Black Mirror is a trio of satirical dramas produced by the magnificently furious Charlie Brooker with the final part airing last Sunday (though I have yet to catch up). The first part, ‘The National Anthem’, was a brilliant whirlwind dealing with decisions leading up to (and consequences of) a peculiar ransom request asked of the Prime Minister. Whilst excellent and very well-acted I have to admit that it left me a little cold. I could understand the message and I loved the way it engaged with the internet in particular, the way it held up an ugly reflection of ourselves. But something about it left me disengaged. The second part however, was a whole other ballgame. Thus far it’s my favourite of the trio, which really surprised me. In the week of promotion before it aired, the focus was primarily on the X Factor satire side of the drama; as a non-X Factor viewer that sort of talent show spoof holds no real enjoyment for me. I should have known that Brooker and Kanak “Konnie” Huq (his co-writer) had something else up their sleeves. What was advertised as a satire on the worthless inane nature of televised talent shows and the ritual humiliation it involves proved to be an entirely different beast altogether.
’15 Million Merits’ is set in a future where everyone, at the age of 21, is sorted into certain virtual facilities. Here, almost every facet of their lives is virtualised – from their surroundings, to the purchasing of their food, their currency and what they are able to spend it on. The currency in question is merits, earned by amounts of time spent on a pedal bike in the gym. As a fan of sci-fi and dystopian fiction in general, I was already intrigued. The basic plot is that Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) hears Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) singing and offers to spend his accumulated credits on her entrance to Hot Shot, the talent competition du jour. The competition is judged by three judges: Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas), Judge Charity (Julia Davis) and Judge Hope (Rupert Everett).
The drama takes its time to get moving, choosing to slowly establish this world we’ve found ourselves in, immersing the audience in the routine of it, the incidentals. You begin to notice other factors, such as the loud, brusque, literally-in-your-face promotion of porn (courtesy of Judge Wraith’s channel, Wraith Babes seemingly at any time, day or night. We immerse ourselves in our screens in the same way that those within the programme do. Cue the usual parallels with the disposability of culture, of the wealth illusion – of how our society has become mindlessly fixed on owning things of little tangible value. Though these are all narrative points and provide perfectly valid social commentary, this is not the heart of the drama, at least not for me. What Brooker and Huq have presented us with is the reality of our role in such a society. They present us with the ways in which the audience becomes complicit in the humiliation of others. See, at heart this is not a programme about talent shows, or even disposability; this is a programme about societal complicity and coercion.
It begins as a sort of dystopian fairy tale set up – a young moneyed man, a talented girl, a competition to make their dreams come true. Brooker and Huq have placed before us all the usual trappings, but we’ve ignored all the warning signs. Just before Abi steps out to meet her fate, a runner thrusts a carton at her: we’re told ‘Compliance’ is compulsory, that it helps deal with nausea and stagefright. What we witness is Abi’s slight stumble, the dizziness it seems to produce. It is being made very clear that this is no sip of water, but a drink designed to disorientate the drinker.
The minute Judge Wraith asks Abi to pull up her top, I was sold. (Clarification: The very awkwardly positioned race situation here didn’t sell me.) In that moment we are made distinctly aware of the position of women on that stage. It’s brushed off initially as just the comments of a wild card judge and that’s, that’s where the beautiful, fantastic, disgusting twist comes in. We are lulled into watching Abi’s performance in the way we would X Factor, that modern fairy tale. We are lulled into the belief that there’s some happy ending, or at least some sort of makeover and advice before we send her on her way. However, after complimenting her above-average singing talent, Judge Hope dashes all our expectations:
Judge Hope: “I don’t think anyone’s really hearing it. Certainly not the guys in the audience. These looks you’ve got going on kinda get in the way. Men’ll want you, women’ll hate you. All the time you were on stage, I couldn’t help picturing you in some, erotic scenario. I’m pretty turned on if I’m honest. You’ve got this pure beauty that seems to be a knockout for you and this sort of interesting, innocence going on – and that’s something I think Wraith’s Erotica channel could really play with.”
