This shit is TERRIFYING.
Dystopian fiction is very en vogue these days, what with all of those spunky teenage heroes and heroines out there running around in mazes and firing off arrows and such. There are also a lot of grittier takes on the end of civilization as we know it, often involving our good friends the zombies. Many of these stories offer interesting commentary on modern societal issues, but very little of them have actually frightened me. None of the specifics of those stories seem remotely plausible.
"15 Million Merits", however, is terrifying because so much of it is plausible. Black Mirror is a horror-tinged science fiction series that is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, with each episode presenting standalone stories. In "15 Million Merits," there are no aliens, monsters, or young adult Olympiads to contend with. Instead, a set of unexplained circumstances (likely a severe energy shortage of some kind) has resulted in the world's population spending all of their time living in sterile, claustrophobic environments and sweating away on exercise bikes (likely to generate power).
In order to placate the masses during what are essentially lives of enslavement, a nightmarish set of social-media and smartphone app inspired incentives and penalties have been erected. Riding an exercise bike rewards everyone with "merit points," which accumulate much like one's score in an older video game, and doing almost anything at all outside of riding a bike will drain merit points. From the moment that this episode's protagonist, Bing (played wonderfully by Daniel Kaluuya), had to spend merit points in order to use toothpaste, I was unnerved.
In addition to the necessities of life, merit points are also used to buy pointless digital goods and other minor conveniences. Almost everyone aspires to earn enough points to adorn their virtual avatars with new gear, with a particular character getting unreasonably excited about selecting a new hairstyle. In each person's small sleeping quarters, they have to spend these points in order to not listen to obnoxious commercials for even more obnoxious television shows (including one that mostly entails a group of hosts humiliating overweight people and spraying them with things). If one tries to ignore the commercial without paying for that privilege, strident sirens begin to blare and the entirety of the room will admonish that person until they start watching again. It's like the worst possible conception of a real-life banner ad.
Without spoiling the direction that this story ultimately takes, the most biting commentary that this show has to offer is that even overt criticism of a reality like this can be commodified and turned into another distraction for the masses and another revenue stream for the powerful. Listening to someone rant about how terrible everything is while also not taking any actual actions to make a difference doesn't get anything done, of course. In fact, listening to such rants and then doing nothing on a regular basis can reduce people to smugly agreeing, feeling superior about their worldview, and then hypocritically engaging in the sorts of behaviors that they're supposed to be against.
The aesthetics of this episode is great. The acting in this episode is great. The premise is both clever and, again, too plausible. This episode has a *lot* to say. I could talk about it forever.