The Psychology of Black Mirror — "Fifteen Million Merits"
Our listener's consensus for the first episode of the National Anthem was "all kinds of nope," as I put it in the episode. One listener signed 'X' wrote into the show at firstname.lastname@example.org, with the following commentary that we loved:
Hi, Great Podcast. Thanks for making it. I have just a few comments about the first episode of Black Mirror. I'm pretty sure the whole episode is about an artist (performance/film/multi-media) making his final work of meta-art. The message sent about the demands for filming include reference to Dogma 95. An art film manifesto. Making him look like a painter at the end is a lot easier that trying to point out that he's a performance artist or multi-media artist. He may have had a vendetta against the Prime Minister but could have just as likely been making a statement against the government but who knows.
I feel like the later episodes are weaker in their bite/sting. I hope more episodes in the future return to this strong eminent speculation. lt's easier to distance myself from the episodes that throw in more sci-fi tropes. The Twilight Zone was great at balancing these.
Regardless of if I watched it there's still no way I could stop myself from not imagining it. Maybe the issue with the Prime Ministers wife is more in her head than than the reality of what happened.
Thanks for reading
Keep up The great episodes
Thanks for the insight, X! As always, we love to hear what you have to say, keep the conversation flowing! Also, great callout about Dogma 95!
Directed by Euros Lyn, a Welsh director who also directed Sherlock and Doctor Who, directed this episode of Black Mirror, Fifteen Million Merits, exclusively.
Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror creator and overall mastermind wrote this episode, and had a co-writer, his wife: Konnie Huq. He says they were sitting on the couch one day, and she told him that while he sat there on his iPad, he would probably "prefer to live in a world made of iPads" — so he had the idea for the underground screen-world that we see in Fifteen Million Merits.
Michael says there is a theme of artificiality, and then we got into the modern day avatar: your digital alter-ego, your virtual identity in the form of a web presence or social profiles.
Dopples are what they're called in Fifteen Million Merits. Michael speculates that this could be about generation gaps. Older millenials vs. younger millenials. Platforms like Snapchat put makeup on you that is responsive and moves with your face, which allows you to just further blur the lines of your real self versus your digital self.
Bing's cell of screens: I made the comparison to Smart House and Michael made the comparison to the Matrix.
Michael says that when Bing wakes up and smacks the rooster, it gives him the Illusion of Choice which a tactic used to control and condition people.
And, of course, I compared it to Smart House, the 1999 Disney Channel film about technology that was also quite invasive, but I digress.
Moving forward, we talked about how the Dopples (avatars) are reminiscent of things we have now: Michael says Xbox Live Avatars, I said maybe even as simple as Wii characters!
Then we see the bikes and Bing's whole world is revealed to us, and the bikes are powering their world. The three other characters around him are a kind girl that loves him and tries to make eye-contact.
I make the argument that the three other characters we see, are much more full of personality and expression than our main character Bing. The guy to Bing's left is the one "drinking the koolaid" so-to-speak, and Michael says #Priorities. The passive girl looking for Bing's attention
Michael compares this to the 9-5 typical American Dream monotony to the riding of the bicycle and wonders if this is the biggest common theme of the episode, as do I!
Michael noticed the "leaderboard" on the wall in the background promotes a competitive nature in each of them. Together, we speculate that lemons are in the position that they are because the mentality of the society is a give and take process and maybe overweight people are being perceived as taking too much, and therefore classified as lower class citizens.
Then they're in a gender neutral bathroom, which is odd, considering their horrendously drawn but clearly defined gender roles. Bing hears Abi singing 'Anyone Who Knows What Love is (Will Understand)' - originally a song by Irma Thomas released in 1996. This song pops up two more times in Black Mirror. Post in the comments below if you know which episode and we'll shout it out on the show!!!
Its at this point that we have a real moment. And he is interrupted by porn, that he opts to skip and feels embarrassed about popping up in front of Abi. It's one of the craziest parts of the episode: the fact that you have to pay to skip and when you look away from it, a buzzing comes on that's so bad it hurts Bing, and Michael says it needs to change in pitch so that people don't become desensitized to it.
When Bing and Abi are in the cafeteria and Bing uses the same "Petri Dish" line on Abi that the other girl used on him, Michael and I talked about this discord with our protagonist. But Michael says that the 'social aspect' of a person is like a muscle that needs to be flexed, in order to stay sharp. And Bing doesn't have any social inclinations.
There's a moment when Abi and Bing are discussing their food being made out of a petri dish, and Abi makes a comment "Oh, why don't you get the CBT app, the Cognitive Behavioral thing that helps you make healthy choices. Whisps you into it while you sleep."
Michael and Justin talk about CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) all the time on our Unplugged Show about psychology with Justin Krause, a clinician. In this episode, Michael describes the thought process as:
1. You Have a Thought
("I Look Bad Today")
2. You have a Feeling Because of that Thought
("I Feel ashamed & ugly Because I Look Bad")
3. You display behavior based on that Feeling
*Puts on a Hoodie to cover yourself up*
Thoughts affects ---> Feelings affects ---> Actions
. . .
