Unlike Black Mirror‘s pilot episode (previously recapped by me), Black Mirror episode 2, titled ‘Fifteen Million Merits,’ is much more difficult to explain. It’s also the most ambitious Mirror episode to date conceptually, but creator Charlie Brooker and his team execute it to near perfection. I’d argue it’s the most articulate the series has ever been in regards to its messages, and definitely my 2nd favorite installment in the show overall. With ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ leaning heavily on visuals and concept, it differentiates itself early from the pilot which was a more likely, grounded scenario (but still super weird) of a politician being forced to fornicate with a pig. Black Mirror created a rule of always pulling off high-concept sci-fi television, and episode 2 of the first season is what set the precedent.
I didn’t expand upon it in my previous recap, but I feel this is the chapter that excels in utilizing the metaphor: Black Mirror is what the showrunner calls your electronic device when you’re looking at it. When your device’s screen shuts off after you lock it, you see your reflection staring back at you in the dark screen, thus you have a black mirror. Where Black Mirror episode 2 completely nails this home is by gluing the characters’ eyes to the screens practically at all times. If they remove their eyes from the giant screens in front of them, at times they’ll hear a high-pitched noise demanding that the viewer revert their attention back to the screen, even if it’s just an advertisement. This is a brilliant contrast to how the first episode shows an equally-unpleasant high-pitched noise being used to turn viewers away from the screen before the human-on-pig sex occurs.
I’ve only touched on the finer details in an attempt to avoid explaining this loaded episode’s premise, but I’ll give it a go since I aim to recap. A fair warning (besides the forthcoming SPOILERS): I’ll frequently pause to point out how beautiful the cinematography is in this episode specifically. ‘Merits’ opens on a young man named Bing (played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya) waking in a room made up of TV screens to a simulated rooster crowing. With a flick of the wrist, Bing is able to shut off this intrusive, colorful alarm. Out of the gate, the incredible layered detail planted into this world is apparent. This is like the second half of WALL-E with humans connected to their screens in the most unhealthy of ways, and distanced from other humans that share the same living space.
We’re shown an economy in this world made up of imaginary units called Merits, which is earned by riding on a bicycle all day. Many inhabitants of this vague indoor (yet gorgeous and symmetrical) community opt to simply ride a bicycle all day for Merits, while watching a TV of course, and they can opt to spend those on whatever they wish. They can be spent on forgoing ads from whichever screen they’re watching, toothpaste, or they can save up to 15 million Merits and spend it on an opportunity to perform in front of an American’s Got Talent-like group show, judges and all. In the audience of this show are digital avatars that resemble Miis on the Nintendo Wii, with these avatars representing the inhabitants of this facility watching from their TV-wallpapered bedrooms.
In the ever expansive, yet rather claustrophobic world of Black Mirror episode 2, a new resident named Abi (played by Jessica Brown Findlay) is processed into this environment, and Bing is smitten. He befriends her, discovers she has a lovely singing voice, and once they’ve sufficiently warmed up to each other, he offers to spend the 15 million Merits he’s already compiled on her audition for the aforementioned reality competition show. She sings wonderfully, but of course the judges (played by Rupert Everett, Julia Davis, and Ashley Thomas) are overall unimpressed and just want to sexualize her image. Instead of the subtle approaches the show business industry takes in our world, these judges are verbatim telling her she’d be better as an adult film star on the pornography channel. Seeing no future in turning down the offer, she accepts after being goaded into it by the judges and the audience, which infuriates Bing, who’s watching from the sidelines.
Broken by the system’s corruption of his friend, Bing returns to his bedroom a depressed mess. He has no merits, no friends again, and seemingly no will to carry on. He decides to rebuild his Merit account again by jumping on that familiar bicycle and being frugal with his money, and before he knows it, he’s in front of the American Idol knock-off show’s judges himself. Bing starts with a dance routine that seems to resonate with the audience, until he pulls a giant shard of glass hidden in his pants and threatens to kill himself unless everyone listens. Bing delivers a completely honest, raw monologue about the state of the current system and how meaningless the Merits really are. Seeing an opportunity to create a unique talk show and missing Bing’s point entirely, the judges offer Bing his own show where he can air his grievances and be “real” on a TV channel.
Feeling permanently unheard, Bing decides to go with it and makes a regular show, with glass shard to his neck and all, discussing the outrage at the current climate. Although this is not as genuine as his audition, since that came from an emotional place, Bing figures this is the best it’s going to get. However, the one literal bright side is he gets to look outside of a real window at the real outdoors at the end of a work day. Little victories are all Bing can survive on anymore at this point, having lost everything else, including his dignity – which makes for a bittersweet ending to Black Mirror episode 2.
With the bold story out of the way, the finer minutiae deserve to be commended. For instance, in this technologically advanced yet super depressing society, overweight people are automatically made garbage collectors and ridiculed by cyclists on a regular basis. Separately, there’s a drug called Cuppliance that’s precisely compliance in a cup, which makes the inhabitants of this place more agreeable to those in power. These grand and even smaller ideas could only originate from the mind of creator Charlie Brooker.
The drastic shift from the consequences of being glued to a TV screen for one hour in the first episode while a kidnapped princess is released without anyone noticing, to everyone mindlessly glued to a screen at will and at all times, and even earning/spending money to do it, is beyond genius writing. This is creative excellence. We’re driven home a needed message about the dangers of overindulgence. There’s hardly an episode of Black Mirror I can’t say that about, but this is the true highlight of Black Mirror episode 2. Without moderation of our lovely mobile devices, TV screens, and faux reality shows, the dangerous path we lead ourselves on involves far more vanity, far more inhumanity, and far less inquisitiveness. While the moral in Black Mirror episode 2 is broader than all the other episodes, the next episode titled ‘The Entire History of You’ is some of my favorite 40 plus minutes of anything ever created and is loaded with very particular behavioral studies that I cannot wait to scribe. Stay tuned!