As much as we value individual experiences, it’s hard to get thrilled at the prospect of slogging through an indeterminate number of romantic partners with the dim hope that one day you’ll find the One (Who Probably Doesn’t Exist, At Least Not For You, Because You Are So Horrible). The past decade has been a slow moving horrorshow of privacy invasion and data mining, but wouldn’t it be nice if all those computers with your personal details could somehow get together and fix all of this bullshit?
That’s more or less the idea driving “Hang The DJ,” a feel good pick-me-up about finding love in the information age. It’s the sweetest episode of the season by far, and possibly the best, a smart build to a happy ending that still manages to be slightly unexpected. As with last year’s “San Junipero,” the pleasure of finding hope on a show which so frequently traffics in despair can make it difficult to judge the entry on its own merits. But it works for now, at least. (And for the record, I still think “San Junipero” holds up just fine.) While some of the novelty of the happy ending has worn off, there’s still a freshness here that much of the rest of the season lacks.
The first impression the episode makes is the most important: the strong chemistry between Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole). Their connection is what drives the story’s emotional arc, and if that connection wasn’t immediately apparent, the rest of this might not work at all. There’s some suspense in the subtle hints of totalitarianism and unanswered questions, but Frank and Amy serve as the linchpin of everything that happens. Even trickier, since it’s narratively clear that we’re supposed to want them to be together, if the pairing had come across as forced or flat in any way, it would’ve undermined much of what makes the story so ultimately good-natured.
Thankfully, this isn’t the case. The script, actors, and direction do a fine job of immediately, but not forcefully, establishing that these two make a good match, while still allowing for just enough uncertainty to keep the whole thing from being rote. As pleasantly odd as the ending is, what really makes “Hang The DJ” work is the same thing that makes any good romance work: that thrilling tension of watching two people try to build something between them. The science-fiction element helps keep things fresh, but (as is so often the case on Black Mirror), it really just serves to enhance tensions that were already there.
Because there are complications, of course. It wouldn’t be much of a love story without them. Frank and Amy are part of a never named system that organizes their love lives, assigning them partners and then telling them how long each relationship will last. While this eventually turns out to be part of a much larger simulation (in which the Frank and Amy we spend most of our time with are actually digital versions of physical-world people), judge on its own merits, the idea of some artificial intelligence dictating our love lives does have a certain appeal. Given that most relationships do have expiration dates, it could be comforting to get the date in advance; to know how long you have to endure or enjoy a thing before you’ve gotten the appropriate amount of emotional knowledge from the event.
Well, comforting and also sort of awful. The tension between the fantasy of a world where someone else makes the messy decisions for you, and the reflexive concern that this has to be a trap, is the episode’s other operating force. While Amy and Frank fumble their way towards mutual regard, they’re hindered in their choices by the mysterious system that dictates their lives. It’s like if 1984’s Big Brother got crossed with the Matchmaker from Fiddler On The Roof, and the first time through the episode, there’s considerable, if low-key, suspense in wondering just when the other shoe will drop.
There are plenty of ways to read this, and a philosophical conversation between Frank and Amy later in the episode has a nice tinge of self-awareness to it; Amy’s speech especially (about whether or not the system “works,” or if it’s just something designed to browbeat them into pretending that it does) sounds like something that could’ve been said by anyone who’s spent too much time dating and not enough time feeling happy about any of it. Until the final reveal, it’s fascinating to wonder if it would be worth sacrificing that much freedom for just the possibility of eventual peace of mind. That, plus the subtle threat of what might happen if our heroes trying to fight back, keep the pace moving quite nicely.
Then there’s the ending. After Frank ruins their second relationship by looking at the expiration date after promising Amy not to, the couple get one last chance to say goodbye, and they decide to make a run for it. Subtle hints layered in throughout the hour come to the forefront here, as Amy starts asking questions we’ve been content to put to the side. Questions like, what the hell is going on? And what happens if you fight back? The couple rebels, and the program freezes. It’s a simulation; but Frank and Amy are part of the simulation, just one of thousands of iterations designed to test the resilience of the real life Amy and Frank as romantic partners.
You could say that’s creepy as hell—to be not yourself, but a copy of yourself with a limited freedom and life-span designed solely to all your “real” self a shot at getting laid. But the ending isn’t played as creepy, and the note the episode ends on is a hopeful one. Again, there’s that feeling of relief; of reaching the end of the road and finding more road instead of a cliff.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the ending is a little too neat, a little too closed off—not awkwardly eager to please a la “USS Callister,” but smooth in a way that seems to end discussion before it has a chance to begin. How aware were the Amy and Frank simulations? What did they feel about finding out they were designed to solve a problem? The rights of digital duplicates take the forefront in a few other fourth-season episodes, but “Hang The DJ” doesn’t seem particularly concerned about any of that. Is it just because these copies are programmed to enjoy themselves? And does that make it okay?
Yet all of that is maybe working a bit too hard to find fault. Maybe the only real problem here is that happy endings on Black Mirror—particularly this kind of happy ending, in which love triumphs by design—aren’t as unexpected as they used to be. Where “San Junipero” found triumph in barely averted disaster, “Hang The DJ,” in retrospect, doesn’t really risk anything. Everything goes according to a plan we don’t see until the very end, which isn’t that unusual for the show; the main difference here is that the plan is kind.
- It’s a nice touch that the system uses rebellions as proof of ultimate compatibility, although I’m wondering if anyone involved has seen The Graduate.
- So why did Frank get stuck with someone he didn’t get on with for a year? I thought at first it was a way to teach him to appreciate a good relationship when he found it, but since the system is trying to test compatibility, I’m not sure that works. It would be interesting to rewatch this with the ending in mind, and see how it holds together.
- The “agree to consent by electronic device” is clever, but, again, how does that help the simulation?
- “Right. So you’re the sort of person who makes jokes?”—Nicola is a joy.
- I guess Amy gets to dabble in same sex partners but not Frank. Bisexuality for all, dammit!