Nearly every episode of Black Mirror faces a challenge inherent to its sci-fi shorty story genre.
When the conclusion to any particular hour-long episode arrives, and the viewers’ disorientation has completely lifted, will they feel like the reality-shifting twist that comes along with it justifies the time they spent in the dark watching the plot unfold?
Not every episode of Black Mirror features a twist of course. Some wear their modern sci-fi concepts on their sleeve like the darkly humorous “Nosedive” from season 3 or the relatively straight-forward examination of human jealousy exacerbated by technology in season 1’s “The Entire History of You.”
Many more, however, rely on a third-act that pulls back the curtain to “What’s Really Been Going On (TM).” Season 4’s third episode, the dating app gone haywire (or ultra-functional) “Hang the DJ” is just such an episode.
We are presented with the seeming beginnings of a love story. Frank (Joe Cole of Green Room) and Amy (Georgina Campbell of Broadchurch) meet-cute at a restaurant as dictated by an omniscient dating app called “The System.” This app has a 99.8% success rate in paring individuals with their best possible love-match on Earth.
Frank and Amy sit down at the table nervously and chit-chat about what to order. But the System has taken care of everything. “Menu choice already established” a Siri-like voice from a circular device chirps. As Frank and Amy’s date progresses it’s clear that the System has really taken care of everything. They tap on the device simultaneously to find out how long this “relationship” will occur. 12 hours, answers the machine.
Frank and Amy are whisked away via futuristic golf cart to a sort of honeymoon suite where they spend a lovely night getting to know each other and dancing around the concept of sex.
“Are we meant to just have sex with each other?” Amy asks the System from her bathroom sanctuary. “Participants are not meant to do anything with each other.” the System responds.
So Amy and Frank don’t. Instead they extend their meet-cute for the entirety of their 12 hours together, wondering what dating would have been like in the distant past (how did people do this shit back in the day?” “How to break up with someone. Fucking hell.”)
The night ends and Frank and Amy go their separate ways. The System then immediately sets them up with a series of other partners to keep the exploratory dating process going.
The nice part about the first half of “Hang the DJ,” before the ultimate “trick” is revealed is that the “System” on its surface really does seem like the logical conclusion to online dating. As algorithms that measure human behavior and preferences get more and more sophisticated, why wouldn’t we trust some sort of app to take over the path of our dating lives completely?
“Hang the DJ” is able to draw a lot of dramatic tension out of that idea and makes the viewer confront just how much they should be trusting this system. Amy and Frank really do seem perfect for each other. They have similar senses of humor*, they have a clear physical connection and they’re just both decent enough people to begin with.
*Shout out to Amy’s “I’m gonna see your diiiiiiickkk” song.
But even all of those qualities mentioned are somewhat simple and superficial. If “love” merely meant finding someone with similar values and taste in dick jokes, wouldn’t we be able to trust an algorithm to crack that code for us pretty easily?
Frank and Amy battle back and forth throughout the episode over just how much they should trust the System. The System sends Amy on a series of short relationships and one-night stands with guys with increasingly incredible abs while Frank is set up with a woman who is outright disgusted by him for a full year.
Eventually the System brings them back together for round 2 and it’s wonderful. Cole and Campbell have excellent onscreen chemistry and their scenes together contrasted with their scenes with other people make it so clear that this is a couple that needs to be together. What does the formula know that we don’t? When Frank gives into temptation and checks how much time he and Amy have left together on the app at first it says 5 years. But then it “recalibrates” to 3 since Frank viewed the information without Amy. Then down to 3 years. Then 18 months. Then 3 weeks. Then 20 hours.
Amy finding out what Frank has done and that it means they have only a day left together is among the most heartbreaking scenes in the history of this show. Amy suggests that they run away together, that they “jump the wall” but it’s not to be. Their time is up.
Of course, by episode’s end we discover that what our eyes have seen isn’t necessarily “What’s Really Been Going On (TM)”
One of my all-time favorite episodes of Black Mirror is season 2’s second episode “White Bear.” In the truly disorienting “White Bear” a woman wakes up in a house with no memory of how she got there or why she’s there. She’s surrounded by family photos, an empty bottle of pills and a mysterious, ceaseless television signal. As she exits the house, she finds herself pursued by masked people with guns who try to kill he. Even worse everyone else refuses to help her escape from these killers and instead just follows her around filming the woman’s struggles on their phones.
