Warning Spoilers Ahead
After reviewing, the bad, the mediocre and the worst, it’s finally time to discuss the first truly great episode of Black Mirror's 4th Season. If you’ve ever been frustrated by dating apps, dating sites or just dating in general you can relate to Hang the DJ. The story presents Amy and Frank, two young people looking for love using the latest system; the gimmick, a mobile device that tells couples how long to date for and the exact second to break up. The purpose is ostensibly to gather data to find your perfect match and the algorithm boasts a 99.8% success rate.
As strange, even inhuman as the matching system sounds there’s something attractive about it. How many people have been stuck in relationships that went on too long and wished there was a computer program that would just tell them it’s time to end it. What about the flings that ended too soon, leaving you wondering what might have been if you’d had more time?
While exploring this premise the episode creates genuine chemistry between Frank and Amy an impressive feat, as the nature of the episode doesn’t allow for either to have a backstory. Instead it relies on the interplay between their personalities. We see their natural sense of humor. We witness how they think alike. Amy’s confidence and playfulness beautifully complements Frank’s subtle shyness.
This low-key characterization is effective as it allows us to sympathize with the characters but also leaves us free to project ourselves onto them and imagine we’re in the same situation. This is especially effective when we see the contrast between Frank and Amy’s bond and the other pairings they find themselves in. Nicola and Frank can be a stand in for any toxic relationship, the kind people feel trapped in. Amy and Lenny remind us of a relationship with great sexual chemistry, but no deeper bond, a hollow union, which leaves you feeling more alone than if you were single.
Then there's Edna and Mike the already matched couple that comes around to give Frank, Amy and the other hopefuls a pep talk, singing the praises of "The System" like they're in a bad commercial. Their overly sweet and seemingly forced affection is reminiscent of those couples that can't seem to stop showing off by professing their love on social media. As we roll our eyes and cringe at these two we're glad to see that our protagonists aren't like that and hopefully never will be.
“The System” makes one reflect on just how much freedom we’ve already given up by letting machines make dating decisions for us. Who are we missing out on because we swiped left without thinking? How many OKC profiles belong to people who’d be perfect for us, but sit at the bottom of our list, never to be seen because their answers to certain trivial questions didn’t match ours? It’s enough to make you want to delete every app you’ve ever downloaded and close all your profiles. Then you stop for a minute and ask “are bars and clubs really any better?”.
Of course Hang the DJ goes beyond the simple quandaries of the digital age. When Amy questions if the algorithm really does anything at all, and proposes that instead it just wears you down until you are willing to accept that whoever it gives you is your perfect match she may be referring to “The System” but she could just as well be talking about dating and relationships in general.
Is that the explanation for Edna and Mike? As they gushed about how well "The System" worked for them were they really trying to convince themselves as much as everyone else? One has to at least question how exactly those two 20 somethings could be so sure their union will last a lifetime?
As the story progresses we’re free to question the nature of the world, which adds another fun element to the story. The approach is not unlike that of San Junipero. At first the most likely explanation is that it’s some sort of high-end resort for people with means. Or perhaps it exists in a post scarcity society where such facilities are freely available. Then this explanation falls short as we learn people can be paired for years on end. Virtual reality seems a more likely conclusion. Then mention of people being “banished” for not accepting their results implies some sort of dystopian society. In a way Hang the DJ also builds off of 15 Million Merits, by leaving open the possibility that the world will never be explained.
The episode pulls a brilliant double bluff when Frank suggests that they aren’t real people, and in fact are simulations within the matching algorithm. That of course turns out to be exactly the case. “The System” runs one thousand scenarios based on the minds and personalities of real people. Frank and Amy’s choice to rebel against “The System” is triumphant and romantic. We find ourselves routing for the couple and excited as their real life counterparts meet for the first time.
However there’s a chilling question undercutting this elation. Did we merely see a simulation, or were the one thousand Franks and Amy’s self-aware? Did the app just create and then murder two thousand sentient beings just to spare a few people the hassle of dating the old fashioned way?
For strong characters, a well-executed plot, and a thought provoking premise Hang the DJ receives a rating of A.