Most relationships have expiry dates written on them. Some you see right away, and others reveal themselves over time.
It is a weird and sometimes alienating concept you get yourself into in your twenties — where you learn that the hyper-real world of happy endings and lucky coincidences you’ve been showered by television series and movies might not be all that true, and that people break: sometimes with a mature talk, sometimes in the messiest way possible; sometimes they are one sided, and in other times no conversation is needed. After a little time, you start to think of the probable outcome that you’re going to be alone all your life, but you keep hanging in there, in hopes of meeting the one that will make all those that came before just a worn out memory. You go on Tinder, you go on Grindr, you go on Bumble; you meet people in bars, via friends-of-friends, you answer quick quizzes on dating sites and write about youself, link your social media accounts. One reason behind this is that, along with wanting to expand your chances of finding that one — you also want to speed up the process. In the end, nobody is that in favour of going to a blind date and find out the person you’re meeting with is just not your type: we are busy people, living in a busy world.
But what if there was a Tinder that promised you that it would find your “the one”, 99.8% percent of the time? What if it advertised that every blind date you go on, every interaction you have, is just another piece of data it needs so that it can pair you up your perfect match? Would you trust it blindly, in this age of information? Would you trust it when it says that you have only a week to spend with someone you really like, and a year with someone you really don’t? Or would you rebel, and go with the possibility of human mistake rather than the mechanized coding of machinery and control?
In the fourth installment of its fourth season, “Hang The DJ”, Netflix’s dystopian TV series Black Mirror asks this question, but doesn’t let you have the answer, at least not a direct one. The episode starts with a seemingly usual meeting with two young, conventionally attractive people: Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), and plays its first ten minutes how one would expect a romantic comedy from the 2000s to do: a fast paced montage of bad jokes and nervous laughters that doesn’t let the viewer breathe or question what is going on, throwing them right into the chaotic nature of meeting someone for the first time and seeing that spark. For a moment, you forget to focus on the little glitches — you don’t think to ask yourself why would someone need to ask a disc-formed AI the face of the man she is going to meet, or how would the restaurant they’re meeting have their dinners already ready; or why would sharing your food with your partner be something you’re not supposed to do, as pointed out by the wary look Frank has in his eyes after glancing at the suited man behind him for a second — and it all seems too good to be real, until it doesn’t, of course.
The kick of the story, that one thing that is going to make this exceedingly familiar concept have that unique Black Mirror atmosphere, reveals itself rather slowly. Frank and Amy, who are both first timers, curiously bring their discs — “coaches”, they are called, by the way — and check their expiry date. The machine answers with a simple answer of twelve hours. They look surprised, even sad, a bit; but there are no questions asked. They just follow what they are told, finish their dinner, hop on the transit assigned to them, lay next to each other on a bed with their fingers touching, and say their farewells to each other. Less then a day later, there are new people to meet for them; new dinners to be had, and new deadlines to be met. This is not the exception, but rather the usual, we see.
Here, the world seems to be a place where there is a “system” that matches people together for various amounts of time that is also picked up by the coding, until it gives them the one that they will spend their whole life, in a desirable happily ever after scenario. It chooses where you’ll meet for dinner, what you’ll eat for dinner, where you’ll sleep (or do whatever you want to do) with each other for the estimated duration, even how you are going to transport from one place to another. Your coaches seem to be your Siris, your best friends, your relationship counsellors; they comfort you, answering your questions and brushing away your suspicions about the process.
The system only wants to you to follow its rules, in compensation for the true love it offers – that you end the relationship when it tells you so. “Failure to comply with the System’s design,” your coach warns, “will result in banishment.”
After they go on their separate ways, Frank and Amy find themselves in long-term relationships (one year for one, seven months for the other). Frank hates his new partner quickly, just as she hates him, and Amy thinks that hers can work very well, as he is a handsome man who seems to be stable and cool. But then again, just as in real life, first dates are only the appetisers in relationships and sometimes, the main course can be the worst even if the restaurant is great. Right that second, the mirror reflects on you, as you watch unhappy people witness the celebrations of happy people who assure them on the success of the program. You worry about your own life, your own future, your own loneliness — just as they do. The difference here is that they’re stuck between two options; following their hearts or following the formula that looks to be pretty triumphant for its users, and you are not. Which one of you is the luckier one, well, that is a question for you to answer.
“Hang The DJ” is one of the better episodes of the anthology series, not because of how scary it is, it must be said, but because of how relatable it is. In a sense, it forces you to live in that seemingly very possible reality for an hour, and until the twist at the end, it does a pretty good job of leaving you on the crossroads about which option is the right one. In the end, there is no proof of whether you would be good for each other with one person even if you’re liking each other very much right now — because as much as we try to ignore it, the truth is that relationships rely much more on the compatibility between two people than the emotional connection between them. Feelings are temporary, unlike congruity; and congruity can be calculated, unlike feelings.
The message and the argument raised is very clear, although still nuanced and sublime in many ways. Not only does this episode ask, in this day of technology, whether or not the human race would give up their free will on the matter of interpersonal relationships with the promise of not dealing with too many possibilities – it also gives perspective on a larger and, according to some, much more imminent dilemma that we are nearing to face: the likeness between a source code and the thought process of humans. Can a machine make better decisions than you, for you, if you provide it with enough information about youself and your habits?
It is a loaded question, one that also gifts the Black Mirror a chance to what it does best and examine the societal anxiety we as a generation find ourselves in against the unstoppable growth of technology and its invasion of our daily lives. For instance, system’s decision to decrease the time-span that Amy and Frank were to have in their second match seems to be the right one now, when looked from afar, as it is based on a mistake — and a big one — on Frank’s side; but this doesn’t make their break up any easier. Amy still loves him, maybe against her better judgement, and he loves her too. So again, the question is there, is it better to follow your logic or follow your heart? Should you choose what makes you happy, or what someone that knows you very well — maybe even better than yourself — deems right? Is it possible to go against the code and still be right?
Then, the twist happens and it is ruined. Because, in my humble opinion, the question is the important thing in this scenario, not the answer. Although it is still a warm and lovely ending for the story and the characters, the finish line takes away the element that makes Black Mirror special, it takes away the eerie feeling of the dilemma the series usually examines you with. And I know that this episode probably ends in the way it ends because of how much people liked tone of the Season 3’s excellent and heart-breaking “San Junipero”, but sadly, “Hang The DJ” has neither the emotional weight its predecessor has to do something like this, nor the purpose narrative-wise.
Still, the episode is a good one — a great one if you cut out the last five minutes, which is what I am going to do for my rewatches — and the anonymous setting of muted colours and nameless streets that director Van Patten presents us with does a wonderful work of swallowing the viewer into a world of static realism. Paired up with the close-ups, angles and the quick focus changes, the neutrality of the scenery makes the whole thing seem like a game, a ‘catch me if you can’ type of play that you can do nothing about but to watch with popcorn right beside you. Cole and Campbell are great, especially in their scenes together, and you can clearly see that they’re having fun working with each other. Thanks to them, the episode sometimes has the chance to find humour in its dystopic nature — something that a lot of other episodes of the series seem too self-righteous to do so.
“Hang The DJ” has some great questions in it, along with a suspenseful scenario and wonderful actors, tied up in an excitingly reflective concept (because, you know, worrying about your love life is a lot more relatable than what they do in “Shut Up and Dance”) and its only striking problem is the ending. Too bad that this is the last taste the viewer gets to keep from it.