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Recap / Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits

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"It's not stuff. It's truth."

Bing: You've got something real.
Abi: You heard me singing in a toilet. Is that real?
Bing: More than anything that's happened all year.

The only distraction in a dystopian life of endless physical toil is a series of tedious games and TV talent shows on every screen, which people can enter at the cost of work tokens, the so-called "merits". This is not really of much concern to the citizen, Bing Madsen, however. Bing has inherited a lot of merits from his deceased brother, which he mostly uses to pay the fines for skipping the mandatory adverts he and the other citizens are frequently bombarded with. That is until he overhears Abi, a fellow worker, singing to herself in the employee bathrooms. Finding her voice absolutely beautiful, Bing thinks she might have what it takes to have a chance in the talent show Hot Shots...

To add some Take That! juice to the proceedings, this episode's premiere screening was deliberately scheduled to begin on Channel 4 immediately after the 2011 final of The X Factor had ended over on ITV1. Trailer here.

It stars Daniel Kaluuya (Bing), Jessica Brown Findlay (Abi), Rupert Everett (Hope), Julia Davis (Charity) and Ashley Thomas (Wraith).

Tropes in Fifteen Million Merits:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Besides an odd social environment encouraging people to exercise to get a ticket to a talent show, the technology is not too advanced in this setting. Even though Everything Is An I Pod In The Future is in play (see below), the technology has poor graphics and is used mostly for advertising. Its best feature is its minute motion capture.
  • Advert-Overloaded Future: Adverts aren't just omnipresent — viewers are forced to look at them, and fined for skipping them. Skipping more "important" ads, such as Wraith Babes, costs 10,000 merits.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Throughout the episode, the girl with bangs is shown to have an obvious crush on Bing, but he pays her little attention, even after she does him a favor at the beginning of the episode, and Bing also uses what can be interpreted as her attempt at a pick-up line on Abi. It's also unclear whether Abi shares Bing's crush on her or simply regards him as a nice guy.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • The outside world is unseen, leaving it ambiguous where everyone is, whether it be in space, underground, or in an arcology of some sort. It's also unclear why people need to be used to cycle up power, when it's demonstrated that they have access to enough power and facilities necessary to keep a society runningnote . It's entirely possible that people are just given jobs to keep them or their fellow citizens occupied or used to maintain the giant machine their society has become, or that their society is just coasting on momentum.
    • Abi also implies that residents begin working in the facilities when they reach the age of 21, and that there are many others like it because her sister works in a different facility called air down. That begs the question of where children are kept until they reach the age of majority, as well as how child rearing works in this society if most adults are sent to work in these facilities. Moreover, no older people are depicted on the bikes or as lemons either, raising the question of whether or not people are allowed to retire at a certain age, and where they go if they are.
  • An Aesop: Several.
    • Our current state of affairs is soul-destroying — of doing pointless work to buy pointless items and with the carrot of celebrity dangled as the only way out.
    • People will subject themselves to ever-greater indignities to escape this prison, but in reality, they will find that their vision of success is just another prison.
    • Real talent and real spirit is being filtered out in favour of homogenous slop, as helped along by the former.
    • Simon Cowell is a prick.
  • Animal Motifs: Abi's is a penguin — she makes origami ones out of packaging, one is seen waddling around on a screen in her cell and Bing has a wooden one in his Gilded Cage as a reminder. There may also be a bit of subtext in Bing sitting and pulling apart one of the origami penguins after he inadvertently leads her into life as a porn star. The paper penguin with a wooden one is also symbolic, as Bing realises he's only succeeded in swapping one fake and unfulfilling existence for another, slightly more expensive one.
  • Apathetic Citizens: A whole society content to ride exercise bikes; the only available way to express themselves is to buy pre-approved items for their virtual avatar.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The sterile environment of future Earth.
  • Awful Truth: In-Universe. Bing attempts to share the disturbing reality of what society has come to, but the judges deliberately misinterpret him.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Bing is a sweet, quiet Nice Guy, but does he get angry when he's pushed too far...
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor:
    • The episode is a satire of The X Factor... and it was co-written by Konnie Huq, former presenter of The Xtra Factor spinoff show (she's also Charlie Brooker's wife).
    • The episode was also produced by a subsidiary of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Dustin loves to watch fat people being humiliated at Botherguts and always makes cruel jokes at the expense of the Lemons, but they're not that much more overweight than him.
  • Bread and Circuses: Food provided, at a price. Shelter given, but with a catch. Entertainment and hope supplied, to keep you content. Seeing as we never see who is in charge, though, we're not really sure what is really going on.
