedly earning merits and living frugally to re-earn the 15 million merits and buy another Hot Shot entry ticket.
At his audition, Bing hides the glass shard in his trousers and pretends that he has already drunk Cuppliance by showing them the empty container. He starts his performance with a dance number, but midway through pulls out the shard and threatens to slice his neck. Wraith goads him to do it, but the other judges encourage him to speak. Bing angrily rants about the system they live under, talking about the heartlessness and artificiality of it. After some discussion between the judges, Hope offers Bing his own regular show on one of his channels.
Bing is shown recording his show, which consists of him ranting while holding the glass shard to his neck. He finishes with an advert for a doppel accessory. Bing lives in much larger quarters, and the episode ends with him looking out from his room onto what appears to be a vast green forest.
Conception and writing
This episode was the first Black Mirror episode to be written, though it aired following "The National Anthem". It was written by Charlie Brooker and his wife Konnie Huq; an inspiration for the episode was Huq's remark that Brooker would "basically be happy in a room where every wall was [an iPad screen]". Huq had conceived of a future where the walls of every house would be a touch-screen television, whilst Brooker had been inspired by avatars on the Xbox 360 and Wii. Huq had also had an idea that gyms should be powered by the energy produced by its exercise equipment.
Additionally, the episode is based on the "narrative in talent shows", where "there are a lot of people who do a job they hate for little reward, and one of the main means of salvation that's held up is to become an overnight star." At the time, Huq was presenting The Xtra Factor, a reality series companion show. She had previous presented children's television show Blue Peter and noted that many children wanted to be famous without knowing what they would be famous for. The episode was also influenced by The Year of the Sex Olympics, a 1968 dystopia which comments on reality television.
Brooker compared the episode to the "1984" ad produced by Apple, Inc. for the Apple Macintosh computer. He and Huq nicknamed the episode the "Screenwipe Story" because of Bing's similarities to Brooker's televised rants on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe.
The ending went through various drafts. One idea featured Bing and Abi living together, both unhappy with their lives; another idea had Bing deliver his stream and anxiously pour over the ratings for it. One ending revealed that the exercise bikes were not connected to this; Jones comments that the viewer thinks this anyway.
Euros Lyn directed the episode; Brooker had written reviews of Lyn's work on science fiction programme Doctor Who and Lyn was familiar with his articles in The Guardian and his show Nathan Barley. Daniel Kaluuya was cast as Bing Madsen, based on an audition in which he performed the scene where Bing rants on Hot Shot. Kaluuya would later be cast in 2017 horror film Get Out by Jordan Peele because of the strength of his speech in the final episode. Jessica Brown Findlay plays Abi, having finished working on historical period drama Downton Abbey. Rupert Everett plays Judge Hope, Julia Davis plays Judge Charity and Ashley Thomas plays Judge Wraith.
Filming took place in Buckingham, on a disused university campus. Due to the small budget, every scene takes place on one set, which was redressed for each location. The sets feature working screens as it was decided that using visual effects would not really be possible. Production designer Joel Collins gives the example that when Kaluuya swiped his hand in front of the screen attached to his bike machine, a crew member would press a button to trigger the screen's response. An illustrator and a team of animators worked on the digital avatars used, with every cast member being assigned an avatar, and hundreds more avatars appearing in the Hot Shots audience. Many audience reactions were shot so that they could be inserted as appropriate responses to the story and dialogue. The "cycling chamber" shown is one of thousands in the building; a low budget meant this building could only be shown sparingly.
Bing's screen displays different programmes. Whilst gameshow Botherguts was fictional and had to be filmed, Endemol allowed their gameshows Don't Scare the Hare and The Whole 19 Yards to be displayed on the screens. Additionally, adverts for the fictional pornography channel WraithBabes needed to be filmed; two real pornographic actresses were hired, with one of the actresses bringing her boyfriend to participate in the shoot. In the WraithBabes video which Abi appears in, more graphic elements were shot but a version was chosen where the actor puts his thumb in Abi's mouth to give a sense of "weird violation" rather than titillation.
To inform Kaluuya's portrayal of Bing, Lyn and Kaluuya discussed Bing's backstory in great depth, considering Bing's relationship with his deceased brother. Brooker says that in the scene where Bing smashes up his bedroom, Kaluuya accidentally cut his foot, and this moment was included in the final cut. Kaluuya worked with a choreographer for the dance which Bing performs on Hot Shot. His Hot Shot performance was filmed in two takes, with three cameras on Kaluuya. The rant was written by Brooker "in a real rush", to imitate Bing's delivery, and contains lines that do not make complete sense, such as "You're sitting there slowly knitting things worse".
Judge Hope was inspired by talent competition judge Simon Cowell, as well as BBC Radio 1 DJs from the 1970s. Davis and Everett had both had the idea of doing Australian accents, but only Everett was allowed to use the accent. To distance Judge Hope from singer George Michael, Everett removed his glasses during his first scene.
The episode features an original soundtrack by Stephen McKeon. McKeon agreed with Lyn that the score should use live musicians and "sound natural" as a contrast to the artificiality of the setting. The music for Bing's character is Western in genre, chosen to match his cell's personalised theme and to evoke the symbolism of a hero in Western film, which Bing unsuccessfully tries to embody by "saving" Abi.
