The best and the soon-to-be most beloved episode of Black Mirror season 4 is without a doubt, “Hang the DJ.” Somehow, by channeling everyone’s ennui about internet dating into an insane dystopia of never-ending bad relationships, this episode manages to have its depressing cake and eat it too. 90 percent of “Hang the DJ” is the most melancholy Black Mirror of all time, except of course, that it might not be. Which is what makes its reference to the beloved ‘80s rock band, The Smiths, so apt. This feels like moody and romantic science fiction that Morrissey might actually get behind.
Spoilers ahead of Black Mirror season 4, “Hang the DJ.”
The title “Hang the DJ” is the chorus of The Smiths’ 1986 song “Panic” in which lead singer Morrissey croons about murdering a disc jockey because “the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” In the new Black Mirror episode, that sentiment is translated into a world in which people enter a computer-controlled “System,” which seemingly puts them through a ton of relationships, each of which have a predetermined “expiry date.” Basically, if Tinder, Match or OK Cupid organized your actual dates for you, and told you exactly, down to the minute, how long each relationship would last, it would be like this.
Enter Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) two characters so likeable and charming that they practically create a new standard for how actors should approach anything remotely in the realm of romantic comedy. When they begin their first date, both stifle their frustration that the System has determined their relationship is doomed for an expiry date of only 12 hours. Cutely, they do not have sex on what they think is their one and only night together, but instead, just lay in bed and hold hands.
From here, things get dark, at least for anyone who has gone on a date or been trapped in a terrible relationship. As Sarte wrote in his play No Exit, “hell is other people,” which certainly proves true for Frank and Amy after their innocent one-night-stand. The problems of their subsequent pre-assigned relationships manifests in small, subtle ways. Amy’s pre-assigned new 9-month significant other is a self-possessed pretty boy who makes annoying noises with his mouth.
Meanwhile, Frank is trapped with a woman for a year who doesn’t really like anything about him, at all. These relationships are just wrong. And it’s an impressive feat of restrain on Black Mirror’s part to so accurately depict the drudgery of bad relationships. We could have learned to hate these relationships in other, perhaps more dramatic or depressing ways, but writers Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones seem to know the devils of bad relationships are often in the minor details, while the great, broad things about true love are harder to define.
But what if true love could be tested through a series of simulations? As Frank and Amy are randomly put back together by the System, things get more interesting, and the edges of this world start to get a little blurry. Do they have any memories before they started dating? Is Frank’s joke about them living in a simulation actually true? It turns out, the answer is a big yes. The Frank and Amy we’ve seen throughout the episode are the 1000th version of their digital personalities, put through a complicated simulation. And in 998 cases, Frank and Amy rebelled against the System that tried to keep them apart. We haven’t been seeing any kind of real world, but instead a world of self-aware digital versions of Frank and Amy, all designed to rigorously create some kind of algorithm for a dating app in the real world. Basically, our Frank and Amy are like the “programs” in Tron but with Sliding Doors implications.
Which leads us back to the Smiths. As hundreds of Franks and Amys are beamed up into some kind of computer hub, the camera pulls back to reveal the “real” Amy, in a bar, looking at dating app. This app claims she and Frank have a 98 percent match. The two smile at each other flirtatiously, as the chorus of “Panic” plays in what feels like a contemporary pub. Legend has it that Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote the lyric “Hang the DJ,” as a protest against a specific DJ named Steve Wright, whom they despised because of his insipid taste and adherence to a kind of corporate approach to music. So, the idea of singing “hang the DJ,” was about rejecting the music being played for you, to think for yourself, to rebel.
Which is where Black Mirror got to mock internet dating and provide hope at the same time. Sure, you might be part of a huge system of dating apps, all of which are just randomly pairing you up with strangers in an endless, meaningless procession. Or, there could be self-aware different versions of you running around a computer, trying to test out true love on your behalf, knowing eventually, you will find the one. The System totally works. Right?
Black Mirror season 4 is streaming on Netflix now.