49 Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits (2011)

Systematic Dehumanization in the Black Mirror Episode “Fifteen Million Merits”

by Gracie Bratland


Who is actually in control, is anyone even in control? How can we escape if we don’t know exactly what it is that we’re fighting against? These are the questions that “Fifteen Million Merits” prompts. “Fifteen Million Merits” is an interesting case study in encoding and decoding the themes in a film, as it allows for a wide and diverse range of interpretations. In this way, I feel that the show Black Mirror, and the season one episode “Fifteen Million Merits” in particular, are emblematic of modern society. We are given vague information that allows us to create our own meanings. As for myself, I am a young woman with anti-capitalist leanings and a disdain for social media, so my interpretation may differ from others (although I will discuss alternative meanings).


This episode aired December 2011, and was being written and filmed from 2010 to 2011. Here are some highlights from that period of time: WikiLeaks scandals, Deepwater horizon Oil spill, the first iPad is released, massive earthquakes cause immense damage in Haiti, Chile, and Indonesia, Greece falls into crippling debt, the band One-Direction forms, the Arab Spring kicks off, and Instagram is launched. Other relevant contexts for interpreting the film include the popularity of competition tv shows, the website Pornhub, and the general aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Of the events above, “Fifteen Million Merits” draws from the political and environmental turmoil and the increasing integration of technology and social media into everyday life. It combines the increase in the demand for ‘mindless entertainment’, the distortion of reality  and reduction of true social interactions via social media, economic insecurity, and political unrest into a new world. Sure, the workings of the society in “Fifteen Million Merits” are illusive and ill-defined, making it both a silly and unsettling environment, but that’s the whole point. It makes us question how the machine of our government works, who controls it, how we fit into it, and what its purposes actually are. This cinematic television episode is a fun-house mirror, distorted, exaggerated, but nonetheless a reflection of us and our world.


The episode opens with an aerial circular pan centered over a sleeping person. This person is Bing, and he is just like everyone else. He wakes up in his small empty room to an artificial sunrise displayed on the screens that line all of the walls, he gets ready, and goes to ‘work’ (cycling on a stationary bike all day to generate power). One day he hears Abi singing in the bathroom, he comes up to her and says that it was the most beautiful and real thing he’s experienced since coming ‘there’. He offers to give her fifteen million merits in order to enter into the popular competition show “Hot Shots.” At first she denies the offer, it is too much money to accept. However, Bing insists she take it, as he didn’t have to work for those merits because he inherited them from his dead brother. Bing and Abi then go up an elevator to a waiting room full of contestants that have been waiting for hours to be selected. Eventually Abi is selected after the judges request ‘a pretty one’. Abi is given a drink called ‘compliance’ and then starts singing on the stage. Her singing didn’t impress the judges, but they were impressed with her looks and offered her a spot on the porn platform ‘Wraith Girls’. She ‘accepts’ by not saying no. Meanwhile Bing is yelling and is physically restrained backstage.


Bing goes back to the bike level. He now has no money and Abi is gone. A graphic ad for Wraith Girls comes up, starring Abi. Bing tries to skip the ad, but he doesn’t have enough merits to do so. He tries to close his eyes, but the screens turn red and he is told to CONTINUE VIEWING or he will be penalized. He starts screaming and punches a screen until it breaks. After this incident Bing starts riding the bike incessantly and spends almost nothing until he has accrued fifteen million merits again. Bing then buys a ticket onto Hot Shots. Once there he performs a dance routine before suddenly pulling a glass shard (he saved it after he broke the screen in his room) and holding it to his throat. He demands the opportunity to speak, and then gives an impassioned and slightly incoherent speech blasting the corrupt and twisted system that they live in. Then there is silence, the only sound being Bing’s strained panting. The judges have never seen anything quite like it, they offer him his own show, and Bing accepts.


This is a show that is trying to discuss the unseen/unknown forces of power in society. As such, it feels important that they didn’t cast a white man for the main role, as that would’ve added an element of contradiction into their message of questioning ‘the way things are’. White men are the most powerful and represented group in American Society, “One need merely glance at the demographic makeup of Congress or the boardrooms of most major American corporations to see that wealthy heterosexual white men dominate these positions of power. American films over the past century also disproportionately focus on stories of heterosexual white men finding happiness and success” (Benshoff and Griffin 6). Daniel Kaluuya (a black man) plays the role of ‘Bing’, and Jessica Brown Findley plays ‘Abi’. Both characters are portrayed as intelligent and deeply emotional people who do the best they can for themselves in the unfair world that they live in. A potential critique in reference to gender representation could be that Abi falls into the ‘damsel in distress’ trope a bit. However, both characters submit to the system in the end, demonstrating that no one (of any gender) is immune to coercion while still addressing the different ways that that can manifest for men and women in our society.


Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakens in his screen-covered cell every morning
Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakens in his screen-covered cell every morning


Difference, power, oppression, these are the ways in which people are systematically dehumanized. These are the forces of suffering. These are the forces that the storyline behind “Fifteen Million Merits” are built on. A great example of this is that  Bing’s name is not revealed until twenty minutes into the hour-long episode. He is just another one of the innumerable expendables. In the world of Fifteen Million Merits there are three shown castes. At the top are the celebrities/influencers, they have the nicest apartments, the best food, they do not have to do physical labor, and they have the highest degree of ‘freedom’ within the society. Next are the cyclists.They are the powerhouse of the society, generating electricity on stationary bikes all day, eating simple food, and living in small, vacant rooms where all the walls are covered with screens. Their pedaling is how they earn points (merits) to buy food, toothpaste, advertisement skips, video games, and tickets to the coveted competition shows. For most people within this class they are living ‘hand to mouth’ with only a small fraction even having the opportunity to become upwardly mobile. The lowest class are the janitors, which is comprised solely of overweight people. These people, not being able to generate as much power from bike riding, are given the least desired jobs within the society and are subjected to intense discrimination and abuse (i.e there is a video game the middle class can play where the objective is to kill ‘evil fat pig janitors’). An excerpt from Obesity, vol. 15, no.3 states that “Substantial fat stigmatization research has accrued indicating that overweight [people] are often negatively stereotyped, treated differently, and face discrimination …[they] receive less pay, are less likely to be hired in the workplace, experience elevated rates of romantic rejection, and are less likely to be married,”(712) The intentional decision to place overweight people in the lowest class in the film is significant, as it addresses our society’s slowness to accept them.


Beyond the caste system and the fatphobia there is also a decent amount of sexism present in the episode. Women in the working class have the same job and amenities as the men. It’s actually in the upper class where the sexism of the culture is most prominent. In the society of “Fifteen Million Merits”, one has to be ‘exceptional’ in order to rise out of the working class. In terms of women this means one thing, that they are pleasing to the male gaze. The only upper class positions for women (that are explicitly shown in the film) are as singers, talent judges, and porn stars. In “Fifteen Million Merits” the influence that media has  on a population is amplified to a degree in which the ‘real world’ barely exists. This environment allows for cultivation theory to be observed in every single character in the show. “Cultivation theory proposes that media consumers adopt inaccurate or biased views of reality resulting from repeated exposure to messaging concerning societal roles, and though the type and frequency of sexism in the media may not perfectly replicate our reality, it can contribute to these perceptions and reinforce sexist attitudes”(Brewington et al. 1542). An example of this can be seen in a male character who watches porn and fat-shaming comedy shows. He makes snide remarks and is disrespectful to both overweight people and the women that he encounters in real life. The types of media that have been pushed towards him have told him that this behavior is acceptable.


Hot Shots (the competition show) also plays a role in cultivating desired beliefs and behaviors in the lower classes. As it one of the most popular shows in the world imagined by “Fifteen Million Merits”, it has become a prominent cultural touchstone for everyone. It gives the false impression that anyone can go from ‘rags to riches’, if they just have to  work hard enough. In the scene after Abi has finished singing on stage the judges tell her that she is a good singer, but not that good. They do however, tell her (in a very forward and explicit manner) that she is attractive and would be well placed as a porn actress. Throughout this scene and the previous one (when she was singing) the camera switches between extreme close ups of Abi’s face, and stationary shots of the judges. This back and forth shows the progression of Abi’s emotions; at first caution and nervousness, then joy and freedom, and finally silent, hopeless tears. The lighting in these scenes illuminates Abi’s face and eyes, enhancing the emotional impact of the shot. This scene crushes the hope of a Horatio Alger myth plot, replacing it with a more realistic outcome; tragedy.