The music for pornography channel WraithBabes features voices by Tara Lee, McKeon's 16-year-old daughter. The scene in which Bing works hard to achieve 15 million merits is five minutes long; the music had to build throughout, and McKeon used a sample of an exercise bike in his composition. The song "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" by Irma Thomas was chosen by Brooker to stand out from the dystopic setting. Brooker wanted a catchy song with a 1960s style. It recurs in later Black Mirror episodes.
By coincidence, "Fifteen Million Merits" was scheduled to air on 11 December 2011, at the same time as the final of one series of ITV's The X Factor. Brooker contacted Channel 4, who moved the programme to a later slot. Trailers for the episode noted that it would air after The X Factor final, and one trailer ran on ITV during the final itself. Brooker commented that Hot Shot was not meant to "directly be" The X Factor, as talent shows have different roles in the fictional setting of the episode.
Scenes from "Fifteen Million Merits" were featured at a Barbican Centre exhibit entitled "Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction". The entrance contained a 6-foot (1.8 m) high installation containing extracts from the episode across multiple screens.
The episode falls under the genres of dystopia, science fiction and drama. Brooker calls it "an incredibly reductive piss-taking version of capitalism". Lambie compares it to dystopian novels Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and We, due to the plot revolving around a "doomed relationship". Bing is a tragic hero according to Wallaston. In regards to the pacing, David Sims writes that the episode is "economical [...] with the information it gives you".
Richards notes that Hot Shot is "a caustic satire on TV talent shows"; it is widely considered to be based on The X Factor, with Judge Hope in the role of Simon Cowell. Reviewers have also drawn comparisons to American Idol. David Lewis of Cultbox compared Botherguts, one of the fictional entertainment shows that makes fun of overweight people in the society, to Brooker's previous work TVGoHome.
Sims uses the metaphor that Bing is "stuck inside a cellphone", and that his life is a game of Candy Crush. Connolly calls Bing's cell a "little tomb made out of Kinect-equipped iPads". Sims notes that the "doppels" each person has resemble Mii avatars. Surette comments that the episode shows a "class system", with the unfit being assigned janitor jobs – a lower position than working on the exercise bikes. He also notes that one could compare the world to that of a dull office job.
Bing can be seen as a satire of Brooker himself, as both can be described as a "bilious TV critic turned TV presenter". His character speaks very little for most of the episode before his stream of consciousness-style rant at the judges. Howard said Abi's storyline "rings chillingly true in our world of Instamodels and reality stars", giving the example of Kim Kardashian, and opines "Stardom, for women, equates to sexual objectification - it's unavoidable". Surette writes that the episode provides a "look forward into our celebrity-obsessed culture".
"Fifteen Million Merits" premiered on Channel 4 on 11 December 2011 at 9:30 p.m., where according to 7-day figures from the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, the episode was watched by 1.52 million viewers.
The episode received positive reviews. Many critics agreed that this episode was better than the previous, "The National Anthem". Writing for The A.V. Club, David Sims opined that it is a "grander work in every way", while Wollaston calls it "much better", "more artful" and "moving".
Sims gave the episode an A, describing it as "visually seamless" and "a dazzling piece of science fiction that builds its world out slowly but perfectly over the course of an hour". He called Bing "perhaps too inscrutable" but says the ending is "devastating and smart". Tim Surette of TV.com said that the episode is "one of the most beautiful and haunting hours of science-fiction television you'll [ever] see". Surette assessed that, "Brimming with gorgeous visuals, a moving score, and a fully realized future that might not be too far off, there's never a moment where '15 Million Merits' is anything less than gripping, scary, and thought-provoking. [...] '15 Million Merits' wants you to look in the mirror and do something about it." Sam Wollaston of The Guardian described the episode as "original, thoughtful, thought-provoking television". Wollaston remarked that "all the performances are good" and that the world is "striking to look at and beautiful".
Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek raved that "Fifteen Million Merits" contains "some of the finest production design, music and acting [he has] seen in a genre television show all year". Criticising that "some aspects [...] are a little too shrill", referring to Dustin's abrasiveness and Hope's obvious satire of Cowell, Lambie gave an otherwise overwhelmingly positive review, critiquing that "the warmth of Bing and Abi's brief romance, contrasted against the coldness of TV screens, jeering avatars and manipulative reality show judges, is among the most moving I've seen in for a while, and the main reason why Fifteen Million Merits is such a captivating piece of genre television." Alexandra Howard of The 405 wrote that the episode is the one that "stuck with [her]", due to its commentary on the objectification of women; Howard commented that Black Mirror "makes you reflect upon the world and realise that you are also part of the problem".
Sam Richards of The Telegraph gave the episode four out of five stars in a review which argued that the episode explored "familiar tropes" with "style, savvy and lashings of acerbic humour". David Lewis of Cultbox rated the episode three out of five, commenting that "the moral is more sledgehammer than subtle" but Bing and Abi holdings hands is "sweet" and the golden ticket appearing with Bing's doppel on Abi's screen is "genuinely touching"; Lewis called the episode "profoundly depressing – highly watchable, but utterly wretched".
Brendan Connolly of Bleeding Cool was "disappointed" by the episode, as it was a "fairly prosaic story situated in an all too familiar future world, semi-fraught with overplayed dangers". The review criticised the "bit of a leap" required to accept that Abi would "choose a life of televised sex abuse over a life of menial labour". However, Connolly stated that "the show really punched out through the screen and hit [him]" in its final scene, due to the ambiguity of whether the forest is real, and uncertainty of how Bing sees his situation.
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