Jonathan Prime / Netflix
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TV Show
S4 E4
December 29, 2017 at 02:00 PM EST

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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