So change the thought, and the whole chain changes. Change your thought, don't take medication. This is mindfulness, which we are HUGE advocates for here at UPC. Rewire your brain, no matter what it's for!
Its being used for evil in Fifteen Million Merits.
In the episode, Michael compares the wide-shot of the underground world Bing and Abi are living in in Fifteen Million Merits, to the inside of the Borg Ship in Star Trek (pictured above).
. . .
Abi and the Penguin
A penguin pops up four times in this episode, representing Abi. We speculate that because Penguins mate for love, maybe the penguin represents the lost love that is Abi, OR it could be that because Penguins don't fly, maybe it represents how they are trapped.
The first time it pops up is in Abi's room, after Bing sends her the ticket to the show as a gift. She is seen sitting in her room, the landscape like Antarctica, and a penguin on the ice in front of her.
The second time we see a penguin is when Abi's Dopple shows up on Bings screen wearing a pink penguin dress.
The third time is when Abi gives Bing the origami penguin in the elevator, stating that "it fold flat so Bing can hide it in his waistband."
And the final time we see a penguin pop up is when Bing is at the end of the episode in his large, luxurious, white, naturally-lit, filled-with-stuff apartment. There is a penguin statue on the table. If we know anything at all about this symbol, it's that it represents Abi. But what do think? Is it about mating for life or is it about being flightless and trapped? We'd love to hear your thoughts.
. . .
When Bing buys the ticket for Abi, it turns out to be 15 million merits (hence the name) as opposed to 12 million like it had been previously advertised. Michael says this is called the "Foot-in-the-Door" method in sociology, a way to advertise and squeeze a little more out of a customer because they already have the intention to buy the thing.
When they're in the elevator headed up toward the Hot Shot audition, we see the hierarchy of the setting, and come to realize that the more elite members of society would be closer to the top. Michael made the comparison to Hunger Games underground city in the third book Mockingjay, which is a great comparison.
Also, just to put this to rest: the girl in the audition room has white hair, and here is the proof (now everyone go tweet Michael that he's colorblind).
Michael makes the comparison of the three judges to the three judges from the American TV Show "American Idol": Judge Charity being Paula Abdul, Judge Wraith being Randy Jackson and Judge Hope being Simon Cowell. Michael says that they are named these names for these reasons:
Judge Hope = Simon Cowell
Your hope rides on this person because his word determines what happens, as he's the leader, the one who makes the call.
Judge Charity = Paula Abdul
The kind, sweet one who attempts to coddle the feelings of the performer.
Judge Wraith = Randy Jackson
The entertainer of the group.
. . .
The crowd is the most terrifying thing here - as is usually the case for Black Mirror. This simulated crowd of 'dopples' (avatars) is acting a seriously threatening hoard, yelling "Do it, do it, do it!" succumbing to typical hive mentality, which translates to Mob Mentality. We did an episode on Mob Mentality on Black Friday of last year with Dr. Kirk Honda of Psychology in Seattle. It was quite bad ass.
It was hard to watch Bing having to see Abi in Wraith Babes after the whole thing goes down. I said in the episode that it seemed similar to the scene in A Clockwork Orange having to go through the cinematic aversion therapy of sorts, with his eyes held open.
When Bing stands up on stage and gives his end-all-be-all speech, he makes a decision that's controversial among the hosts here at UPC.
Though we are all capable of mob mentality, the individual brain is also capable of hive mentality. Every decision you make is essentially a committee act, by process of elimination, approved by consensus, or the opposition is silenced. For any given choice, before you make it, your brain lays out all the different options you have.
Michael found an article on Scientific American about the singular hive mind, where Jason Castro writes:
Every decision you make is essentially a committee act. Members chime in, options are weighed, and eventually a single proposal for action is approved by consensus. The committee, of course, is the densely knit society of neurons in your head. And “approved by consensus” is really just a delicate way of saying that the opposition was silenced.
So if you think of the brain as a bee-hive, we have worker bees (neurons in the brain) Even as an individual, you're not alone. You look at the way we form ourselves into governments, higher ranks of power versus freedom of choice.
. . .
Sometimes called an intellectual sexual fetish, cuckolds like to be cheated on, and seeing the person cheat on you. The jealousy and the torment are what make the cuckold able to get off and converts into sexual energy. One mans torment is another man's delight, we guess.
In the episode, Michael brought out a small-town story about a real-life couple who enjoy this sexual fantasy together, and you can find that here.
. . .
Ultimately, we'd say that monotony is the big bad guy here, conformity and a typical 9 to 5. Is the big bad guy technology? Ourselves? Let us know what you think. We hope you enjoyed the show!
—Corey Stewart, designer
@corstew91 on twitter