As cynical as the lyrics are, there’s something undeniably jovial about the iconic song Panic, in which Morrissey and Co. criticised the state of pop music post-Chernobyl. The same can arguably be said about the Black Mirror episode Hang the DJ, which fittingly utilises the famous Smiths song. It wasn’t really until last season’s San Junipero that audiences had associated anything remotely hopeful after spending an hour with Charlie Brooker’s soul-crushing anthology series, but it appears as though the possibilities are endless, with Brooker choosing to examine dating in the digital age.
Even in a world which features driverless cars and an artificially intelligent dating system, Hang the DJ manages to show that humanity prevails. The two central characters are Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) who find themselves at the core of something called ‘the system’, which might exist if the algorithms of Tinder met Amazon’s Alexa to guide your love-life. Frank and Amy’s chemistry is immediately infectious, but they are told by their digital ‘coach’ that they must navigate through various different interactions with potential partners, with a 99.8% chance that the system will find them their “perfect match”.
The initial set up looks to be ideal for two singles; a world in which money doesn’t appear to be an issue, and day-to-day activities seem to consist of running, swimming, squash, dining in a luxurious restaurant, frequently followed by sex. Credit must go to director Tim Van Patten, who gloriously conveys the minimalism of the setting with a spectacular attention to detail. Black Mirror has never looked so stylish. It’s the minimalism of the world of ‘the system’ which is problematic, however, as both Frank and Amy quickly find out. Whilst Amy is hooked up with an experienced “old hand” who looks to have walked straight out of Men’s Fitness magazine, Frank finds himself on the other end of the spectrum, stuck with a partner who seems to detest him. Even the sex soon begins to feel both repetitive and meaningless.
Four seasons in, and the success of Black Mirror has been rooted in its unflinching and honest commentary on humanity’s increasingly complex relationship with technology. In an epoch where digital romance can be decided (or disregarded) through a one second glance at somebody’s profile, this episode examines these boundaries further through proposing an idea in which compatibility isn’t determined by ideals of beauty, but by an external expiry date. For some, the unawareness of how long a relationship will last may add to the excitement, but for Amy, the continual 36-hour flings with men that are “basically just a haircut” leave her all the more frustrated with the system.
Like the very apps that Hang the DJ satirises (Tinder, Bumble), the flaws and glitches soon become apparent to the users, as Frank and Amy’s feelings for each other develop to the point where they rebel against the very system that brought them together. In an unashamedly Baudrillard-ian twist that reveals this young, charming couple are indeed simulations, Black Mirror delivers one of its most profound moments yet, succeeding in all the ways previous episode Crocodile failed to do so. In regard to that, Season Four of Black Mirror might just contain the series’ worst episode yet, but also its best with Hang The DJ.
I’ve seen the episode twice, and upon second viewing it struck me that, despite the catharsis that the central characters are simulations of their own reality, there’s a bittersweet hint of truth in the episode’s outlook on modern romance. The situation feels plausible in that many relationships come together after years of trial and error on the dating scene, and therefore The Matrix meets match.com concept played out here is somewhat reflective of how people search for true love. Even more convincing is that both Cole and Campbell give terrific performances, as not since San Junipero has Black Mirror felt so emotionally engaging.