At first in “White Bear” it seems as though Black Mirror has entered into a futuristic science fiction story in which that mysterious television signal has turned society into passive voyeurs, eagerly watching and recording violence from the safety of their smart phones. If that all sounds a little too easy a social statement for Black Mirror to make (hurr durr people like their smartphones) you’re not wrong. “White Bear” has a third act that reveals this has all been an act.
Our lead character is actually a convicted felon, charged with filming her boyfriend murder a young girl. Her punishment is to be entered into a ghoulish reality show for the rest of her life in which she wakes up each day and lives through this post-apocalyptic hell. People are passively filming her and not helping because that’s exactly what her crime was.
Just like that, an episode about technology making us disinterested, evil, or cruel is revealed to be an episode about how we’ve just all always been shitheads regardless of how nifty our smartphones are.
“Hang the DJ” is very much like “White Bear” only in the completely opposite tonal direction. The love story we see between Frank and Amy as conducted by their own smart phone-esque devices tells us a story not just about general distrust of technology but also raw, mysterious, and beautifully unknowable human chemistry. These two feel bound together by some unseen force – whether that be love, lust, God, hormones, dopamine, or just simple curiosity.
The answer as to what’s driving Frank and Amy together, however, may be none of the above.
Throughout “Hang the DJ” there are subtle-to-not-so-subtle signs that something is “off” about the world we are seeing. Amy is never able to “skip” a stone across the lake more or fewer than four times. Men with TASERs accompany every new date, standing imposingly at the back of the restaurant (seemingly the only restaurant in town). To top it all off, Frank and Amy’s community is cordoned off from the rest of the world by an enormous wall.
Shortly after Frank fucks things up by driving their time together back down to 20 hours, Amy is told by “The System” that it has found her forever-partner, it also gives her the opportunity to meet with one of her previous partners as “data provides this can provide psychological closure.” “Frank. I choose Frank,” she says without a moment’s hesitation.
Frank and Amy meet at the restaurant one last time. They have 1 minute and 30 seconds. Amy kisses him immediately.
“I don’t want whoever the system reckons we want,” Frank says. “I want you.”
“I want you.”
Then Amy asks. “Can you remember where you were before you came here? You can’t, can you? Neither can I.”
Then Amy theorizes that this is all some sort of test. They’re meant to disregard the system. They’re meant to run away. And even if they are, who cares? The point is: they want to.
So Amy and Frank run away. As they do, the rest of the universe freezes around them (as being in love is ought to make happen), they climb a ladder on wall and escape into the real world. Which is not the real world after all.
“What Has Really Been Going On (TM)” is that Frank and Amy are not real. They are a simulation. They’re bits and pieces of code inside ANOTHER real-world dating app. The fake Amy and Frank have met 1,000 times. 998 of those times they fell so strongly in love that they rebelled against the fabric of reality itself and ran away together to an unknowable future.
We cut back to the “real world” in an English pub. The real Amy approaches Frank at a bar. She looks down at the dating app on her phone. 99.8% match. Cue The Smiths.
“Hang the DJ” is one of season 4’s best episodes.* That’s party because the humanity we’re seeing onscreen is so raw and real, despite ironically being the exact opposite. But chiefly the best part of “Hang the DJ” is how the tonal and thematic experiences remain the same before and after its twist.
*For now I’ve got it clocked only behind “USS Callister” and just ahead of “Metalhead.”
Before the twist, we are watching two human beings fall in love in spite of a mathematical formula telling them not to. After the twist, we realized what we watched is really the beginning of al love we haven’t seen yet and the role that technology (created by other human beings) has played in bringing it together.
And in both realities: the experience of falling in love is the same. It’s the experience of rebellion. “Hang the DJ,” even after the “ruse” has been lifted, knows what love should feel like. It should feel like rebelling against a nameless, shiftless System that is trying to stop you. Because love is stupid, and counter-productive. It’s self-sacrifice in a cold, harsh world that constantly demands solipsism.
The story of Frank and Amy is real even though it’s not. All the mathematics and technology and algorithms in the world can pair you up with your perfect match. To fall in love with that match, however, means finding the courage to say “fuck everything else. I believe in you.” Or in the words of Morrisey:
Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