I couldn't help but be disappointed by tonight's episode of Black Mirror, despite it's many… erm… merits. Last week's opening episode was simple, and occasionally a bit silly (see: the identity of the kidnapper) but it was consistently engaging and, every now and then, a bit tense.
Tonight, we trundled along through a fairly prosaic story situated in an all too familiar future world, semi-fraught with overplayed dangers, and it was only in the closing moments – in the very final scene, in fact – that the show really punched out through the screen and hit me. Suddenly, just as the story was about to finish and the credits roll, out came an idea so interesting, and also so ambiguous, that I think it, yes, merits real discussion.
I'll set it up for you, with spoilers. You would probably wish to see the episode for yourself before reading on.
The opening shot of Fifteen Million Merits was very reminiscent of the opening shot of The National Anthem. In each, somebody is woken up in a dark room. In this case, our protagonist Bing, and he's being awoken by his computerised living space.
Where he lives is like a little tomb made out of Kinect-equipped iPads. Pretty much the whole world is like this, including the room where Bing spends his days cycling on exercise bikes to provide power for… something. As he pedals, he earns credits. Credits he will need to spend in order to get anything.
Two items we see Bing buy early on aren't interesting in the first instance but set up more engaging plot beats closer to the pay-off. There's Bing's toothpaste, which costs a handful of credits for a normal sized blob; and there's an apple from the computerised vending machine.
The set up here, disguised as a joke, is that the vending machine is as unreliable as the mechanical ones we have today and, much like you might end up reaching inside to nudge your chocolate bar free in the break room tomorrow, Bing has to be taught how to liberate his paid-for apple when it gets "stuck."
Both of those set-ups pay off later, and I have to say, while I appreciate their eventual use, I wish the set-up hadn't been so tired and predictable.
Now. One day Bing meets a young woman called Abi. She's another person cycling away in the same room. He's drawn to her, apparently because she's pretty because, to be frank, she doesn't do anything to assist in creating a positive impression. Everybody in this dystopia is dressed the same, and denied any opportunity for self expression.
Abi does creep in a bit of sneaky origami, but this is after Bing has gotten hooked on her so we can't pin his attraction on that. Still, the fact that she builds little penguins does come in useful later – and you may notice some consolidation of the motif when a little penguin avatar is featured on Abi's wall.
The only way out of this exercise bike hell, it seems, is to put on weight and become an unloved, and punished, cleaner, then be humiliated as an example to encourage everybody else to keep pedalling; or to enter an Simon Cowell style talent contest, Hot Shot.
To get an audition slot before the panel of judges costs 15 million merits, as per the title of the episode, which is apparently close to six months worth of "normal" cycling. But, due to an inheritance, Bing already has enough merits to gift a golden ticket to Abi, meaning she can take part and, perhaps, escape into the outside world – if there is one.
The crucial turning point in the plot comes when, during her audition, Abi is told that, yes, she sings very well, but actually, there's something else they want from her. Here's how the Simon Cowell figure played by Rupert Everett builds up to it:
That was without a doubt probably the best piece of singing we've had this seasons but I have to say, actually, I'm with Wraith on this one. As good though your voice is and it is good, it's not the most magical sound in the world, it's just good, I don't think anyone's really hearing it, certainly not the guys in the audience. These looks you've got going on kind of get in the way…
You see, in this world, there's a very widespread porn channel, Wraith Babes, and the Hot Shot panel have decided that Abi belongs there. She's offered the option, though: wouldshe'd like to return to her daily grind on the exercise bikes, or to be defiled, regularly and for a massive audience, as a Wraith Babe.
She doesn't choose the bikes.
Now, I'm sure the little carton of "Cuppliance" that Abi has been made to drink is supposed to plug a hole in the drama but, well, it's still a bit of a leap. We've seen nothing, really, that tells us Abi would choose a life of televised sex abuse over a life of menial labour. But, still, it's what she chooses.
And like that, Abi's gone. If we see her again, it's in some unsubtly horrific glimpses of the Wraith Babes channel.
Eventually, with fifteen million more credits earned, Bing buys himself an audition before the Hot Shot panel. He has no intention of performing, however. Instead, he's going to burst into something not unlike the "angry dance" from Flashdance and end by holding a piece broken glass to his neck, threatening to kill himself unless he can speak, and unless he is listened to.
Bing delivers an impassioned sermon on all that is wrong, and where he stands amongst it, but what he hasn't yet realised is that this, his real hurt and pain and anger, is just proving to be more drama to the powers that be, something else to be sold on the TV, another way to keep the audience passive.
And this is where we come to the big questions.
Bing is offered release from his life on the bikes and a "slot" on a "stream" where he can "talk just like that" for "thirty minutes twice a week."
He accepts, and in the final scene, we see him just after a broadcast is complete. He takes down the piece of glass from his throat, puts it safe in its lavish case – on a table where he also keeps the figure of a penguin, a reminder of Abi – and walks over to the window, looks out at the world beyond…
…or does he? Because the windows are just great big panels, and we don't know, for sure, that we're not just looking at another projection.
There's endless forest outside, but it could be only so much more wallpaper. Perhaps Bing has only bought himself a slightly bigger box to spend his time unresolved in.
And there's also the question of how he feels about his position, and what he believes it to be. Simply put, has Bing sold out? Or has he been deceived? It certainly doesn't seem that he's being listened to – but is he aware of this?
Is he screaming into the void with noble intention?
Right there and then, with this unsettled finale, where nothing is really sure, we're suddenly levels above where we were before, dragging along amongst the dried out tropes and read-a-long-a-dystopia.
And it was also right there and then I wondered, really, how much Bing and the makers of Black Mirror actually had in common.
There's one more episode left, The Entire History of You, written by Jessd Armstrong of Peep Show and In The Loop and starring Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whitaker. That one airs next Sunday night on Channel 4. All three episodes are being made available via 4OD from their air date onwards, throughout December.