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…)