Hell is a system that pairs you with other people — except for when it works
Credit: Jonathan Prime / Netflix

Looks like Charlie Brooker’s also had some trouble getting over “San Junipero.” “Hang the DJ” shares plenty of DNA with last year’s breakout episode — there’s the star-crossed couple, the impossible parameters set around them, and the killer song, courtesy of The Smiths this time, playing over the final scene — but while I distinctly remember being entranced by the magic of Kelly and Yorkie’s story and by the neon-drenched world in which they lived, “Hang the DJ” left me with a very different feeling when the end credits appeared.

Don’t get me wrong, this hour’s still very much up there if I had to rank every Black Mirror episode — that A- is there for a long-winded reason, which I’ll go through at the end of this recap — but “Hang the DJ” felt more absurd, more sinister, and less optimistic and warm in its conclusion compared to “San Junipero.” If part of its DNA comes from everyone’s favorite episode of Black Mirror last year, the rest of it comes from The Lobster and, I think, season 1’s “15 Million Merits.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Hang the DJ” is, in essence, Brooker’s take on the tyranny of decisions that plagues dating app culture, told through the eyes of a couple new to “the system,” a program fed through a device referred to as “Coach,” which partners individuals with others to gauge how they interact as romantic partners. Unlike dating apps, though, Coach sets certain parameters for these matches: They have to stay together for a predetermined amount of time, with an expiration date the partners have to look up together, and live together in system-mandated living quarters until the period is up — or else. It’s a way to remove the uncertainty of real-life romance, where no one knows how long a relationship will last, and a way to avoid messy breakups. Plus, everything’s recorded, and each user’s experiences will only help the system match them with their perfect partner on “Pairing Day”! Finding The One is so easy when rules are in place!

Or not. When Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) meet, they fall for each other instantly, only to realize that their relationship is set to expire in 12 hours. And so they speed through their adorable date instead: Because both are newbies to the whole thing, they bumble their way through dinner — Frank glances over at a guard when he’s unsure of whether they’re allowed to share food — and stumble toward their assigned living quarters, gawking at the massive complex at which they’ve arrived. There’s a little hesitant back-and-forth about whether they’re supposed to sleep together — both ask Coach, who tells them it’s up to them — and then they agree to spend the night in the same bed, but not, you know, “go at it.” What happens instead is perhaps even sweeter: After ruminating on how wonderful it is to have the system in place, Amy reaches out for Frank’s hand, and he grasps it, and they smile as the camera lingers over their faces.

The next morning, they thank each other for being each other’s firsts, Amy gets in one last playful jab, Frank hangs on to her hand just a bit as she walks away, and then they go their separate ways. It’s cute and charming and utterly frustrating to see these two crazy kids go crazy as they’re kept apart, which is what the episode spends the next act doing.

Both of them get paired instantly with other partners, both for much longer terms. Amy likes hers, a handsome man named Lenny who’s been through five previous relationships already; Frank despises his, an uptight woman named Nicola who speaks to him passive aggressively, disapproves of him “making jokes,” and criticizes his technique during sex.

Eventually, Frank and Amy cross paths again, at a celebration during which a couple touts the merits of the system that as paired them up, emphasizing how it has a 99.8 percent success rate. They greet each other like old friends, Frank nearly choking as she comes up to him, and Amy giving him a playful kick in the shin. When Lenny comes to take her away, Amy looks back at the tortured Frank, who’s left to wait for Nicola to spite him again. That night, Amy thinks of Frank and reaches out for Lenny’s hand. He interprets that as her wanting him, but she ends up annoyed after hearing him make a rather loud sighing sound after pleasuring her, and, well, now she can’t stop hearing him make the same noise when he takes a sip of water. And as time passes, Amy begins growing bored of Lenny, despite his looks. Eventually they don’t speak, until it’s time to part and she cheerfully says goodbye.

Time’s also up, finally, for Frank and Nicola, who stand far, far apart as they wait for their seconds to expire, before Nicola hurries off without letting him say another word to her. Frank complains to the system, saying that all he really learned from that experience was how to live with someone he hates, but the system offers little comfort, telling him that “everything happens for a reason.” (Oh, so the system is that one friend who only speaks in cliches, and is useless when it comes to wallowing post breakup. Got it.)

Good thing Frank gets set up immediately on another date. (Thanks, Coach!) Amy does as well — and it turns out they’ve been matched again. For Amy, it’s been the latest date in a string of dates that have had 36-hour runs, pseudo one-night stands that have made her somewhat numb to romance. But here, the two strike up a conversation as if no time has passed, and for Amy, having someone she can really connect with thrills her. She asks Frank if it’s okay for them not to check their expiration date. That way, they can live without knowing just how long this will last, and spend time together without that hanging over their heads. He agrees. After all, it’s enough to see her again. For now. (Next: Curiosity killed the Coach…)

Frank and Amy can’t keep their hands off each other their first night together. (They’re so delightful, I smiled through all of these scenes, almost forgetting I was watching Black Mirror and something bad was bound to happen.) During the day, they talk about the system. She questions how people could possibly know they’re perfect matches. What if the system has just been convincing them they’re perfect because it’s worn them down? He’s more optimistic, saying that the system is more sophisticated than they think, and that with the complex profile it creates for you, it’s possible that it can understand how you feel better than you do. She smiles, teasing him about how he’ll try to convince her it’s all a simulation next.

