Black Mirror’s first episode was a nail-biting piece of satire that unfolded almost like an episode of 24. The prime minister fucking a pig on national television is a tough act to follow. But “Fifteen Million Merits” is a grander work in every way, a dazzling piece of science fiction that builds its world out slowly but perfectly over the course of an hour—and packs an emotional wallop along with the “15 minutes into the future” warning you already expect. “The National Anthem” was grey and grim, tough to watch, but “Fifteen Million Merits” is actually frightening to contemplate, and that’s how good dystopian sci-fi should feel.
The most impressive work of the script, by Charlie Brooker and his wife Kanak Huq (who any Brit who doesn’t live under a rock knows as Konnie Huq, a long-running presenter of Blue Peter that I and a million other kids grew up watching), is how economical it is with the information it gives you. We follow a man, Bing (Daniel Kaluuya, who U.K.-Skins fans will recognize as Posh Kenneth), but we don’t even get his name until 20 minutes in. He lives in a tiny box room where every wall is a screen and everything is paid for out of an account of “merits,” from toothpaste to the power to skip annoying ads.
Bing earns merits, like everyone else, by riding a bike all day, passing the time watching a simple animation of his “Avatar,” a friendly little Mii-like avatar, cycling down a road. Others watch porn, or a game show that seems to delight in shaming fat people; chubby attendants clean up around them in yellow uniforms and are treated like second-class citizens. Most importantly, there’s an X Factor type show called Hot Shots hosted by three preening judges, the most feared/respected being Judge Hope (Rupert Everett), a nasty Simon Cowell type.
This, we understand, is the only ticket out of bike-land. But the way the episode dispenses all this information, it never feels like the audience is being force-fed anything. It’s a slow, repetitive experience, watching Bing go about his day, but it’s utterly compelling. The blinkered, transactional world makes sense to us. Later, we watch Bing try to skip an ad for porn, but he doesn’t have enough merits to do so. That’s when I realized: He’s stuck inside a cellphone. Bing is playing Candy Crush, but it’s his life, and he can’t hit “x” on the ads unless he clears more lines.
It’s a terrifying thought. And it’s what Black Mirror specializes in. What we’re seeing is far-fetched satire, but it’s satire nonetheless, and it’s not impossible to imagine the steps leading us to such a world. One assumes that the earth is undergoing some sort of energy crisis, post-oil, and the population is needed to power our lights instead. Such an existence is pretty miserable to contemplate, so much of the energy is used to distract the citizenry as they perform their mundane tasks. It’s The Matrix, but stripped of all that film’s epic cyberpunk design and scale. Instead of being harvested as batteries by robots, we’re used as drones by an unseen bureaucracy.
The world is cool, and the way it’s presented is wonderful (I don’t know that the budget for these episodes is high, but they are visually seamless). But there’s a sad little parable to follow along with as well. Bing falls for Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay, the beautiful Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey), who has a lovely singing voice, and spends his dead brother’s 15 million merits to get her on Hot Shots, where she’s an instant sensation. Drugged by some sort of compliance milk, she goes along with Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas) and becomes a porn star, in a wrenching twist. The episode, wisely, doesn’t even let us know that that’s an option until we’re on the stage. It makes the gut-punch all the worse, but it also makes her decision more believable, since she seems as blindsided as we are.
Once Abi is locked in the porn universe, torturing a broke Bing with her ads, he sets upon a revenge mission, earning another shot on the show and giving a Network-esque rant with a shard of glass pointed at his neck. No need to go into detail on how this whole sequence unfolds, but again, it’s perfectly done. We have some idea, maybe, of what Bing is plotting, but every piece of his plan is laid out slowly and carefully for the audience. Kaluuya, who has been reserved and focused for the entire episode, barely saying a line at a time, lets stream a vicious stream of consciousness at the smug judges, an act of rebellion that leaves the audience silent until Judge Hope proclaims it the most heartfelt thing they’ve ever seen on the show.
That’s what’s so brilliant about the final twist—the audience’s silence. Even after Bing’s display, Judge Hope (Everett, who is just fantastic) has them in the palm of his hand. Why does Bing even go on to Hot Shots? Does he think all along that he can parlay a genuine show of emotion into a TV gig? Does he want to die, want to be free of his torturous little bedroom? The character is perhaps too inscrutable, although his breakdown halfway through the episode is well-earned, but the ending is devastating and smart. Bing delivers rants to camera twice a week, lives in relative finery and no longer has to ride a bike. As happy endings go, it’s pretty dreadful. That might end up being the rule of Black Mirror.