“Hang the DJ” from Black Mirror‘s fourth season is one of the standouts not only because of the story but because it is one of the rare episodes that ends happily. Except it doesn’t end happily. Instead, “Hang the DJ” ends with a suggestion that a disaster has taken place, one we are blithely ignoring. The world portrayed in “Hang the DJ” is more disturbing than in other episodes, mainly because it seems possible.
“Hang the DJ” is about Amy, a woman using The System to find her near-perfect match, her Ultimate Compatible Other. Along with other singles, Amy carries her Coach with her, a disc-shaped device that advises her on what to do and gathers information from Amy’s dates to find her perfect match.
The second lead is Frank, the man who Amy meets on her (and his) first date in the restaurant at the Hub, the central place where singles meet for dates before being taken by driverless car to a house to live in until their date finishes. Each date only lasts a specified amount of time — Amy and Frank’s first date lasts 12 hours — and then each person goes their separate way until Coach tells them about their next date.
Amy and Frank have chemistry from the start, illustrated most clearly by Amy joking about shitting herself. I’ve never let myself be vulnerable enough to anyone to joke about shitting myself. The eat quickly and go to the house and they don’t know what to do so they lay in bed on top of the covers and Amy takes Frank’s hand and he holds it back, and Amy can relax. They both regret that the date ends so quickly but they both hope to see each other again.
And they do see each other again, Amy with Lenny (“ahhh!”) her next relationship scheduled to last nine months, and Frank with Nicola, Not His Ultimate Compatible Other, with whom he is to spend one year. Amy and Frank’s chemistry is still there, but there is nothing they can do.
After Frank and Nicola are done, Amy and Frank have their second date. It is a relief to both, and the sweet hand-holding of the first date is replaced by the sweet sex that both have been thinking of since the end of the first date when Amy told Frank that he could totally get it. Amy and Frank decide not to look at the Expiry Date and just take it as it comes, stay present.
Everything is great, better than great even, but Frank needs to know when it will end. Eventually he looks at the date on his own and by not looking at it with Amy it destabilizes the relationship from five years to twenty hours. Frank can no longer enjoy himself and finally Amy gets him to confess. She angry because he broke their agreement, and she leaves the Hub without him.
Subsequent relationships for Amy are unsatisfying, conveyed in a brilliant montage of an expressionless Amy standing in the bedroom while a series of dates are shown. She is, as she described to Frank on their second date, detached. Already Amy feels like something is off. Every time she skips rocks it skips four times, no more, no less. During their second date Amy theorizes that the System is set up just to wear you down until you are ready to accept the person designated as your perfect match. (In a rare bit of insight, Frank suggests maybe it’s all a simulation.)
Finally Coach tells Amy that her Pairing Day is tomorrow, but before then she can have an optional Farewell Period with a person of her choosing and of course it’s Frank, a date at the usual time and place. And now Amy is sure that it’s all a test. She asks Coach to count to four and skips the device across the pool. At the Hub Amy convinces Frank to fuck it all and leave, and she faces down a man with a taser. Everyone freezes and Amy and Frank run away and start climbing the ladder to escape and…
And it’s all a simulation, another simulation, number 1000 to be exact, and the 998th time that Amy and Frank have rebelled. That data is collated and back in the real world Amy looks at her dating device and sees Frank’s picture with 99.8% on it and Frank across the bar sees Amy’s picture. Amy and Frank then see each other across the bar as “Panic” by the Smiths plays and it’s all great, right? Except it’s not. For a split second, between smiles, you can see uncertainty on Amy’s face. She is likely about to meet her true love. What could be wrong?
On their first date, Amy and Frank talk about how awful dating used to be, how terrible it was trying to figure out how to break up with someone. And it’s true, dating can be awful. Bad dates can make you question your judgment and your self-worth. Bad relationships can make you feel a sense of loss as much as can a death. And there are no guarantees we ever find the Ultimate Compatible Other because we are aware we only get once shot at this, aware that we all have an unknown Expiry Date.
I wouldn’t trade one broken heart or one shitty date or one unrequited crush. I wouldn’t trade 99.8% certainty for the tightrope of being too much and too little of myself, between behaving that it doesn’t matter how it works out and asking a person to love me. Sure, the alternative is maybe years of genuine happiness but what does that mean if I’ve never been unhappy. And what about those moments of happiness before they gave way to unhappiness?
Am I reading too much into a fleeting expression on Amy’s face? Maybe, but consider “Panic” by the Smiths. Sure, maybe it was chosen because The Smiths are awesome and “How Soon Is Now?” is too on the nose. But “Panic” was written after Chernobyl, inspired by a possibly apocryphal story of a DJ announcing the terrible news, and then immediately playing a pop song. (“I’m Your Man” by Wham!, also on the nose.) “Panic” makes sense for this episode because the disaster that has happened is that the mystery of romance is dead, at least for our non-virtual selves, and our response is to happily ignore it.