  • Break the Cutie: Abi starts off as a cute girl with the opportunity to pursue the job of her dreams. She ends up forced to work as a pornographic actress and cut off from Bing, her friend and implied love interest.
  • Breather Episode: It's downplayed, but the first three-quarters of the episode are significantly lighter than standard Black Mirror procedure.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: This future Britain is a vacuous dystopia where people do pointless work to buy pointless things and the only thing stopping everyone from going mad is the carrot of celebrity status. People degrade themselves to try and get famous, but once they "succeed", they find they've just replaced one prison for another incrementally better one.
  • Caustic Critic: Hope plays into the nasty Simon Cowell archetype more than the other judges.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The empty Cuppliance carton which Bing hangs onto after Abi's audition.
    • The shard of the screen Bing breaks while desperately trying to tune out Abi's porn video. He holds onto it and eventually forces the Hot Shot judges to let him give his speech by holding it to his neck and threatening to kill himself. In a cruel twist of events, as Bing ultimately accepts assimilation into the system, the shard becomes a purchasable item for virtual avatars.
  • Chick Magnet: Though Bing is portrayed as a quiet Nice Guy for the most part, he has romantic subtext with two girls over the course of the episode.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Bing's heartfelt speech on stage ventures into this territory, though it initially sounds like he's only swearing once.
    Bing: Fuck you! For me, for us, for everyone. Fuck you!
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Everybody apart from Bing (and perhaps Abi).
  • Crapsack World, Escapist Sanctuary: The people are kept distracted from the drudgery of their horrible lives by a constant stream of reality TV, porn, and video games, projected on every wall of their cells to give the illusion of reality; the only way they can express themselves is by buying accessories for their in-game avatars, as they aren't allowed physical possessions. The episode ends with Bing accidentally achieving stardom and being upgraded to a much bigger cell, with access to organic food and drink, huge digital "windows" to the outside world, and even physical possessions... but it's still essentially a prison, something that Bing is painfully aware of.
  • Curse Cut Short: The Scouse Hot Shot hopeful to the judges: "This is my destiny— and I can sing! F—"
  • Death of Personality: Implied for Abi, who looks significantly more worn-out when Bing sees her on WraithBabes.
  • Delicate Is Beautiful: Abi is pretty in an innocent way, which is lampshaded by the judges.
  • Despair Event Horizon: While he's not loud about it, Bing ultimately crosses this after his speech. He comes to the realization that despite making a stand, yelling at the Hot Shot judges, and impressing the crowd...he ultimately did nothing more to them than impress the crowd. It's at that moment that he realizes that nothing is really ever going to change, the system will not be broken by one person, and all he did, as far he can see, was put on a good show. So, after this, he surrenders and becomes part of the very entertainment he hates.
  • Downer Ending: While Bing gets a bigger degree of freedom and comfort, he becomes part of the entertainment he hates while looking at trees he'll never touch, and it is strongly implied he is still longing for Abi and the emotional connection he felt to her. Meanwhile, Abi is still doped out her mind, exploited and filmed for the pleasure of thousands, if not millions.
  • Drama Queen: The unnamed Scouse woman who Bing meets while he's waiting to audition. She goes absolutely ballistic after being rejected from the show. Later in the end, when she does finally enter the show, she sings very badly and off-key to "I Have a Dream" and the judges reject her, making her angry.
  • Dystopia: In a very thinly veiled metaphor, everyday people are made to cycle on exercise bikes all day (the bikes are connected to generators which supply all of the country's electrical power) to earn money (the "merits" of the title), with the only escape being through a nakedly manipulative and psychopathic talent show. Some are then demoted further to being cleaners ("lemons", due to their yellow uniforms), and thus subject to mockery from everyone else (including a video game where they get blown to pieces). Things like choosing your own clothes and looking at trees are now huge privileges.
  • Everything Is An I Pod In The Future: While other episodes also follow this aesthetic to a lesser degree, it's more explicit in the dystopian society of Fifteen Million Merits, in which almost everything is cutting-edge and has plain black or white color, with all technology working only with touching screens and movement sensors.
  • Fantastic Caste System: As far as the episode shows, overweight janitors make up the lowest caste, followed by bicyclists who power the society. Performers such as singers, porn stars, and comedians are next, presumably followed by elites (of which the only visible representatives are the Hot Shot judges, who decide of who makes it as the next new talent). It's not stated whether or not these castes are hereditary, but aside from janitors going to and from bicyclists, they are very difficult to change.
