Black Mirror 102, “15 Million Merits”
[Content note: You could read this post and still enjoy watching the episode, but there will be spoilers. Additionally, the show itself is disturbing, though not as much as last week’s.]
Steve Jobs, February 1996 in Wired [pdf]:
When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.
[Interviewer: So Steve Jobs is telling us things are going to continue to get worse.]
They are getting worse! Everybody knows that they’re getting worse! Don’t you think they’re getting worse?
“15 Million Merits” is the utopia we are left with when the optimizations Jobs speaks of above are complete. There are no kids dying of malaria. Everyone on-screen from beginning to end earns at least a middle class lifestyle that meets all their basic needs. Everyone gets plenty of exercise and can laugh while they work. We don’t see people getting cancer. That’s the world you wanted, isn’t it? Eat it.
The first episode of Black Mirror mirrors the first Saw movie. This second episode in turn reminds me of The Matrix, but as Jobs notes, The Matrix was optimistic. You can shoot the bad guys! “15 Million Merits” horrifies you with a utopia that the viewer comes to realize she is already living, and we are the bad guys.
Sure, there are superficial differences between the world of “15 Million Merits” and the one in which we live. And our directors let us soak in those differences for more than five minutes before we finally hear our first line of dialogue. Black Mirror has tremendous confidence in itself and its viewers. It’s teaching us to trust it to make things worth our while.
In the “fiction” of “15 Million Merits”, people work so they can buy stuff they don’t particularly need. If they don’t work, they lose their regular jobs and have to do worse ones. It’s not so bad though. If they do their jobs well, they can buy more stuff. Much of this episode is better described simply as a mirror, not a black mirror.
This episode validated my hopes that the show will dwell on media and our relationship with it. It’s rare that such critiques succeed, but Black Mirror seems up to the task.
Film critiques of media are often terrible and counterproductive. The first Hunger Games movie illustrates the most common failure mode. The goal is ostensibly for the viewer to judge the elites of District 1 for enjoying watching kids kill each other, but the most interesting parts of the movie involves we the audience enjoying watching kids kill each other. We don’t watch in horrific condemnation of the tastes of the District 1 elites; we pull up a chair alongside them and ask what’s the score.
Black Mirror doesn’t let us do this. In “15 Million Merits”, the critiqued content is simultaneously horrible and plausible. We rarely see any of it through eyes other than those of our hero, who regards it as properly empty. Yet these shows barely differ from ours. We are not watching a world constructed to be horrible. It’s a world no more horrible than our own, but with shinier tech.
When our hero tells our heroine that their job causes them to crave junk food, which actually makes them hungrier and need to work more to buy more food, she counters that he can buy a cognitive behavioral therapy program that will help him crave healthier foods. I’m 99% sure I could buy that right now.
Our hero’s fate is somewhat predictable. When he is told that his dissatisfaction is universally shared, he isn’t being lied to. The object of his ire is simply a bigger cog in the same machine, and that machine coopts his rebellion to further its own goals.
The resilience of this world (as with our own) is that the truth cannot disable it. Even when TV tells you TV is bad for you, you’ll nod and say “that’s so right” and queue up the next episode. This irony is not lost on the producers. “15 Million Merits” is a show about a show about how destructive shows are. We recognize this as truth and congratulate ourselves for noticing. But just like the hapless redhead trying on virtual helmets on-screen, our insight cannot free us.
That’s how the BBC knows it can produce a brilliant critique of TV and the media without fear that we will throw away our TVs and not watch their shows anymore. That’s how The Verge can pay one of its writers to write about how much better his life was without the Internet and then ask what we’d like to read next without the slightest hint of self-awareness:
I do wonder how much of the audience is in on the joke that we are the butt of. If you watched Episode 1, you think you were horrified by how the public reacted by watching the Prime Minister do what he did. In reality, you watched the Prime Minister do what he did. Worse, he was made to do it because they knew you’d watch. Yes, I know you think watching people watching someone do something horrible is totally different from actually watching, but the former isn’t really right either, is it? You are watching actors pretend to be horrible so that you can judge them for their imagined-to-be awful tastes. Tod Kelly rightly accuses the man who says “This is history” of rationalization. But what, then, was our excuse? If anything, the actors may be further removed from what is going on than we are. Scripts were written, auditions took place, funding was secured, camera crews were assembled, wardrobes were planned, and film was shot and distributed all because they knew you’d watch. If you saw it, it was made for you. Eat it.
Here’s to the next episode. I, for one, can’t wait.
Addendum: I said you could read this post and still enjoy watching the episode. This does not apply to the comments.
Addendum 2: You can see this episode on Netflix in the US. It’s also on Youtube here.