The first thing I wanted to do after watching the grimly brilliant second episode of Black Mirror, entitled Fifteen Million Merits, was go on Facebook and tell people how grimly brilliant I thought it was: but when I got to my computer (horror!) my internet connection was down. So instead of trudging from one screen straight to another, I was forced to sit and think about what I’d just seen. Which may even have been the intention of husband-and-wife writers Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq in the first place (yes, him off Nathan Barley and Screenwipe and The Guardian and her off Blue Peter and Xtra Factor, which latter fact is about to become relevant).
Fifteen Million Merits depicted a world in which drone-like human beings spend most of their lives in front of screens, being fed entertainment: sometimes in their cell-like, screen-walled rooms, sometimes sitting on an exercise bike, cycling to generate power and to earn the titular merits, which they can then spend on the screens - on games, on making their little personal avatars look more interesting, and sometimes on muting the same ubiquitous screens, skipping adverts, trying to get a little peace. They can also spend merits – fifteen million of them, several months work – to appear on Hot Spot, which is an X-Factor clone where an unctuous judge (an excellent Rupert Everett, ever bit as soul-chilling as Cowell himself) makes and breaks stars and wannabes in front of thousands of the watching avatars (the episode was broadcast directly after the X-Factor final on Sunday night).
So far, so dystopian. And in keeping with the 1984 flavour, at the centre of it all is a love story gone wrong: but it is in the treatment of human relationships that Fifteen Million Merits showed the black depths of its heart. Our taciturn hero Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) spends his merits buying pretty new girl Abi (Downton‘s Jessica Brown Findlay) a place on the show, and possibly himself a place in her heart. But Abi’s audition veers in a different direction, and in front of the jerkily-rendered avatars the judges pressure her into becoming another kind of star: a porn star.
That this is Bing’s fault is torture enough: but that trailers for Abi’s performances run endlessly on Bing’s inescapable screens, that he cannot skip the adverts because he spent all his merits on her ticket, that he has to endlessly watch her dead-eyed recitation of how perfect her new life is, watch her fondled by sneering cameramen, watch his peers drool over her, breaks him. It almost broke me: this was one of the most uncomfortable television experiences I have had in a long time.
But the discomfort of those sequences – never seen head-on, always shown on a screen within your screen – is only the magnified discomfort of the whole dysfunctional existence on show. This wasn’t a satire about technology in itself, but also a dissection of relationships in the age of the Internet, of easy-access porn and “stalking” being something everyone does to everyone else, all the time, of people you know gradually becoming people on a screen. Among the bikers was a pathetic chain of one-sided attraction, played out in glances and feeble conversational gambits that never got anyone anywhere: ginger kid likes round-faced girl, round-faced girl has eyes only for Bing, Bing only notices Abi: and we know how that works out. But even before that went wrong, there was something unpleasant about the halting start to Bing and Abi’s relationship: he bought her the ticket, and what exactly was he expecting in return?
I’ve spoiled enough of this unsettling piece of drama, directed in garish colour and invasive close-up by Euros Lyn and filled with brilliant, often near-wordless performances and tiny details that twist the heart again and again. So I won’t tell you how it ends, except to say that anyone familiar with Brooker’s own style will here find confirmation of what has always seemed the case, that beneath the comic vitriol is real, cold anger, directed largely at himself. Black Mirror‘s first episode was striking and witty, but sailed a little too close to the ridiculous: here there is absolutely nothing to giggle at, unless you get a laugh out of your face staring back at you from the mirror. I don’t.
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