This is the moment in the film where anti-capitalist sentiment is revealed in full  for the first time. The system is intended to be unfair, its only concerns are self-serving. To be clear, the government/forces of power are never defined in the film (the closest we get are the judges on Hot Shots), however, it is very clear that the society is being managed and enforced by something/someone, or else the working and lower classes would not choose to live the way that they do. Abi’s desires didn’t benefit the powerful, so she was placed somewhere where they could reap the benefits of her labor. The people in Fifteen Million Merits are held in a rigid caste system, they are kept fairly isolated from one another, they are encouraged to be selfish and compete against each other; all this inhibits a collective class consciousness from forming. The small screen rooms inhabited by the working class are representative of all these things; forced individualism, a cage-like social position, and a disconnection from reality. Technology is used to offer the illusion of choice and freedom to the workers, when in reality they are enslaved.


In the last scene of the episode, Bing is walking around in his nice new apartment, and then looks up. The last shot is static, with Bing’s back to the camera as he looks down through large windows (the only time the outside is shown in the film) into a dense and foggy rainforest. In a quote from The Enemy in Contemporary Film, “paranoia… becomes even thicker and more incapacitating when complicated by fog. Both the meteorological and metaphorical conditions of fog are disorienting, confusing. Fog can increase a sense of isolation, close people off from each other, and even set them against themselves. Whenever fog is evoked… both viewers and protagonists struggle to identify the way forward,” (36-37). One could see this ending as unfulfilling, as no resolution nor explanation is offered. I see it this way, however I feel it is more intentional than it is an underdeveloped ending. It gives a sensation of being lost in the world. Even after having played by the rules and winning, Bing’s life is still empty and contrived. He is still trapped inside the complex, just on a higher floor. The enemy is not vanquished by being self -serving, especially in capitalist societies, where greed must be present in every level in order to maintain the structural integrity of the pyramid.


An alternate interpretation of the “Fifteen Million Merits” is that it is simply an entertaining  dystopian anti-technology film. Even if this was the case, the film has been influenced by the society and governments that were influential during its production. So it is more likely that it is commenting on some aspects of society than completely separated from it. Furthermore, the types of media that are produced and consumed within Fifteen Million Merits are purely brainless. It is meant to keep the workers mindlessly entertained/distracted from the real world. It would be incredibly surprising if a movie criticizing mindless entertainment was made to be mindless entertainment in and of itself. We are products of our environment, as are the things we produce.


The irrefutable messages of the film are anti-technology and anti-government, although what type of government is not made explicitly clear. It could be anti-socialist, as everyone (of the working class) has the same job and receives the same benefits/punishments. Everyone has been made more or less the same by reducing creative outlets to basically zero. If it is anti-socialist, it has probably been informed by previous inaccurate and demonizing anti-socialist films. However, there is plenty of evidence within the film that this is not the case. Everyone has their own money and belongings, there are set classes, not everything is equally distributed, and there is no observable agency for the people. One could argue that because of this lack of agency it couldn’t be representing America due to it being a ‘democratic’ country. However, I think that “Fifteen Million Merits” is just being honest. We are given the ‘choice’ between two parties that pretend to be different, we are given the ‘choice’ between two candidates we don’t like, we are given the ‘choice’ to vote on mostly unimportant issues. The only thing we are given is the illusion of choice. The only people who can make decisions are those with money, power, and greed.


When I first watched “Fifteen Million Merits” it made me feel a little ill. I hadn’t really formed any strong political or social options at the time, but I understood the tragedy of the film, and how in some way it represented the world that I was living in. I could see myself in that movie, another person struggling against an indistinguishable and invasive force. One that was so artificially constructed that acknowledging that would shatter everything you thought you knew about the world. When I watch this film in 2023, ten years after it was released, I get no sense of irrelevance. In fact, its content feels even more potent as we continue to live in a dystopian nightmare, blind to our actual surroundings,  and unable to discern who’s to blame. So we sit back down in the dirt and submit, waiting, wishing for a savior that will not come. There is no one savior, no one person who will save us. A tsunami does not consist of one drop of water, but millions, and until we realize that we will remain the pitiful, stagnant body of water that we are.



Benshoff, Harry, M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film. Available from: VitalSource Bookshelf, (3rd Edition). Wiley Global Research (STMS), 2021.


Himes, Susan and Thompson J.Kevin. “Fat Stigmatization in Television Shows and Movies: A Content Analysis.” Obesity, vol. 15, no.3, Sept. 2012. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2007.635


Brewington, Morgan, et al. “Sexism, Actually? Analysis of Ambivalent Sexism in Popular Movies.” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 26, no. 5, Oct. 2022, pp. 1541–60. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/10.1007/s12119-022-09958-6.


Martin Löschnigg, and Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż. The Enemy in Contemporary Film. De Gruyter, 2018. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1893690&site=eds-live&scope=site.



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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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