  • Fantastic Underclass: The nameless dystopia has forced obese members of society into this niche. Because the overwhelming majority of the working classes are riding exercise bikes to produce electricity for the other societal strata, overweight citizens are traditionally shamed for "slacking" and regulated to janitorial roles - if they're lucky. The really unlucky ones are often publicly humiliated on one of the many Immoral Reality Shows in this setting.
  • Fat Slob: How the media portray overweight people, and how the citizens are encouraged to see them, especially with the games Botherguts and Fattax, not to mention the one where they get to shoot overweight cleaners.
  • First Girl Wins: Averted. Bing ends up without a love interest, as Abi has been forced to leave him in order to start an unwanted career as a pornographic actress.
  • Forced to Watch: Having used up his merits, Bing is unable to skip the advert that depicts Abi getting sexually exploited.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Bing is trying to convince Abi to go on Hot Shots, she says she’d die if she had to sing in front of Judge Hope, suggesting that she’s intimidated by him. It’s Judge Hope who ends up being the main one to pressure her into joining Wraith Babes.
    • Bing is trying to talk with Abi but is interrupted a couple of times by the ads for the porn program "Wraith Babes". It seems to be a funny Running Gag at the beginning, but it's really not.
    • Bing might be looking for a real connection, but apparently it has to be with someone who's pretty and has a nice singing voice - he completely ignores the plainer girl who seems to be crushing on him, and, while trying to impress Abi, even uses the vending-machine trick she taught him and the same wisecrack she made about the fruits in the vending machine being grown in a Petri dish. It's an early sign that he's Not So Above It All, foreshadowing his selling out in the end.
    • Bing’s final attempt to convince Abi to audition for Hot Shot, has him saying he wants something real to happen just once, making her potential success about him, rather than about Abi.
    • During the scene where Bing tries to persuade Abi to audition for Hot Shot, Abi demonstrates that she is easily worn down if the person asking of her is persistent enough, foreshadowing her acceptance of becoming a Wraith Babes porn actress - with a bit of the cuppliance drug - despite it being something she clearly didn't want to do.
    • Bing simplys replies that "[he's] an entertainer" when asked what he is on Hot Shots, and that he wants to give a "sort of performance" when what he actually plans to do is verbally rip apart the system that took away the one person he fell in love with, and exploited her. He later continues his critiques of that system...for entertainment - whatever truth there is to his rants is undercut by him basically engaging in a performance as part of a weekly program.
  • Funny Background Event: Dustin's giggles as he plays the crude, overtly-fatphobic game Botherguts. Averted when he's shown to actively support the sexual exploitation of Abi, on live television nonetheless.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus:
    • Media gossip is very briefly visible scrolling along the top of Bing's mirror.
    • The vending machine has its own recommendations section: "People who liked [apple] also liked [banana]."
  • Future Slang: A few examples, such as the nickname for the avatars ("Doppels").
  • Gilded Cage:
    • Bing's new home might be more spacious and fancy, but it is still just a larger version of the plasma-screen cage he used to live in in. And as we leave him gazing upon the simulated forest, we can see he'd rather be free to explore a real one.
    • Selma hints at the bare minimum of privileges she receives as a winner of Hot Shot in a brief excerpt of an interview she was featured in, some of which were being able to choose her own clothes and being able to look outside, the latter of which we see Bing doing at the end of the episode. This also implies that winners of Hot Shot receive the same privileges no matter what they became famous for.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: In-Universe. Lesbian couples are often featured on WraithBabes. This is averted when Abi mainly seems to be cast in straight porn, which is often regarded as more difficult or violating for adult actors.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Of Bing working his way up to Fifteen Million Merits.
  • Harsher in Hindsight: After Bing convinces Abi to go Hot Shot, he's called a loon and says "I can live with it." He cannot live with it.
  • Harsh Talent Show Judge: The talent show Hot Shots is dominated by three of these: Wraith, Hope, and Charity - Hope being a pretty obvious parody of Simon Cowell and more than prepared to verbally rip contestants to bits. However, in the dystopian society in which this episode takes place, the Judges have enormous influence over society, as Hot Shots is the only desirable method for downtrodden members of the working class to achieve fame and fortune: they not only have the power to crush the dreams of contestants, but to redirect them into the porn industry - where said contestants will spend their lives drugged-up and being raped on camera.
  • Hopeless Auditionees: The silver-haired Scouse woman plays this role. The show keeps her waiting for what must be months before letting her on, just to tell her to go home.
  • Hopeless Suitor: The first girl that Bing meets in the episode clearly has a crush on him. She's even shown to be a bit jealous of Abi. Though after Bing's 'performance' and his subsequent streaming career, she quickly gets over him.
