Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4's "Hang The DJ."
The title is a reference to a lyric in the song "Panic" by The Smiths, and if you've ever been near an online dating app, you'll know why. This. Feels. All. Too. Real.
Let's start with the basics: The episode opens with a couple having dinner after being set up online. (So far, so normal.) Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) both have a handheld device that tells them where to go, what time to meet, and who they'll be seeing that night. As an added bonus, it even orders for them, eliminating the awkward part of any first encounter where you're both staring at the menu wondering if it's weird to get chicken wings on a date. (Although, finding out, as Frank does, that he's a "fishcake dude" faced with "a pasta girl" is an unforeseen risk.)
As in any Black Mirror episode, there comes a moment that signals that we are not, in fact, in the late stages of 2017, but rather just far enough in the future for things to feel a touch beyond reach. In this case, that moment comes when both parties click on their device simultaneously, in order to unlock the timeframe that has been allotted to their date. In theory, you could be meeting the person you'll be spending the next 6 years of your life with. Frank and Amy, on the other hand, have only 12 hours before they go their separate ways.
The point of all this, it seems, is to find your perfect match. The app in question makes you cycle through people for varying lengths of time, until you are ready to meet the one you'll be spending your life with. On the surface, that sounds pretty good, right? No need to spend hours of your day swiping, no worries about dying alone — if you trust the system, it will deliver. (On the other hand, perhaps, as Amy suggests, the system is just wearing you down until you'll accept any old person — a feeling I often had when online dating in New York.)
The tragedy of this, of course, is that if you develop feelings for someone the app hasn't picked for you, you're toast. That's exactly what happens to Frank and Amy, who after their brief 12 hours together, are both set up in unhappy long term relationships, before being teased with a reunion that goes awry. (I won't spoil the details, but let's just say Frank is kind of a dummy.)
On the surface, none of this might sound remotely like "San Junipero," the breakout sensation from last season starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis as two women who fall in love in a beach town perpetually stuck in the 1980s. But as always with Black Mirror, the devil is in the details.
First off, both episodes feature an interracial couple living in some kind of enclosed environment. San Junipero, we found out, is actually a digital place where people who die can pay to live forever. The very ill can visit, but only once a week, and for 24 hours. In "Hang The DJ," those participating in the dating program appear to be living within a walled off city, complete with security guards who police who you spend your time with. (Major spoiler: that city is part of a digital simulation that leads you to your soulmate in the real world.)
The monotonous repetitiveness of the worlds the characters find themselves in is another theme the two episodes have in common. When we first meet Kelly (Gugu Mbatha Raw) in San Junipero, she's skipping from love affair to love affair in an effort to quell the boredom. The people who hang out at The Quagmire, that hellish club on the outskirts of town, are going to outrageous lengths just to feel something, anything. Compare that to Amy's series of app-prescribed one night stands that leave her so numb she feels her soul leave her body. In both cases, finding love is hell — until it's not.
"San Junipero" felt special because it represented a break from the bleak and dark universe Black Mirror had presented viewers with up to that point. With its pastels and neons, it inserted a healthy dose of optimism into a series that often threatens to spiral into despair. Maybe, it suggested, by way of Belinda Carlisle, heaven could be a place on Earth. (Fun fact: "San Junipero" also features a Smiths song, "Girlfriend In A Coma.")
Despite the similarities, "Hang the DJ" doesn't feel quite as ethereal as its predecessor. Both depend on the triumph of the human spirit over the setbacks of technology, a theme you'll find woven throughout season 4. But by bringing things back to reality somewhat, creator Charlie Brooker allows for a new kind of hope: Happy endings don't have to begin in death.