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By Finding its Heart, BLACK MIRROR Delivers Its Best Episode with “Hang the DJ”

By Finding its Heart, BLACK MIRROR Delivers Its Best Episode with “Hang the DJ”

It feels strange to want hope from Black Mirror. It’s like asking a rabid porcupine for a hug. Maybe it’s because the light is brighter through the darkness, or because science fiction shouldn’t solely serve the bleak, but the unabashedly romantic, thoroughly not on brand “Hang the DJ” is the best episode in the series’ history.

Does that somehow betray the show’s original nature? That’s hard to know. What’s clear is that after setting the stage with the near-perfect “San Junipero” last season, Charlie Brooker and company opened the door to the phenomenal storytelling of this episode about love, rebellion, and the algorithms inside our dating apps.

That begins with the most intriguing introduction of any episode, or at least one that feels like a full meal prepping us for a long journey. We meet Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), as well as a mystery dating system with security guard muscle enforcing its parameters. They’re both first-timers to the algorithm that gives you your soulmate 99.8% of the time, and their blend of natural charisma and organic awkwardness signals that they’re at the center of a romantic comedy–which is probably the most dangerous place to be in the Black Mirror universe.

The magic of this Smiths-referencing episode is that it manages to put the pair through the ringer while leaning heavily on its science fiction conceit and encapsulating the exhaustion, pitfalls, and apexes of all the thousands of emotions dating brings. What’s more, it raises a slew of questions about what romance might be like under the guidance of the electronic system they call Coach.

Within the universe of the initial set up, Coach’s system is a high tech arranged marriage meant to remove the Option Paralysis that plagues the wide open field of dating. But the method means potentially living through a long string of meaningless booty calls (as Amy does) or a year-long stint with someone who hates your guts from the first minute on (as Frank does). They both lament on their first dinner that dating the old way must have been exhausting, but Coach’s plan is pretty exhausting, too, and the mantra it spits out when you question things is that old chestnut about everything happening for a reason. There aren’t plenty of fish in the sea. There’s one right one, and Coach can find it if you have faith.

The underlying alteration is knowing from the outset how long a relationship will last. How would that change your behavior and value system? Wouldn’t everything–not just sex, but empathy and inside jokes–be transactional? Seeing that Frank will have to spend a full year with a woman who loathes him is shocking, but many of us have spent far too long with the wrong person without taser-armed guards watching our every move. Relationship inertia. What would we have thought if someone had told us at the beginning how long it would last? If it were only a few hours, what would we have tried to get out of the deal? If it were a year? At the end of his ordeal, Frank still tries to be polite. By the end of hers, Amy is numb.

The sci-fi element injects these questions into the process, but it also demands an adherence to a system meant to bring us the ideal partner in the same way dozens of real-world dating apps and programs and family members promise. In the depths of mistrust, particularly when Amy has her out of body experiences and when Frank despairs over ruining his second, years-long chance with her, it’s unclear how Coach defines “ideal.” Throughout all of it, Frank and Amy get doses of every overarching emotional state. Passion, humor, loss, annoyances (“Ahhh…..”), and the concept of settling. There’s also self-sabotage, asymmetrical feelings and worries, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of loving more than you’re loved, and the fear of attaining the perfect relationship because you’ll ruin it.

Frank watching their official time together plummet from five years to a day because he was too insecure to avoid looking? Devastating. We’ve all felt the invisible countdown clock hanging above our relationships dwindle because of something we said or did. Something we didn’t mean. Something we immediately wanted to take back.

Like a sci-fi High Fidelity, “Hang the DJ” slides all of these concepts into Frank and Amy’s encounters with incredible skill, capturing and being buoyed by the complexities of smashing two human beings together. It helps that we get to see dozens and dozens of relationships play out as we wait to see how they’ll get back together. It also helps that Cole and Campbell are delightful together. Their instant chemistry establishes them as the axis this planet rotates around regardless of who Coach puts them with next.

The mystery of why armed guards are enforcing a dating program looms large over all of it, but the first thing that really made Coach’s system seem fishy is how it puts old flames into contact with one another. Seems like a bug instead of a feature. When Frank and Amy, each with a new relationship, meet up at the pairing ceremony for the “Best in Show” couple, it’s as if the system itself is daring them to buck the system. Surely a perfect algorithm wouldn’t allow people to have serious lingering doubts.

Of course, by the end it’s clear that the system is designed to giver Frank and Amy every opportunity to crash the gate and be together. The revelation of reality at the end is a beautiful surprise. Even knowing that rebelling is what they’re meant to do, their ultimate fate is a mystery right up until the data points all align on Real Frank’s cell phone.

That look across the room. The Smith’s “Panic” hanging care free in the air. Somehow, someway, the master of pitch dark nihilism has crafted one of the best romantic stories in modern memory.

Black Mirror Joy-Binge Discussion Questions:

  1. Is having a computer tell you who you should date all that different from how it’s done today?
  2. If there was a dating program like this that promised an ideal mate if you obeyed it completely, would you sign up for it?
  3. But seriously, if you knew how long a relationship was going to last from the first moment, would you feel more or less free to be yourself?

Images: Netflix

Read more of our recaps for Black Mirror season four!

Images: Netflix

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