Black Mirror: 404 “Hang the DJ” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Black Mirror can be an unrelentingly grim show to watch, shaking us to our core regarding how technology brings out the worst in us. Yet, Black Mirror is changing as a show; San Junipero last season was a glimmer of hope in a world resigned without it, and USS Callister early this season continues to show how the definition of what the show can be is adapting, perhaps to a world that is maybe too oppressively upsetting to endure the blackest Black Mirror can throw at us constantly. Enter the fourth episode of Season 4, Hang the DJ, as the show takes on love and destiny once more, alongside something truly terrifying- Tinder, and online dating in general.
Online dating is, for many, a lost cause. Upload the best profile picture you have, write a description that makes you sound interesting enough to make conversation with someone and not just appearing sociopathic or just a really big fan of coffee, before waiting at the mercy of some algorithm to try and match you up. Given all this struggle in an impatient world, it’s no surprise that the future technology of Hang the DJ is perhaps the most understandable the show’s produced. In this world, relationships are all under the stewardship of the “System”, as you’re consistently matched with different folk with whom your time together might last twelve hours stretching to years, before being rewarded with your “perfect match”. Ideal, right, in such an uneasy dating scene? It certainly seems to take away the fruitless nature and self-blame of wasted relationships.
The couple we focus on here are Peaky Blinders and Green Room’s Joe Cole and Murdered by My Boyfriend and Broadchurch’s Georgina Campbell, by the names of Frank and Amy, who meet in a swanky restaurant with all the natural awkward first interactions. As individuals, we get a sense of their characters within moments of meeting them- Frank’s opening lonely walk through the forest and chattering couples speaks volumes as a visual, while Amy is flustered by the whole occasion, both brand new to this game.
Frank and Amy are whisked off after dinner to a log cabin in which they’re clearly expected to have sex- oh look, a roaring fire! You realise soon that the area that Frank and Amy live in *all* looks like this, with a consistent squeaky-clean unoriginality, everywhere looking fresh out of a premium furniture catalogue (“Nice lamp” quips Amy) which allows immediate credit for veteran television director Tim van Patten (Game of Thrones, The Sopranos) and the production team for crafting such an inspired world.
From here, Hang the DJ unravels in fascinating fashion, showing how these two newbies to the System are reacting to this, both once inside the cabin instantly consulting “Coach”- the device that they speak to the System through- their childlike nerves shining through. The primarily interesting facet here is how close it is to reality here- is this so different to, say, Googling to the extreme? That thought only increases as they both wonder what people “do” in the time spent together. Maybe navigating the dating scene isn’t too different after all here.
The insights into this world Charlie Brooker crafts are affecting from their first meeting as a couple, as they ponder that the System makes dating “so much simpler”- beforehand it must’ve been “option paralysis”. What makes it so touching though is how clearly they’re searching for that deeper connection, that they’ve put so much faith in all this, as they eschew sex instead favouring a chat and holding hands. In the morning, they thank one another for “being my first” and there’s an instant feeling of how this world is so purely wrong, their chemistry broken apart by a chime and a timer. It reflects how often many of us want to discover more about someone, yet circumstance prevents it.
If your story is going to revolve around themes of love and relationships, it’s vital to have actors who have great chemistry, and Cole and Campbell are wonderfully endearing together from the off, clearly showing a potential compatibility with similar humour and personalities. It makes the events that transpire even more unfortunate, making you root for them for the duration, and shows off the absurdity of the System. Watching the inner workings of it is like watching a less bleak version of The Lobster (except no, you know, turning into animals), a world so committed to believing in it that they put themselves through relationships they clearly don’t want to be involved in.
