Black Mirror isn’t known for positive, hopeful, or romantic stories, but last year’s “San Junipero” proved its cautionary tales about technology needn’t always be so bleak. “Hang the DJ” is the most amorous episode yet, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got something serious to say, and its twist ending is bittersweet.
The tale is set in a near-future where nuance and subtlety have been extracted from dating, so singletons enter every relationship knowing exactly how long things will last. Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) are matched up by ‘The System’, but only briefly. They realise their connection is strong after just twelve hours together, however, and begin to question everything about how The System works.
“Hang the DJ” is Black Mirror’s take on dating apps like Tinder. The world it establishes is filled with rules and a lack of freedom. That might not seem like the world of relationships today, but the pervasive feeling of loneliness and the character’s search for purpose is certainly relatable to anyone trying to find love in the 21st-century.
The episode is a satire of dating in the digital age that works well because it exaggerates the features of dating apps that give people pause. Not sure whether a promising match is a serious relationship or a fling? The System’s got you covered. Not sure what to eat or drink on your date? It’s all sorted thanks to data mining. Feel like there’s too much choice out there? The System takes that out of your hands, too. This is what dating looks like without any personal choice involved, and it’s very unsettling.
People naturally worry about their decisions, and who you’re in a serious relationship with is as big as any decision gets. By removing control over your love choices, this episode shows how people could gain a certain amount of relief but also lose any feeling of responsibility. The System also can’t save its users from doubts, anxiety, and stress. “Hang the DJ” is about examining the notion of whether any dating technology could ever replace human instinct.
And that’s what Black Mirror is all about, not just how technology shapes and affects our lives but how it brings out our humanity. In “Hang the DJ”, those traits include doubt, fear, and distrust. It’s about putting your trust in an algorithm that can generate a personal connection, but you have to take a leap of faith for any relationship to develop into something special. Much like “San Junipero”, this is a love story, but it’s also far from an ordinary one.
The performances from the two leads are superb, and we know right away they share an easy chemistry on their first date. There’s the expected awkwardness and jokes, and it’s all very cute. There’s also a sense of disappointment from both once they realise their time together will only last half a day. The System duly sends them off on their separate ways, into new relationships, with Frank stuck living with someone he dislikes, and Amy ending up in a long-term relationship that leads to numerous short-term hookups. “I know that they’re short flings, and they’re just meaningless, so I get really detached,” Amy says. That’s sure to be a relatable sentiment for many single people watching.
The story ends on a note that’s less downbeat than the majority of Black Mirror episodes. It’s optimistic. Writer Charlie Brooker has said it’s “a very happy moment”, but it’s also bittersweet. Just as in “USS Callister“, Black Mirror is asking us to consider what true artificial intelligence will mean for society. Without spoiling anything, this episode touches on the ethical considerations of using sophisticated systems and how they’ll shape real lives.
The rigid nature of The System is designed to make us thankful for the freedoms we have in real life. If you try to extinguish a wealth of choice and risk in order to drive people towards a soulmate, you squeeze the humanity out of relationships. The final genius twist shows us the software is aware of its own flaws, and that the human disposition towards resistance and rebellion is actually built into its understanding of how we connect. It’s a very clever ending, delivered in an emotionally satisfying way.
“Hang the DJ” is a beautifully written hour of sci-fi, fantastically directed by Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire). It’s about not letting computers rule our hearts, and it tells a moving story about people regaining control and learning to accept and prioritise their feelings. As it’s not an especially grim episode of Black Mirror, that could mean it’s not for everyone, but it’s an exceptional story about choices and human nature.