  • Hope Spot: Just as it appears that the audience and Hot Shot judges are paying attention to and ruminating on Bing's speech about how bad their society is... Judge Hope and the audience applaud, revealing that they simply see it as another form of entertainment and not something they plan on taking seriously.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Bing snaps after Abi is pushed into becoming a Wraith Babes porn star, and decides to rebel against the system. However, like the Hot Shot judges, he hadn't really given her a choice, either, because the reason she was put into that situation in the first place was because he wouldn't take "No" for an answer when trying to persuade her to audition, despite it clearly not being something she was comfortable with.
    • By the end, Bing has become a part of the system he rails against.
  • I Didn't Mean to Turn You On: Abi's reaction to the sexual comments of Hot Shot's judges.
  • Inept Talent Show Contestant: The woman in the audition room, who claims to be a great singer but is consistently passed up for other, more beautiful or memetic hopeful contestants. This trope is played as a Brick Joke when her turn is finally shown at the end, and she's completely told off by the judges.
  • Ironic Echo: Bing holds a shard of glass to his throat and gives a heartfelt rant about how people waste their lives consuming and criticizing others, how television is completely synthetic and that everyone will do anything for money. The next time Bing is seen, he now has a bigger apartment, and spends his time holding the same glass shard to his throat while criticizing consumers and giving manufactured speeches he doesn't believe for money. Also, the "Bing Shard" even becomes a popular object for the avatars to have.
  • Ironic Name: The Hot Shots hopeful who rudely insists to go on first because she's a "great singer" is named Glee. As seen toward the end of the episode, it turns out she's a terrible singer and the judges let her know it.
  • Jerkass: Dustin, Wraith and Hope. The former for bullying and laughing at fat people (both the Botherguts stars and the Lemons), the latter two for coercing Abi into being a drugged-out porn star instead of a singer; Wraith even wanted to see her tits before she sung, and Hope interrupted her, gave her a compliment, and then started talking down to her.
  • Jerk Jock: Dustin liked Botherguts... and when he's not busy laughing at fat people, he can be found abusing the cleaners and leering at violent porn.
  • Leitmotif: "Dies irae" by Giuseppe Verdi serves as the theme of Hot Shot, while the instrumental version of "Lapdance" by N.E.R.D serves as the theme for Wraith Babes.
  • Love at First Note: Bing is interested in Abi at first because he heard her sing. Unfortunately, her singing talent leads to her downfall.
  • Lovable Sex Maniac: Wraith's online persona embodies this, though the real man is a lot more vile and lecherous than his image conveys.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The Hot Shot judges all qualify, but particularly Wraith, who doesn't seem to have a problem with forcing girls to enter a career based on sexual abuse.
  • Manipulative Editing: Parodied with the Hot Shot producer who makes Abi record a pre-prepared soundbite ahead of her audition.
  • The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: At the end, Bing becomes this, having his own little weekly show in which he viciously calls out the society and its conventions... although he still profits off it anyway.
  • Meaningful Name: For the Hot Shot judges. Judge Hope gives people who audition hope because he is one of the only people who can help them get out of their predicament, whereas Judge Charity is the most charitable Judge on the panel and appears to be the least comfortable with how things are done on her show. Wraith also sounds a lot like Wrath, and he's the judge that has the worst temper.
  • Morning Routine: We watch Bing go about his day, starting in the morning.
  • New Media Are Evil: As is standard Black Mirror procedure.
  • Nice Guy: If it's not immediately clear that Bing's a sweet guy, the fact that he spends close to all of his money on a virtual stranger should clue you in soon enough.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Oh, Bing, you should have just let Abi stay on her bicycle.
  • Obligatory Earpiece Touch: The security guard backstage at Hot Shot' touches his earpiece whenever there is a command given to him.
  • The One That Got Away: Abi ends up as this for Bing, sadly enough.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Bing is short from Bingham. Abi Khan is short for... Abi Khan.
  • Only Sane Man: Bing is seemingly the only person to call the judges out on their system, but ends up giving into it. By the end of the episode, the nameless woman with bangs seems to be the only one genuinely disgusted by how things are.
  • Pants-Positive Safety: Where Bing hides the makeshift glass dagger. Fortunately the Hot Shot judges don't ask him to take a seat.
  • Product Placement: Parodied by pushing it to its limits.
  • Punny Name: The Hot Shot judges are named Wraith, Hope and Charity.
  • Rape as Drama: Abi's first porno film is effectively this. And Bing is being Forced to Watch as someone he loves is raped on camera.