That obvious compatibility, playful back and forth jabs and all, makes the contrast of their next relationships exceedingly bleak to sit through, even while being very funny. Amy is paired up with a new partner with striking good looks called Lenny (Vikings’ George Blagden) who is experienced at all this while Amy remains nervous, while Frank is painfully paired up with Nicole (Wasted’s Gwyneth Keyworth) who contrasts with Frank in hilariously awful fashion, judging him for being a man “that makes jokes”. Hang the DJ at times is the funniest Black Mirror has ever been, a true farce of the dating scene at times- the back and forth scene of Frank and Amy having sex with their new partners, with Amy’s seeming sultry and brightly lit matched with Frank’s cold, uncomfortable copulation (“Bit of motion!” shrieks Nicola).
The absurdity of the System is never more pointed than when our protagonists attend the wedding of a perfect match, as the watching crowd applaud as the newlyweds proclaim themselves best in show and make barking noises. The brief encounter Frank and Amy share at the buffet is stronger evidence of their natural bond, making the ludicrous nature of their current relationships more pointed. Their relationships do turn eventually sour (all predicted by the almighty System), and the reluctance with which Amy takes Lenny’s hand after they have sex further down the line practically makes us demand payoff between her and Frank. The brief spark Amy and Lenny had fizzes out rapidly, and Frank and Nicola can’t get away quick enough at the end of their time. They’re outcomes many of us relate to.
Hang the DJ takes more disheartening turns from there in our quest to see Frank and Amy together, especially for poor Amy, repetitively moving through thirty-six hour flings as boring as a meeting, some ending with a handshake. The scene with Amy as we see the myriad of random men (and a woman!) moving through her life as she looks trapped in a blank, passive void, strikes close to home. It makes the next “break” of Frank and Amy heart-wrenching. The second time they’re together, they’re more weathered, with more in common to chat, and the second time they hold hands it’s a knowing, firmer hold. They wax lyrical of the lies of the System, Frank exposing that the truth of relationships is maybe one day you settle with the offering you’re given (“Bleakest thing I’ve ever heard” says Amy). As Frank watches Amy sleep, the look in his eyes is one of someone desperate to stay right where they are.
The System does drag them apart again, yet it was the most human aspect of all that caused the “recalibration” of their relationship to just twenty hours. Frank wanted that safety and reassurance that their relationship would last, but in that he breached Amy’s trust. Coach is uncaring and inhuman as he cries. “Everything happens for a reason” it bleats, something many people have been told by their friends after a break-up. The moment Amy discovers Frank’s actions is one Black Mirror’s most moving scenes, with the other couples burning holes with their stares, both sides sympathetic. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it would only dissolve further from here. The sex scene between Frank and a new partner when they both ask to think about the people they really care about during it reveals the darkly comic reality of the situation.
How refreshing then, that Hang the DJ chooses to be a story about transcending your given destiny, to be with the one you were always meant to be. As Amy chooses Frank instantly when given the chance to speak to someone else before being matched with her perfect partner, the relief is palpable as they rebel against the System, Amy convinced it’s all a test, like a real relationship, trials and tribulations included. So, they run off, caring only about their own passions and love, grasping the chance with two held hands, System be damned. As they escape over the wall to the incredible soundtrack by Sigor Ros and Alex Sommers (which is ethereal throughout), the twist is outed that this Frank and Amy are just one of a thousand simulations, designed to test the compatibility of them together in reality. Cut back to the real world in a dirty, real pub (how fantastic is the costume and art direction here and indeed throughout, but here particularly to show off their true individuality?) and the real Amy and Frank share a mischievous glance with Panic blaring. Beautiful!
Hang the DJ achieves that rarest Black Mirror feeling- irrepressible happiness. Sometimes, the future might just be alright after all. It’s not San Junipero, but it doesn’t have to be- Hang the DJ stands on its own two feet as something very special of its own. It wants to tell us that there’s an inevitability of relationships, that it’s very often trial and error like a simulation, and love is what you make it. The technology here is put to good use, or at least more use than the plethora of depressing uses seen elsewhere in the show. You could argue that like San Junipero there’s a sinister reading of it all- did these rebelling people lose to the system, as they dragged Frank and Amy together in real life, essentially giving the System the win? To me, all it did was pair them. The rest though, is all up to them. Most importantly, it gave them a chance.