It’s an understatement to say that romance took a beating this year. From the inauguration of a president who has confessed on tape to sexual predation, to the explosion of harassment and assault allegations that began this fall, women’s confidence in men has reached unprecedented lows—which poses a not-insignificant issue among those who date them. Not that things were all that much better in 2016, or the year before that; Gamergate and the wave of campus assault reporting in recent years certainly didn’t get many women in the mood, either. In fact, the past five or so years of dating men might best be described by involved parties as bleak.
It’s into this landscape that dystopian anthology series Black Mirror has dropped its fourth season. Among its six episodes, which hit Netflix on Friday, is “Hang the DJ,” a heartbreaking hour that explores the emotional and technological limits of dating apps, and in doing so perfectly captures the modern desperation of trusting algorithms to find us love—and, in fact, of dating in this era at all.
(Spoiler alert: major spoilers for the *Black Mirror8 episode “Hang the DJ” follow.)
The story follows Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell), millennials navigating an opaque, AI-powered dating program they call “the System.” With disc-like smart devices, or “Coaches,” the antiseptically calculating System leads participants through mandatory relationships of varying durations in an enclosed campus, assuaging doubts with the cool assurance that it’s all for love: every assignment helps provide its algorithm with enough meaningful data to eventually pair you, at 99.8% accuracy, with “your perfect match.”
The System designs and facilitates every encounter, from pre-ordering meals to hailing autonomous shuttles that carry each couple to a tiny-house suite, where they must cohabit until their “expiry date,” a predetermined time at which the relationship will end. (Failure to comply with the System’s design, your Coach warns, will result in banishment.) Participants are encouraged to check a relationship’s expiry date together, but beyond remaining together until that time, are free to behave naturally—or as naturally as possible, given the suffocating circumstances.
Frank and Amy’s chemistry on their first date is electric—awkward and sweet, it’s the kind of encounter one might hope for with a Tinder match—until they discover their relationship has a 12-hour shelf life. Palpably disappointed but obedient to the process, they part ways after a night spent holding hands on top of the covers. Alone, each wonders aloud to their coaches why such an obviously compatible match was cut short, but their discs assure them of the program’s accuracy (and apparent motto): “Everything happens for a reason.”
They spend the next year apart, in deeply unpleasant long-term relationships, and then, for Amy, through a parade of meaningless 36-hour hookups with handsome, boring men. Later she describes the experience, her frustration agonizingly familiar to today’s single women: “The System’s just bounced me from bloke to bloke, short fling after short fling. I know that they’re short flings, and they’re just meaningless, so I get really detached. It’s like I’m not really there.”
But then, miraculously, Frank and Amy match again, and this time they agree not to check their expiry date, to savor their time together. In their renewed partnership and blissful cohabitation, we glimpse both those infinitesimal sparks of hope and the relatable moments of digital desperation that keep us renewing Match.com accounts or restoring OkCupid profiles ad nauseam. With a Sigur Rós-esque score to rival Scandal’s soul-rending, almost abusive deployment of Album Leaf’s song “The Light,” the tenderness between them is enhanced, their delicate chemistry ever vulnerable to annihilation by algorithm.
Frank and Amy’s shared uncertainty about the System—Is this all a scam built to drive you to such madness that you’d accept anyone as your soulmate? Is this the Matrix? What does “ultimate match” even mean?—mirrors our own skepticism about our own proto-System, those costly online services whose big promises we must blindly trust to reap romantic success. Though their System is intentionally depressing for us as an audience, it’s marketed to them as a solution to the problems that plagued single people of yesteryear—that is, the problems that plague us, today. On the surface, the pair appreciates its simplicity, wondering how anyone could have lived with such guesswork and discomfort in the same way we marvel at how our grandmothers simply married the next-door neighbor’s kid at 18. (Frank does have a point about choice paralysis; it’s a legitimate, if recent, dating woe; the System’s customizable consent settings are also undeniably enviable.)
One night, an insecure Frank finally breaks and checks their countdown without telling Amy. 5 YEARS, the device reads, before loudly announcing he has “destabilized” the partnership and abruptly recalibrating, sending that duration plummeting, bottoming out at just a few hours. Amy is furious, both are bereft, but fear keeps them on course, off to another montage of hollow, depressing hookups; it isn’t until they’re offered a final goodbye before their “ultimate match” date that they finally decide they’d rather face banishment together than be apart again.
