TV Recap: Black Mirror, Hang the DJ
The fourth episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season, Hang the DJ features Frank (Joe Cole, Green Room) and Amy (Georgina Campbell, Broadchurch) in a secluded getaway called The Hub with other singles, all seeking their “ultimate match.” This is all determined by sequential pairings of singles, with responses and reactions analyzed through highly advanced AI, to stamp a final “end date” on the relationship. Couples are given time together, as short as a few hours, or as long as several years, on a literal timer. Throughout these relationship lifetimes, their interactions and responses are constantly collected by their AI companion “Coach”, ostensibly to make sure the “next one” is “the one.”
As this probably implies, knowing not only that there is an expiration date, but when that date is down to the second, leads to both Frank and Amy approaching every match with a solid level of detachment. After all, if this isn’t “it”, why take it seriously? Another match is sure to come down the pike, anyway.
Frank and Amy each have their own off-match pairings with fleeting tenures. When they’re paired a second time, though, this one seems to take, though they aren’t told they are an “ultimate match.” In a moment of trust, they agree not to check the expiration date, and take it moment to moment, day to day, together. Frank and Amy connect on a level they wouldn’t have allowed otherwise, and they cohabit quite happily.
But Frank’s insecurity about the when of it all gets the best of him, and it could just as easily be read as insecurity over keeping a relationship going. He checks the expiry, looking for the end. Because Frank broke their trust, the date continually re-calibrates based on his deception and insecurity. It starts at five years, then three, then a few months, and then barely a day.
As anyone who’s been in a relationship with someone who’s “looking for the door” can tell you, once it starts, it keeps going until the end they’re looking for eventually comes. Amy confronts Frank, they argue, he blames it all on wanting to beat the algorithm. But Amy storms off, back to meaningless rebounds. Frank does the same, though constantly regretting how it broke off with Amy.
Amy gets a notification that her “ultimate match” will turn up the following day, and she is allowed one “farewell pairing” of her choosing, from the previous matches she’s had. Immediately, she chooses Frank. They waste no time that evening, deciding to make a break for it together from the Hub, come what may.
Their rebellion against the system that paired them previously is in itself a part of the pairing algorithm, as the digital landscape falls away. Above their heads, a number appears, 998, as they are surrounded with alternate versions of themselves. Each version is digitized, tabulated, and with 99.8% certainty, a real-world dating app matches the real-world version of Frank and Amy.
This episode was kind of frustrating, as the deeper relationship questions and issues that could be explored in Hang the DJ— “looking for the door” when you feel you’re dating out of your league, how people can stay in relationships too long because it doesn’t feel like it “should” end, even how deeper connections can form in the briefest of moments—all get swept aside for a “look how clever I am” ending in revealing it’s all just a simulation for a dating app’s match percentage.
What makes it so frustrating is that those moments I mentioned above are acted by Cole and Campbell so convincingly. If these concepts and moments were allowed to breathe, with the technology as a framing device, the episode and the drama would’ve been far stronger.
And because it’s another episode relating to how we approach each other romantically via AI and virtual reality, comparisons are ripe between Hang the DJ and last season’s San Junipero, which presented similar questions. But San Junipero dove into those more meaningful questions in a more satisfying way. Whereas Hang the DJ seems content to leave the insecurity of what could be a fleeting relationship hanging in the air, San Junipero seemed to ask why those relationships even have to be fleeting in the first place.
This episode comes off feeling like a step back, conceptually, from the highs that last season achieved. The unearned ending’s happy tone doesn’t help—when the “real” Frank and Amy see the 99.8% match on the dating app they both use, the Smiths song “Panic” kicks up over their smiling faces, and Amy steps toward Frank for their initial meeting. But because we’ve seen how confident the algorithm is and how we’re constantly told throughout the episode that the app is so damned accurate, it undercuts the whole impact of “what will happen” down to “this will happen.”