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Recap / Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits

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Series One
The National AnthemFifteen Million MeritsThe Entire History of You

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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.
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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. This episode's premiere screening was deliberately scheduled to begin on Channel 4 immediately after the 2011 final of The X Factor ended over on ITV(1). Trailer here.

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


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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.
  • 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. It's entirely possible their society is just coasting on momentum.
  • Advertisement:
  • An Aesop: Several. Chiefly that 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. That people will subject themselves to ever greater indignities to escape this prison, but that in reality find that it's just another prison. That real talent and real spirit is being filtered out in favour of homogenous slop, as helped along by the former. And that 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.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor:
    • The show is a satire of The X Factor... and it's co-written by Konnie Huq, former presenter of "The Xtra Factor" spinoff show (she's also Charlie Brooker's wife).
    • Produced by a subsidiary of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother.
  • 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, intending to be a singer, winds up going into pornography, forced into that position by the Cuppliance serum.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: This future Britain is a vacuous dystopia where people do pointless work to buy pointless thing and the only thing stopping everyone from going mad is the carrot of celebrity status. People degrade themselves to try and get famous but they find they just replaced one prison for another once they succeed.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The empty Cuppliance carton which Bing hangs onto after Abi's audition, as well as a shard of the screen he breaks while desperately trying to tune out Abi's porn video.
  • 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).
  • Curse Cut Short: The Scouse Hot Shot hopeful to the judges: "This is my destiny— and I can sing! F—"
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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 have plain black or white color, with all technology working only with touching screens and movement sensors.
  • Everything Is Better With Penguins: Abi makes origami penguins out of food wrappers, which serve as a Hope Spot through the episode. See Animal Motif above.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Forced to Watch: Having used up his merits, Bing is unable to skip the advert that depicts Abi getting sexually exploited.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Hypocrite:
    • By the end, Bing has become a part of the system he rails against.
    • Dustin's cruel jokes at the expense of the Lemons. They're not that much more overweight than him.
  • 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 owns an expensive 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.
  • Jerk Ass: 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Morning Routine: We watch Bing go about his day, starting in the morning.
  • 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.
  • Only Sane Man: Bing is seemingly the only person to call the judges out on their system.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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: That high-pitched tone again... here it's used to ensure citizens RESUME VIEWING if they try to avoid watching the screens. The true horror of this reveals itself when Bing is forced to watch his beloved 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.
  • Show Within a Show: Hot Shot, among others.
  • 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: The female judge is hinted as being this. Despite playing along, some of her actions and expressions seem to indicate that she is physically uncomfortable with what happens on her show.
  • 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: 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.
  • Up to Eleven: The X Factor parody takes the judges' nasty comments in this direction:
  • 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: Abi's "I suppose...", where she accepts Judge Wraith's proposal of becoming a porn star, to Bing's heartbreak.

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