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In Black Mirror’s bittersweet “Hang the DJ,” it’s technology versus loneliness

The episode shows the lengths humans will go to take the fear out of loving someone.

“Hang the DJ.”
Black Mirror/Netflix
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This article is a recap of Black Mirror’s season four episode “Hang the DJ.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

While watching Black Mirror’s “Hang the DJ” for the first time, I swiped left on my phone at least 15 times. I don’t really remember any of the people’s faces. I just remember that I didn’t want to date any of them. Maybe it was the picture of them with the fish, or the way their smile curved, or the receding hairline — it was so easy to brush them off my screen. And at the same time, no doubt, there were men swiping left on me for similar superficial reasons: my hair, my teeth, my breadstick arms.

Apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Scruff, Grindr, et al. have put users totally in control of their own singleness. Thanks to online dating machines, we can block people from talking to us, and only interact with the ones we find attractive and who find us attractive in return.

The cutting horror of “Hang the DJ” comes from flipping that power dynamic: Instead of choosing which people we date from a pool of attractive suitors, the episode invites us to imagine an app that not only picks our dates for us but also determines how long each of those relationships will be — complete with ominous-looking men wielding tasers to enforce the rules. Amid all these relationships, the app promises to find users their one true love, a 99.8 percent “perfect” match.

Director Timothy Van Patten and series creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote the episode, not only give us one of Black Mirror’s dystopian tales but invite us to apply the fantasy of that dating app to our own lives, our relationships, and our attitudes toward finding love.

How would you act if you knew there was an expiration date on your relationship? Could you let yourself love someone if you knew you had to say goodbye in five years? What kind of courtesy would you give a three-day stand? How much of yourself could you give someone if you knew they weren’t the one?

All of us have our own answers those hypotheticals, as well as our own emotional responses to the questions “Hang the DJ” invites. One person’s idea of relief might be another person’s horror, and vice versa. As “Hang the DJ” unfurls, it becomes clear that the most terrifying thing about this premise is also what gives it a glimmer of hope: that humans will put themselves through anything for that promise of being loved forever.

“Hang the DJ” works because we understand the technology so well

The beauty of Black Mirror is in how efficiently it makes us understand the mechanics and structure of any given episode’s central technology (okay, maybe not the strange mechanical drone bee one). Often it does so by presenting an episode’s paranoid-future technology as an extreme extrapolation of something that’s already known and used in contemporary society.

In season one’s “The Entire History of You,” for example, people have the ability to fast-forward and rewind their memories, even the painful ones, like the way we fast-forward or rewind a DVR. In the Christmas special, people can block each other from their lives by altering the device in their eyes called Z-Eyes, a biotech evolution of the way we can block people from our various social media feeds today. And “Hang the DJ” offers a nefarious evolution of the kind of modern dating apps many viewers are all too familiar with.

In the episode, we experience the app through the eyes of awkward Frank (Joe Cole) and sunny Amy (Georgina Campbell). We don’t know how old they are, where they come from, what their interests are, or what they do for work — we just know that they’re supposed to meet each other, and the app (referred to as “Coach”) has only given them 12 hours together.

Cole and Campbell’s performances anchor the story, conveying that Frank and Amy are both vulnerable, but they wear it differently. His insecurities are wrapped up in self-effacing comedy; she presents as more confident, but in a way that comes across as a facade to viewers. They’re just two people fumbling — one gracefully, the other not so much — toward what they hope is love.

The horror of “Hang the DJ” begins to creep in after Frank and Amy’s 12 hours expire and they’re paired with new, longer-term matches: her with a man sporting a full set of pristine abs, him with a woman who hates everything about him. (It might seem like Amy gets the better end of the deal, but her match’s little tics and habits begin to peck away at her; Frank at least knows the hand he’s dealt right from the beginning — he just has to wait out the year that’s been allotted to this relationship.) It’s in these longer relationships that both begin to realize what they had in those 12 hours could be better than what they have now.

Because this app can detect true love, and because Frank and Amy have been longing for each other as they endure their stinker relationships, they’re eventually paired up again. The episode doesn’t make it especially clear why the app has decided to bring them back together, but Amy and Frank’s re-match nonetheless feels like a relief. This time, though, they decide not to look at their expiration date. This time, their relationship could end at any second — they feel it, and we feel it too.

It’s a testament to the episode’s storytelling how attuned we already are at this point to the rhythms and structure of the dating app. We feel the temptation to guess how long Amy and Frank will be together this time. Because they’re meeting again, we feel compelled to figure out how this will work into their final formulas. And when Frank is tempted to look at the expiration date, we feel the inevitability that these two are going to break our hearts.

“Hang the DJ” tells a scary story about technology. But it tells a scarier one about love.

The best Black Mirror episodes are ones that use technology to tell a story about our own humanity. No doubt the series is brilliant when it comes to portraying how addicted humans have become to technology, but the show’s best episodes — the aforementioned “The Entire History of You” and last season’s “San Junipero” — have used that technology to tell a deeper story about human relationships and the pain that comes with them.

With “Hang the DJ,” the technology provides a seductive alternative to the unknown: There’s no risk of rejection, since relationships are set by the app. You also know ahead of time which relationships won’t last very long, and therefore how much emotional energy they will require. And as a bonus, the app also gives users access to nicely appointed, modern homes, which couples can live in for however long the relationship lasts.

Watching “Hang the DJ,” it’s easy to understand why people will trust an algorithm to dictate their lives and their relationships, because it offers a promise that they aren’t destined to be single. The terror of the dating app is less than the terror of being alone. It also reflects a deeper terror that underlies the current terrain of dating apps, which has rendered people all but disposable to one another.

But this being Black Mirror, the episode also leaves us with a giant twist, and then another twist on top of that: Frank and Amy decide to rebel, and when they do, they realize they’re just one set of multiple Franks and Amys. It turns out all these Frank and Amys are simulations, and that rebelling against the app’s restrictions is the true path to love. (The app logs 998 rebellions from simulations, a callback to the 99.8 percent success rate.) The Frank and Amy we’ve watched are really part of a bigger app, which the “real” Frank and Amy use to find each other. The episode ends with Amy coming over to meet Frank for the first time.

In light of what we’ve seen of Frank and Amy’s lives without each other, this meeting feels like a positive conclusion: There’s a wink and a smile, and the flicker of true love. We don’t know if they’re simulations too, or whether they’re even the same “Frank” and “Amy” we’ve watched for the past hour, but we can’t help but feel hopeful for them — even if it is an app that’s bringing them together.

But underlying that hope is a reiteration of the scary idea that the reason we submit ourselves to these strange, invasive apps is that we, as humans, are afraid of the uncertainty of love. We’re scared of loneliness, and there’s probably no app than can quash the fear that we somehow are living a life that might not end with “the one.” There are just a lot of us out here stumbling around, lonely and afraid to reach out for what we want.

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