This speech works as the neatest encapsulation of the way that women are commodified, the way in which their looks in particular box them into particular categories. Not only that, but it explicitly discusses the sexual commidification of women, how we’re fine to look at, but not to listen to. What I particularly love is that the speech takes what is usually subtext and makes it unavoidably text. Unlike in the office, when someone makes a comment about your skirt causing a lack of concentration, where you disregard a comment about how someone’s too attractive to be listened to, here it’s played entirely straight. You’re either worth listening to or worth fucking – but you can’t be both. And either way: we’ll sell you
Then we move into the big pitch, the moment I gasped and decided I was going to have to write about this. Judge Wraith tries to cajole her, positioning this as a choice she gets to make. A choice in which she “will never have to pedal a single bike again.” He goes a step further in an attempt to reassure her, tell her to “Forget about the shame and all that, we medicate against that. You will have pleasure forever.” Even disregarding the fact that he is patently aware of the humiliation his channel causes, the fact that he knows and is prepared to medicate against it, it is an horrific offer. At this point Abi is still desperately unwilling but very much aware of the very public nature of the request, of the purported freedom this decision may allow her. And then Hope shoots that final arrow:
Judge Hope: “This is starting to annoy me. Who do you think is powering that spotlight? Millions of people, that’s who. All of them out there, right now, putting in an honest day on the bike while you stand in the light there…they would give anything, do anything to be where you are now.”
And then the crowd, the million strong crowd start chanting “Do it.” They may not be there in body, but they are there in voice, there is a presence of them, a weighty presence in that room. Abi’s acceptance of the offer is a whispered, tearful: “I suppose.”
We are no longer watching a talent competition, a piece of light entertainment with a side of slight schadenfreude. What we are watching is a young woman, one who has been drugged and shamed, being coerced into sex work by a room filled with people. Virtual or not, physically present or not, the audience provides a pressure that cannot be escaped. Like any public proposal, the weight lies with the one proposing, not the one being proposed to. Add to this the fact that Abi has been shamed for potentially throwing away this chance in front of this particular audience; this is not an acceptance as much as it is very shaky compliance. A compliance that you, as the secondary audience, are responsible for.
This is a drama that offers us no place to hide, no refuge from our role in proceedings and for that, I have to praise it. The way the narrative unfolds is fantastic. The crescendo to Bing’s big speech is, the rallying cry of authenticity to prevail over falsity, over a virtual existence, over commodity is very moving; as is the realisation that even this, this heartfelt, last-ditch, on-the-brink-of-suicide speech is something to be packaged, to be sold on. The final gasp brought on by the revelation that even though Bing now has tangible things, he is still in a cage, just larger and more entertaining, is brilliant. But as much as it is about selling and selling out, it is so much more.
Just after Bing gifts Abi his merits, another Wraith Babes advert appears and he waves it away, showing us the “Skipping incurs penalty – Resume?” menu in full. Although this was shown to us within the first five minutes, it’s a small detail we only pick up as the drama progresses, and it becomes ever more crucial. After Abi is effectively sold to Wraith Babes, we begin to see her everywhere. We are suddenly made aware of exactly how high the saturation level is for pornography in this society. As the time passes, we see Bing repeatedly refuse to watch, until he runs out of merits. He cannot cover his eyes, he cannot skip past, he is left with no option but to destroy his surroundings, or be destroyed by what’s on screen.
I do have to question, however, why it is that we only see Abi’s treatment as it affects Bing? What does it say about us that in the end, instead of delving into the pain of a woman so abused, we are only privy to its effect on the man who loves her? As much as I love the breakdown scene, it makes me thoroughly uncomfortable (and not in the way I want to be discomfited, but in a this-is-some-sexist-bullshit way) that this story uses Abi as a tool to further Bing’s story. Personally, it does diminish some of the hard work from before, by focusing away from where it ought to be: at Abi’s feet.
Ultimately, though, everyone is destroyed and it’s at the hands of everyone else. And it’s really only then that it hits us, the audience of what it is we’re watching. In the end, we are stuck in a world where women are forced into sex work and men are forced to watch it. We are watching how an audience becomes complicit in the destruction of another’s life and as we do, we as the audience become equally complicit.
And that, right there, is the horror at the heart of ’15 Million Merits’, of Black Mirror as a series: that you, the viewer at home on your sofa, are an accomplice to what you are witnessing.