Black Mirror (S04E04) “Hang the DJ”

Everything happens for a reason – and in one of Black Mirror‘s best episodes to date, we get a hopeful tale of love; set against the new dating landscape being created by apps such as Tinder.

Synopsis:

Frank (Joe Cole; Peaky Blinders) and Amy (Georgina Campbell; Broadchurch) are two participants in what seems to be a large-scale dating resort – the idea is that people are matched with one another, told how long they will last (apparently based on their compatibility), and then have that time to get acquainted before the doors to their cabin are locked and they are assigned the next person. It’s kind of a mix of Tinder and speed-dating, where the ultimate aim is that eventually each person will be matched with their one, true partner – with 99.8% accuracy. Each person is also given a small device which acts as a ‘coach’, and notifies them of matches, and tells them the expiry date of each match. Frank and Amy are given 12 hours, and although they don’t get too intimate in that time, they seem to really get along and leave lasting impressions on one another. Frank is then assigned another person for an entire year while Amy has a 9-month relationship, followed by a string of 36-hour flings. After a year, the two are placed together again, but promise not to check their ‘expiration dates’ this time.

Their relationship progresses (very well), and they spend their days doing an assortment of activities; even ruminating on the effectiveness of the app and the nature of the system (which proves to foreshadow the end reveal). Eventually, however, Frank is so desperate to know how long he has with Amy (he really likes her) that he checks their expiry. He initially sees 5 years, but then the app recalibrates and steadily drops until they are left with a mere 20 hours. He becomes despondent, which Amy notices and soon confronts him, where they fight and part ways. They then return to speed-dating, and and unknown amount of time passes with them sleeping with and being reassigned to more and more people; until one day they are both informed that they have been matched with their one true partner, and are allowed to briefly visit one person before they meet said partner. They both choose each other, and in their limited time they both confess that they want each other, not some random they’ve been assigned by the system. They decide to f*ck the system, and as they try to escape outside the walls of their resort-like compound we are finally shown the truth.

Turns out, the Frank and Amy that we get to know are merely part of one of 1000 simulations in the algorithms of a grand cloud-based AI. The AI determines the compatibility of their real-world selves by running simulations to see how many of their simulated selves decide to rebel (the idea is that true love exists when a couple are willing to defy the system for the sake of their relationship), and because 998 of the simulated Franks and Amys did rebel, the app deems them compatible. We are then shown the real-world Frank and Amy in a bar where their respective apps tell them they are a 99.8% match, prompting them to walk towards one another as the episode comes to a close. The song playing is ‘Panic’, by The Smiths, and the featured lyrics are ‘Hang the DJ’ from the chorus…

Review:

This is a great episode of television, for many reasons. Foremost, it tells a focussed tale about a couple who, despite efforts by the system, just want to be together and fight to ensure it. It’s a personal story, with great acting, likeable and sympathetic characters, and an ending that isn’t a total surprise, but is smartly done and wraps up the story in a hopeful but bittersweet manner. Everything happens for a reason, but that’s alright.

I saw bittersweet because we’ll never know what happens to the simulated couples after they’ve done their job. The Frank and Amy we follow are such real people, and although they serve their purpose by matching up their real-selves, one can only wonder what happens to them after that. I guess that’s the best one can hope for from Black Mirror though. I would have loved to learn more about the real-world app  and how people use it, and whether it scans rooms for potential matches, or you organise a date beforehand or scan someone in particular. Makes me wish the ending was 5 minutes longer.

I really like how the ending was foreshadowed, and after finishing the episode a lot of things made sense – Amy always remarked at how stones only ever skipped four times when she threw them (never more, never less); couples seemingly speed-dated for years without ever remarking at the time they’re spending and their responsibilities in the outside world; and Frank and Amy, besides their banter, never spoke much about themselves, or about their pasts and aspirations.

I only had two issues with the episode, and they’re small. My largest concern was that there was no real urgency or weight or risk to the ending. When they decide to rebel, the security forces literally stand still (and I mean literally) as they walk by, so because the episode never gave us any indication or evidence that there was danger to their thoughts and decisions, and because they never encountered any true obstacles, it kind of felt obvious that they would end up successful in their endeavours – and endings in Black Mirror should never be obvious. Besides that, I didn’t really get the relevance of the title of the episode. Sure, one could perhaps say that ‘Hang the DJ’ symbolises rebellion, or that, just like how the song emphasised the disconnect between London DJs and their audience, the app in the simulation doesn’t connect true matches (like Frank and Amy); but it really does seem like the show-runners couldn’t think of a suitable name, then looked for some cool lyric from the song they decided to play at the end and chose that to be the title. Maybe I’m missing something, but titles, even if subtle, should have some more obvious relevance to the episode they represent.

But those were nitpicky:

9/10

Side Thoughts and Observations:

  • Nicola, the woman Frank has to spend a year with, was so bitchy and unpleasant – it was great. Notable lines included “right, so you’re the sort of person who makes jokes”, and (when Frank ate something that had garlic), “thanks for that”.
  • I really really loved the shot/scene of Amy looking out, with bleary eyes, at scene after scene of her different assigned lovers. It really emphasised her fatigue, and her longing for good ol’ Frank.
  • It was so strange to see Joe Cole (Frank) play someone sweet and thoughtful in this episode. I love Peaky Blinders, but Joe’s character (John Shelby) is so rough in that show. It was nice to see him in a different, kinder, role.
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