  • Real Song Theme Tune: The instrumental version of "Lapdance" by N.E.R.D is used as the theme music of Wraith Babes.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Bing delivers one when he gets onto Hot Shot, and all it gets him is a spot on a TV channel, where he can rant and rave and just be another part of the landscape.
  • Reluctant Fanservice Girl: In-Universe with Abi (and, presumably, the other girls in WraithBabes), who are recruited into porn after taking drugs that makes them suggestible.
  • Resistance as Planned: Bing's impassioned speech about the corrupt, abusive system just gets him hired by the TV channel, where he can sell his "rebellion" to the masses.
  • Schizo Tech: The technology in the world of this episode is impressive: screens on almost every surface, simple hand movements to control their functions, the "audience" of the talent show being representations of real-life people, etc. However, there are some noticeable drawbacks to the technology, such as graphics that aren't really that impressive (the Rolling Hills game and the Doppels use some pretty basic 3D effects) and terrible framerates.
  • Screens Are Cameras: With a very similar technology to Microsoft's Kinect in use.
  • Self-Deprecation: In the last few scenes, Bing is a fairly obvious Charlie Brooker parallel. His speech sounds a lot like some of Charlie's angrier pieces... and promptly gets co-opted and repackaged as entertainment by the very system he was railing against. He becomes richer and more famous, but stays just as empty inside. Especially telling is Bing going on a national TV show in front of a panel of judges and threatening to slit his throat in protest, an idea that Brooker floated years before in one of his Screen Burn editorials.
  • Sensory Abuse: Resume viewing. Resume viewing. Resume viewing. The true horror of this reveals itself when Bing is forced to watch Abi be raped.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Not only has Bing chosen to buy into the celebrity status his rant gave him instead of actually making a moral stand, it's even possible that he's decided to do so out of his own free will. Abi drank from the Cuppliance and succumbed to the pressure of being forced to go into porn, whereas Bing sneaked into the auditions without partaking of it and yet metaphorically followed the same path to fame as she did. In the end, he traded his tiny room and tiny life for ones that are practically only slightly bigger and slightly more privileged. In every meaningful way, nothing's really changed.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Multiple aspects of the episode seem to be influenced by Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451.
    • "Hot Shot" also seems to be a parody of The X-Factor.
  • Show Within a Show: The episode features several fictional TV shows, including the talent show Hot Shot, the the porn show Wraith Babes, and the show in which overweight people are humiliated, Botherguts.
  • Signature Song: Irma Thomas' "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)". It's sung by Abi in this episode, and then is later featured in "White Christmas", "Nosedive", "Men Against Fire", and "Crocodile".
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • While the schmaltzy version of "I Have a Dream" is very fitting as we're introduced to this made-up world, a sweet song about experiencing love as something real sounds depressingly ironic as we leave it.
    • Used to great effect with "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" — Abi sings a cover on Hot Shot, and that same version is played during her porn. The implication is that, since her rise to stardom came from her being a singer, her singing became her gimmick as a porn star — thus, she's forced to sing it over and over in each of her videos. Irma Thomas' original version plays over the credits.
  • Stepford Smiler: Judge Charity is hinted as being this. She looks visibly annoyed when Judge Wraith makes obnoxious sexual remarks at Abi, and also looks uncomfortable when Judge Hope assesses Abi's sexual value, but ends up playing along nonetheless. After Abi is successfully pressured into joining Judge Wraith's show, she is visibly crying.
  • Stop, or I Shoot Myself!: In the middle of his audition, Bing pulls a shard of glass to his own throat and threatens the judges to slash his carotide artery if they don't let him speak his mind. Wraith mockingly goads him to do it, but the other two are intrigued enough to hear what he has to say (although they care less for his life than the potential entertainment his message might provide).
  • Straw Misogynist: Dustin exists to leer at the women partaking in pornography and generally be an all-around asshole.
  • Take That!: To The X-Factor and shows of its ilk; the episode criticizes how the show exploits people for audiences.
  • Token Minority: In-Universe. Bing gets himself onto the show just because the staff need "an ethnic" to round out the auditionees.
  • Truth Serum: Cuppliance is more of an obedience serum which is forced on all Hot Shot contestants.
  • Viewers Are Goldfish: A major theme of the episode.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: Merits are this world's currency.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Electricity is apparently supplied by numerous people cycling on exercise bikes.
  • Wham Line:
    • "I'll gift it to you." The sincerity in his voice is downright heartbreaking.
    • Abi's "I suppose...", where she accepts Judge Wraith's proposal of becoming a porn star, to Bing's heartbreak.
  • Undesirable Prize: Abi impresses the judges, though it hardly helps her in the end...
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Abi and Bing.