Warning: This contains spoilers for Hang the DJ. Not seen Episode 4 of Black Mirror Season 4? Read our spoiler-free review of the whole season.
“What if all it’s actually doing is gradually wearing us down, putting us in one relationship after another for random durations in a random sequence? Each time you get a little bit more pliable, a little bit more broken, until eventually it coughs up the final offering and says that’s the one. And by that point, you are so defeated and so exhausted that you just accept it, you settle. And then you have to live the rest of your life convincing yourself you didn’t.”
That’s the sound of Black Mirror hitting its peak, with one of the bleakest and most uplifting ideas the TV show has ever had. And given what else Charlie Brooker’s anthology series has served up over four seasons, that’s saying something.
The show introduces us to two singletons who have signed up to the System, a new dating service that partners users up with suitable matches. Yes, this is Black Mirror taking on the world of Tinder, but being black Mirror, Brooker’s script takes it to the logical extreme, and so users are told not only who they’ve been paired with, but also how long they’ve been paired with them for. It’s an inspired concept, which finds a natural metaphor for the human compulsion to look ahead in the app’s Spotify-like playlist of your romantic life. One day, the users are told, they will be given their perfect soulmate – the system just needs to process data from other relationships and scenarios first.
Things get off to a promising start for newcomers Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), who are instructed to meet, Blind Date-style, in a restaurant – and their awkward but warm banter is immediately charming. They retire to their designated cabin and play it slow by not having sex, but the app has already told them they’ll only be together for 12 hours, and so they go their separate ways – after all, they’ll have a different match in another few hours.
Alas, the other fish in the sea aren’t all guaranteed to be prize-winners, and so Amy finds herself with Lenny, hot but mildly irritating bloke (George Blagden, his brooding disk turned up to 11). She’s in awe of his body, but everything about him starts to grate, especially given that she knows she’s got to put up with 9 months of it. Frank, on the other hand, is paired with the brusque Nicola (a hilarious Gwyneth Keyworth). Their anti-chemistry is even funnier than the sparks between Amy and Frank, as every conversation seems to end in painful silence. “Right. So you’re the sort of person who makes jokes,” declares Nicola, after Franks drops a gently amusing gag. There’s nothing worse than being in a relationship longer than one should, and Black Mirror taps into that frustration and unhappiness perfectly – Nicolas and Frank both know they have four years of this to get through. With that expiry date confirmed, though, there’s little motivation to attempt to make it work; they just count down the days until they’re free again.
Their misery is highlighted further when the two couples cross paths at an event, which sees two soulmates happily paired off, proudly praising the reliability of the system with the smug satisfaction some couples can have. But with a 99.8 per cent success rate, do Amy and Frank decide to quit? Of course not. They sign up and trust in the System.
It’s a wonderfully astute deconstruction of our reliance on algorithms in modern life, from film recommendations and social media newsfeeds to what is one the most important things: who we choose to spend the rest of our lives with. The script is packed with intimate observations about the complexities of romance, from the way that small gestures and noises can become irksome, as the shine wears off a relationship, to the way that retreading old ground doesn’t always work. In one of the most nuanced moments of the episode, Amy and Frank are paired a second time, and they agree not to check their expiry date – only for Frank to sneak a peek and that imbalance of commitment, with one effectively more emotionally invested than the other, derailing the whole thing. It counts down from years to months to weeks and finally hours – all voiced by Gina Bramhill’s disembodied “Coach” with a typically dispassionate finality.
When Amy is told her ultimate match has been found, she is given the chance to say goodbye to someone – and she picks, before Coach can finish the sentence, Frank. They reminisce and rekindle their affections, before deciding to leave the System and be together anyway. It’s a classic on-the-run act of loving rebellion – and as they flee, they are chased by sinister henchmen, who have been loitering in the background ever since that first dinner, all subtly building up the feeling that something isn’t quite right. But when they finally get out, they find themselves in a dark chamber of other couples, each one vanishing into nothing.
It’s a deliberately hollow conclusion to a heartfelt climax, one that robs us off that sense of success. Because Frank and Amy aren’t Frank and Amy at all – they’re digital simulations of them, running 1,000 different permutations of their love lives to see whether they decide to revel and choose each other. It’s a twist that’s foreshadowed halfway through, as Frank posits a Matrix-like theory of this dating service, noting that neither can remember what they were doing before they entered the System. Amy, on the other hand, takes the more grounded view that it’s all just random and wearing them down until they accept their allocated other half.
Neither view is particularly optimistic, which is, of course, entirely the point. One of Season 4’s running themes is the notion of digital infinity, considering the permanence of the online world that we don’t consider in our fleeting real world existence. Taking that and combining it with a romantic comedy is one of Brooker’s best ideas yet, making us invest in the virtual version of Amy and Frank’s relationship in the same way that we emotionally hook ourselves to dating apps. And there is a genuine joy to the way that 998,000 of a million couples in the System choose to rebel, just as there’s a genuine thrill to seeing Amy and Frank in real life see their 99.8 per cent match on their phones and approach each other in a bar.
Is it just a casual hookup? That’s the lingering question that Black Mirror poses, after an hour of journeying through the multiple stages of a relationship. It’s a challenging, downbeat glimpse of a reality that cheapens their connection – how much can we really trust a dating app’s algorithm? “Hang the DJ,” says the titular song that’s on in the bar’s background. “Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.”
But there’s hope in this gorgeously bittersweet play, too, one that’s rooted in seeing the cast bring their connection to life with such convincing, charming warmth. Will it be a permanent relationship or not? Nobody knows, and in an unsynthesised world of actual, unpredictable interactions, isn’t that the whole point?
Black Mirror Season 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.