But when they escape, the world waiting for them isn’t a desolate wasteland. It’s the shocking truth: they have been in a Matrix, but are also part of it—one of precisely 1,000 Frank-and-Amy simulations that collate overhead to total 998 rebellions against the System. They are the dating app, one that has now alerted the real Frank and Amy, standing at opposite ends of a dark and crowded bar, to one another’s presence, and their 99.8% match compatibility. They smile, and the Smiths’ “Hang the DJ” plays them out over the pub’s speakers.
I’ll admit, as a single millennial particularly invested in speculative fiction ( and Black Mirror in particular), I may be too much the targeted audience for an episode like this. But as the credits rolled, even I was bewildered to find myself not just tearing up, but openly sobbing on my couch, in a manner I’d previously reserved only for Moana’s ghost grandma scene and the ending of Homeward Bound. Sure, I’d sniffled through last season’s Emmy-winning queer romance “San Junipero,” but who hadn’t? This, though, was new. This was 30+ minutes of unbridled ugly-crying. Something about this story had left me existentially upset.
Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, has explicitly stated that the series exists to unsettle, to examine the many ways in which human weakness has inspired and been inspired by modern technology, which has naturally required exploring modern romance. Since moving the show from the BBC’s Channel Four to Netflix, his satire has lightened somewhat, offering a few more bittersweet endings like those of last season’s “San Junipero” or “Nosedive,” but “Hang the DJ” is exceptional. It gives those of us still dating (and despairing) both the catharsis of recognition, of seeing our most miserable experiences reflected uncannily back to us, and the promise of a better future. For a moment at least, its final flourish gives audiences still stuck in a 2017 hellscape hope.
But again, as one of the first Black Mirror episodes of the Trump/Weinstein era, the story arrives during one of heterosexuality’s lowest polling moments in recent memory. Over the past few months, not a day has passed without yet another reminder of how unsafe it is simply to exist in public with men, working and socializing, let alone seeking out sexual or romantic relationships. Nearly every woman and non-binary person I know, married or single, straight or not, has reported a fundamentally negative shift in their relationships with men as a result of the events of this year, be it in pursuing new relationships or engaging with the ones they have.
Now take that bone-deep exhaustion and fury and sadness and pile it atop the already soul-deadening experience of swiping through Bumble, or spending countless hours with deeply uninteresting strangers in service of “being open-minded.” It makes the prospect of finding an equitable love, or even a satisfying lust, a laughable unlikelihood. How could even the best dating app algorithm today factor that in?
“Hang the DJ”’s twist is admittedly clever, and for a moment at least, that final flourish gives audiences like me, still stuck in a 2017 hellscape, a moment of respite. It turns our misery on its head, making our growing suspicion that algorithms may never be able to “solve” the perfectly human inconveniences of partnership without also eliminating human intuition and choice the solution rather than the problem—the app determines compatibility by observing our tendency toward resistance. It’s smart and even kind to promise those of us trying not to drown that there may be hope for love in such a dystopia as ours—and that that hope can exist somewhere between the 100% human and the 100% mathematical.
But the story’s optimistic conclusion can’t quite bury the despair encoded in its DNA. We’re able to bask in the joy of “San Junipero,” knowing that our own happily-ever-afterlife in the cloud could be possible, technologically speaking, by the time we’re old and decrepit. But the problems that “Hang the DJ”’s miraculous app may one day solve plague us now. The promise afforded Frank and Amy is generations away. If you’re a single adult today, any algorithm that truly could identify an ultimate match must be calculated manually, so go ahead and take the emotion and energy and years invested by our simulation Frank and Amy, then multiply that by 1,000. If simulation Amy was matched with 15 “haircuts” per simulation, then the problem of finding the real Amy a soulmate with 99.8% certainty required 15,000 hookups to solve; that’s not even taking into account variables like work or family, two crucial dimensions this simulation doesn’t appear to factor in.
Such a realization—that barring an extraordinary stroke of luck we’ll be stuck doing this kind of romantic longhand for the next few decades—strikes deep. It’s enough to make a person, well, cry.