Black Mirror’s best episode of season four is, again, a love story.
Season three’s standout, “San Junipero,” maybe the series’ first happy episode, was a sweet love story about two women falling for each other in a simulated world. This season’s fourth episode, “Hang The DJ,” has the setup of a good dystopian young adult novel. The lead characters, Amy and Frank, are participants in The System, a dating service that shunts people into a series of relationships until it can algorithmically find “the one.” It’s kind of like hell’s OK Cupid. Participants hang around an idyllic closed community, going on jogs and skipping rocks on a lake, until their Coach, an Alexa-like device that the characters carry around all the time, tells them they have a new relationship. The lengths of these relationships can last anywhere from 12 hours to a year. They don’t get a say in who they’re matched with or for how long. The System is using their reactions to different kinds of relationships to determine who “the one” is for them. It has 99.8% accuracy, but its processes are opaque. They just have to trust it.
One of Black Mirror’s greatest strengths is its subtle storytelling. Despite sometimes being overly blunt in its moralizing, each episode throws you into a brand new world and lets you figure things out just with a few snippets of information from the environment and characters. When Amy and Frank meet, they check when their relationship is set to end on their Coaches and comment that 12 hours is a bit short. Their meals have been pre-selected: Amy has a nice-looking pasta, and Frank has some kind of fish cake. When he takes a bite of Amy’s pasta off her fork after asking if that’s something they’re allowed to do, the camera lingers on a threatening-looking man watching them from over Frank’s shoulder, taser in hand. From there, they go to their cabin. Being that this is their first date, they both freak out at the prospect of spending the night with each other. Amy, amusingly, asks her Coach if they’re just supposed to “go at it” and her Coach replies, “Define ‘go at it.’”
They don’t end up having sex, but rather lay together on the bed holding hands, musing about how much dating must have sucked before The System. “People had to do the whole relationship thing themselves,” Amy says. “And if things seem shitty, they have to figure out if they wanted to break up with someone.” Frank scoffs, saying, “How to break up with someone? Fucking hell.”
Watching “Hang the DJ,” I felt a pang of jealousy at the notion that, in this world, these two haven’t ever had to end a relationship before. The System seems a lot worse, though. As Frank and Amy go on to their next relationships we see this society’s inscrutability in action. Amy ends up with a pretty hot, charming guy she’s to date for the next nine months. Frank ends up with a very irritated woman he has nothing in common with, who responds to one of his jokes with “So, you’re the type of person who makes jokes.” He has to date her for a year, and his Coach repeatedly tells him that disobeying The System will result in his expulsion from society.
Frank and Amy had an immediate chemistry. It was a delight to watch them get to know each other, to see them tease each other and slowly, carefully let their guards down. It’s easy to see the arc of the episode: Frank and Amy are meant for each other, and The System is going to try to keep them apart.
“Hang The DJ” isn’t trying to blow your mind, instead telling a simple but compelling love story. Like last season’s “San Junipero,” it can be bittersweet or even quite sad, but ultimately it’s a story about two people trying to open up to one another, and how technology can both aid and impede that. Yes, “Hang the DJ” does have a twist that changes the context of the episode. It probably won’t dazzle you, as it gets telegraphed pretty early in. Even if you know what’s coming, it’s still a charming episode with two likeable leads that I genuinely rooted for.
After Frank finally finishes out his horrible year-long relationship with a woman he hates and who also hates him, Frank and Amy get rematched. It turns out for the past three months, The System has put Amy in a series of 36-hour relationships—just about enough time to meet someone, have sex, and then go their separate ways. What started out as fun has made her incredibly jaded. Over dinner, she tells Frank that she finds all these short flings dissociating, describes having sex with a guy who is “basically just a haircut,” and recalls being so detached that she had an out of body experience, feeling like she was watching herself have sex with him from across the room but not actually there. She later says asks Frank if maybe The System isn’t processing all their reactions from these relationships and instead grinding them down until they’ll settle for anything. “Each time you get a little bit more pliable, a little bit more broken,” she says, “until eventually it coughs up the final offering and says that’s the one.” Frank tells her that that is one of the bleakest things he’s ever heard.
It’s these moments that feel like “Hang The DJ” is trying to say something about modern romance. When Frank is without Amy, he’s miserable. In one funny scene, he tells a woman who’s also sad about her last relationship about how much he misses Amy while she is giving him a blow job. Unlike Amy, Frank doesn’t seem all that interested in casual sex or dating, so The System is not really a good fit for him. Still, his desire to just settle down backfires. During his second relationship with Amy, she makes him promise not to check their expiry date, to just date her without worrying about the future. He can’t resist and looks anyway, and because he broke her trust their time together dwindles from five years to 18 hours. As he mourns what he’s lost, his Coach will only say to him the most frustrating aphorism about dating: Everything happens for a reason.
While Amy doesn’t seem to want to be tied down too fast, going back to a series of flings leaves her almost broken. In a stark, sad sequence, the audience watches Amy’s bed from over her shoulder. Although the partners change, she remains the same, standing completely still. When the camera cuts to her face she’s impassive, unfeeling, seemingly unable to react to or care about the people she and the audience are watching filter through her life.
Dating is just hard. There’s no real way to fix that. It’s depressing, it can be humiliating, and sometimes you will fuck up and hurt the one you love. There will probably not ever be some technological panacea that takes the frustration out of that process. “Hang The DJ” makes it seem worth it. When Frank and Amy realize they need each other it’s pure and unpretentious and beautiful. Even if Black Mirror can’t help but throw another twist their way, it doesn’t sour the preceding hour of watching these two people fall for each other. There’s no cynicism. Despite how hard it is, falling in love really is worth all that pain.