The British series Black Mirror isn’t horror by anything but a very loose definition of the genre, but it makes an interesting point of comparison with Darknet in that they’re both anthology series with a distinct focus on technology.

The series’ creator, cultural commentator/print journalist/satirist/enfant terrible Charlie Brooker, states that his goal is to “[tap] into our contemporary unease about our modern world,” so I guess it’s supposed to be a bit like what The Twilight Zone would be like if it were written by the members of Radiohead…actually, I’d watch that.

Anyway, it’s getting late as I write this and all my pretentious intellectualism went into the first Darknet writeup, so let’s skip the formalities and let the episodes speak for themselves for once in our lives.

A scene from BLACK MIRROR: "The National Anthem"

“The National Anthem” (Series 1, episode 1; Dec. 4, 2011)

This week on Black Mirror: Downing Street learns that the popular Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) has been kidnapped, and that her unknown abductors have a bizarre ransom demand: they will kill the Princess unless Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) has sex with a pig on live television.

That’s right: Black Mirror’s opening salvo involves the British head of state fucking a pig on TV. Never let it be said that Charlie Brooker doesn’t know how to make an entrance.

But the amazing thing about “The National Anthem” is…let’s be honest here, our culture has programmed us to process a narrative combination of world leaders and bestiality as comedy. And yet while this episode is definitely satire, it’s rarely funny. In fact, it’s barely absurd. Sure, s0me characters find these turns of events amusing, but the audience gets very little sense that Brooker engages in anything resembling exaggeration. When Downing Street meticulously tracks Callow’s approval ratings on Twitter, or an ambitious reporter texts photos of her vagina to one of the PM’s staffers in exchange for inside information, it’s hard to not believe that this is exactly how something like this would go down, if it happened in real life.

So what we get is not a scatalogical comedy. It’s the story of what a man does to save a life, and to salvage his own reputation (and his party’s, and his government’s), and the price he pays for it. Michael Callow is a tragic figure and his story is a sad one. The drawback here for American viewers is that we might not engage with the political aspects of the plot (for example, our presidential system doesn’t link the fates of the leader and the party as tightly), but that’s our problem.

While very little in “The National Anthem” resembles science fiction, it nonetheless sets up what I hope will be the template for future episodes: Brooker’s sharp, observant, unforgiving scripts backed up with excellent performances and stellar direction. While Rory Kinnear (probably best known as Bill Tanner in the Daniel Craig-led James Bond films) stays front and center as Callow and provides the episode with its emotional and thematic anchor, the story has a wide scope that allows for an ensemble cast that proves to be uniformly excellent, particularly Anna Wilson-Jones as Callow’s wife Jane and Lindsay Price (Mansfield Park) and Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones) as advisers. Meanwhile, Otto Bathurst’s direction is taut and effective but never showy.

So the bottom line is that Black Mirror gets off to a fine start, but lucky us, the best is yet to come…A scene from BLACK MIRROR: "Fifteen Million Merits"

“Fifteen Million Merits” (Series 1, episode 2; Dec. 11, 2011)

This week on Black Mirror: When Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) hears his co-worker Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) singing one day, he suggests she try out for the reality-competition series Hot Shots–and pays 15,000,000 “merits” for her audition ticket. But her appearance on the series has heartbreaking results, and he realizes the harsh truth about his life and his culture.

America has certainly foisted more than its fair share of cultural plagues upon the rest of the world, which I apologize for on behalf of my countrymen. However, I refuse to take responsibility for reality television, which in its modern form was largely invented by Europeans along with a couple of Australians. For example, the British invented Big BrotherAmerican IdolAmerica’s Got Talent, and Dancing with the Stars amongst others. Brooker clearly has a complex relationship with the form. One of his earlier projects, Dead Set, sought to answer the question “If there was a zombie apocalypse, how would it affect Big Brother contestants?” and proves that it is indeed possible to be affectionate and scathing at the same time.

Hot Shots, Brooker’s fictional analog to Britain’s Got Talent, sits at the center of “Fifteen Million Merits,” a high-concept dystopia that begs for a summary starting with the words “In a world where…” In that spirit, it takes place in a world where the majority of Britons spend their days riding stationary bikes, generating the country’s energy and getting paid for it in a virtual currency called “merits.” Citizens buy toothpaste by the squirt and play survival-horror games whose monsters are not zombies but fat people in yellow jumpsuits. Television is omnipresent: you have to pay to not watch it, and you have to pay to skip the commercials. Personal ownership of property seems to be verboten, at least for the working classes, so most citizens spend their merits elaborately decking out Second Life-style avatars.

Okay, so the Powers that Be are feeding us heavily processed bread-and-circuses to distract us from the fact that they’re slowly taking away our freedoms and turning us all into mindless little consumer drones. That shouldn’t surprise anybody under the age of, say, sixty. In fact, the producers of the Hunger Games movies have made a lot of money telling us exactly that and they aren’t done yet.

Bing (short for Bingham, although if you’re like me you can’t help but be reminded of the Microsoft search engine that no one would actually use if they could help it) isn’t a atniss figure and “Fifteen Million Merits” does not end with him plunging an arrow into Rupert Everett’s heart and declaring victory in the name of District 12 or whatever. It’s a grim story, but thanks to Welsh director Euros Lyn (Doctor WhoBroadchurch, and the five episodes of Torchwood that are worth a damn) it’s an oppressively colorful sort of grimness. Big Brother (the 1984 character, not the TV show) has never been so sparkly.

Towards the end of the episode, Daniel Kaluuya delivers a rant so epic it makes Bill Hicks look like Fred Rogers. Kaluuya acts as Brooker’s mouthpiece here and boy is Brooker pissed. Our culture is taking everything that truly means anything away from us and replacing it with candy-coated nonsense, co-opting anything that even remotely smells of rebellion, encouraging us to despise the oppressed, and transforming us all into sociopaths. This sort of sermonizing should kill the episode dead in its tracks but instead it acts as a call to arms, or at least as close to such as commercial television will allow, thanks to the power of the performances from Kaluuya, Everett (as the ironically named and distinctly Simon Cowell-esque Judge Hope) and Jessica Brown Findlay. Not to mention the brilliance of the script, which Brooker wrote with Kanak “Konnie” Huq, a former host of children’s shows and reality series who probably has a few opinions on the subject.

“Fifteen Million Merits” is an awesome piece of television–it’s been a long time since I saw something that had this much of an effect on me. Black Mirror will has its work cut out for it in maintaining this standard of excellence.

A scene from BLACK MIRROR: "Fifteen Million Merits"

Next on Black Mirror: A lawyer is suspicious of one of his wife’s friends, and uses his “grain” (a neural implant that records everything the user sees and hears, allowing him to review the footage later) to try to get to the bottom of things in “The Entire History of You.” In “Be Right Back,” a pregnant widow gets the chance to bring her late husband back to life…ish. Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block), Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey), Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) star.

Black Mirror episode ranking

(Due to the series’ shortened seasons and anthological format, I’m not going to break the episode ranking down by season.)

  1. “Fifteen Million Merits” (1.02)
  2. “The National Anthem” (1.01)

2 thoughts on “Black Mirror, “The National Anthem” / “Fifteen Million Merits”

  1. So I finally started watching this series (just finished episode 1 of season two) and I must say I did not love Fifteen Million Merits. I liked the commentary it was making but I did not enjoy the overall execution. The build up felt far too drawn out considering the message it was ultimately delivering. I thought National Anthem was more effective in the way it held up its mirror to the inherent flaws of media obsessed modern society.

    Liked by 1 person

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