Who knows? What they know right now is that they’re perfect for each other. Only thing is, Frank’s begun to wonder about their expiration date. It’s clear that it’s not because he’s eager for them to end; he’s perhaps worried that it’ll be soon, and perhaps just too curious to let it go. (After all, he’s never been through a half dozen partners, each more mind-numbing than the last.) One night, he picks up his device, overrides its mechanism that calls for both partners activating the expiration date at the same time, and presses his by himself. The date shows: It’s five years, which means plenty of time together.

But then… his device starts recalibrating. Now it’s three years. Then 18 months. Then five days. And finally, to 20 hours. With tears in his eyes, Frank panics, asking Coach to reverse the recalibration, but the system coolly responds that because he carried on a one-sided observation, he’s destabilized the date. It’s a cruel — but realistic — feature to the system in which expiration dates cannot change once shortened because of a breach in trust.

When Amy wakes up, she notices Frank’s discomfort. Eventually, he tells her — they have only one hour left, and he was the one who screwed it all up. He pleads with her to go with him and rebel, just climb over “the wall” and leave it all behind for the wilderness or whatever’s outside. She refuses, angry at him not for shortening their time together, but for going behind her back in the first place when they had agreed never to look at their expiration date.

And so, once again, they both move on. But this time, they’re both much more dismayed with the system. Frank tries to take it out on his device, but all it does it spew cliches again, and set him up on further pairings, including one during which Frank can’t stop talking about Amy. He and his partner even agree to think of their exes while in bed together. And Amy, meanwhile, starts having an out-of-body experience as she watches her numerous partners come and go — until one day, she skips stones and notices, again, how she never achieves more than four skips. Is it her technique? Or is there something else to where she is?

Eventually, she’s told by her Coach that her Pairing Day has arrived, and that she’ll be paired with her ultimate match the next day, someone she’s never met. The system gives her a farewell day with someone of her choosing — she chooses Frank immediately — and they’re set up on one more date.

Seeing Frank at their old booth, Amy rushes into his arms and tells him what she’s realized after weeks apart: She can’t remember where she was before she arrived here, to this place with this system, and neither can he. There is indeed something off about where they are, about what they’re doing — and she proves it when she convinces him to leave with her and then disables a guard’s taser simply by putting her hand against it. Everything freezes around them as the simulation they’re inside disables, having shown its hand.

And with that, they rush outdoors, reach the wall, and begin to climb. As they climb, the lights go out underneath, the simulation ends, and they see, across this dimension they’re inside, all the previous versions of themselves that have found each other. And then they disappear, each of them floating up to a massive green circle above them, listing one statistic: That out of 1000 simulations, 998 rebellions were logged, making it a 99.8 percent match.

The camera then floats right past this eerie, strange space and right past a black mirror — the screen of a phone or mobile device that Amy, looking slightly different from the polished Amy of the simulation, holds. On it is a picture of Frank, her match, and as she looks across the bar she’s in, she spots him. They seem to know each other already, as they smile at each other but don’t offer greetings. As The Smiths’ “Panic” plays in the bar, Amy grins at Frank and then makes her way toward her.

The episode ends there, but the questions don’t. Was this Brooker’s interpretation of what goes on inside a dating app? What was the real world? Should we even take the story of this at face value, that these characters were in a simulation that fed into an app that bled into the real world? How did they know each other? Did they, or am I applying my own bias to it all?

I like these questions. I like that they’re there, and that they yield something a little more…philosophical. It argues that The One does exist, that people are fated to find each other no matter the circumstances, that everything truly does happen for a reason. You can take that somewhat cynically, as I did at the start of this hour — predetermined partners feel less magical once you know they’re predetermined, or is that just me? — but maybe this, as Frank and Amy discuss early in the episode, is a relief. It must be nice to know that you’ve made the right “choice,” that you’re set for life, and that it was meant to be. That you don’t have to worry any more about the person you spend the rest of your life with.

But then, those are just my (very rambly, I apologize) thoughts on the idea of the simulation feeding into the real world. The episode ends just as the real world — or what I interpret to be the real world — begins. We never see how their true relationship plays out. We never see if Frank and Amy have free will in the real world, or if the world they’re living in has already been decided by the app, whether the app has any bearing on what happens at all, whether they’ll reach a happy ending after all. Is the ultimate message of this episode that apps believe in destiny as measured by quantifiable factors an unfeeling system can understand, while real human beings can choose to act how they will? Yet in the end, the app’s already affected both Frank and Amy: They’ve now met, and they know how well they were matched.

My point is, I like Black Mirror best at its thought exercise-iest like this. It’s Charlie Brooker advocating for dating apps yet arguing against it at the same time by pointing out how a relationship like this one has already started off artificially. There’s no solid answer given, just a piece of it.

Of course, my read on all of this could be completely wrong. I could be overthinking the entire third act. I could be the exact right audience for this installment, as someone who’s always been too wary of dating apps to use one seriously. But even if I were to take this episode simply on face value, I’d say it’s impressed me solely on the performances from Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, both of whom I hope break out with stellar careers after this in the vein of former Black Mirror standouts. It’s an episode that left me with questions I’m happy to ponder, and I think that’s enough.

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