Film & TV

Love through the Looking-Glass

Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole in “Hang the DJ” (Jonathan Prime/Netflix)
Hope for digital dating from one of the bleakest shows on Netflix

Is there anything better for a love story than obstruction? The unstoppable force versus the immovable object. The lovers, armed only with their destiny, arrayed against a powerful blockade — a difference in background, social disapproval, a familial objection, something that makes the union seem impossible. By asserting itself against that impossibility, their love proves its strength.

But in contemporary Western culture, with its energetic individualism and rapid erosion of traditions and social mores both good and bad, convincing external obstructions are hard to come by. So how to tell a compelling love story? How, especially, could one grow from the free-for-all meat-market of modern dating apps?

“Hang the DJ” is how. This episode from the fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror posits an app that ingeniously restores the insurmountable barrier while at the same time (to avoid spoilers, read no further) acting as the force of destiny itself.

Brooker’s dark and twisted commentaries on technology — the titular black mirror is the screen that reflects our worst selves back at us — are famous for their even darker, shock-twist endings. So perhaps the biggest twist of all came in the third season’s “San Junipero,” a love story with a happy, albeit not uncomplicated, ending. Brooker himself seemed surprised by the overwhelmingly warm reaction to it, and promised more such stories in the following season, also noting that they would be welcome since the outside world has become a darker place. “There’s a limit to how much constant nihilistic bleakness I can take,” he admitted.

True to his word, the new season features several satisfying carriages of justice, and another love story, told in “Hang the DJ.” Frank and Amy are new users of a dating app that will assign each of them a series of relationships of predetermined lengths, collecting data all the while, until one day pairing each of them with his or her “ultimate match,” a person deemed to be 99.8 percent compatible. Despite the very short duration of their first connection and the inherent awkwardness, Frank and Amy hit it off.

These sparks do not ignite in subsequent relationships, a mix of long, loveless slogs and brief flings that blur together. Any complaint to the app is met with the infuriating mantra, “Everything happens for a reason.” But then the pair are unexpectedly rematched, and their second chance is everything they could have hoped for. Alas, a misstep torpedoes the relationship and cuts it off prematurely. Within the confines of “the System,” there is no room for human forgiveness. The System is implacable. The System is control. The System is a robotic bureaucrat deciding matters of the heart without any sensitivity or feeling of its own. Frank and Amy’s longing for each other turns from what could have been to what was lost.

Throughout the story, they come up with several explanations for the structure of their world, which, strangely enough, are all true in their own way. First, like any dutiful dystopian, Amy reflects on how much worse it must have been before the System — it would have been bewildering for people to pick their own partners (this is often true), and breaking up on purpose sounds wretched (it is, though Frank and Amy’s own forced breakup turns out to be no better).

Later, her morale flagging, she speculates that the supposed intelligence of the System is all a ruse. “What if all it’s actually doing is gradually wearing us down, putting us in one relationship after another for random durations in a random sequence? Each time you get a little bit more pliable, a little bit more broken, until eventually it coughs up the final offering and says that’s the one. And by that point you are so defeated and so exhausted that you just accept it.” More than one tired veteran of modern dating apps has noted that this rings depressingly true to life.

Frank, deeming that “one of the bleakest things I’ve ever heard,” has a different theory: They’re stuck in a simulation. On a second viewing, it’s startling to see the twist given away so directly, but there it is. The day comes — months (years?) into their estrangement — when Amy is informed that her ultimate match has been selected, some new person she doesn’t know. She and Frank are allotted less than two minutes to reunite and say goodbye. In a streak of independence hinted at since they traded bites of dinner against regulation at their first encounter (as Vice has noted, the theme of the whole season is resistance), she begs him to run away together. When they do, they find themselves — surprise! — among 997 other copies of the same couple. Out of 1,000 digital simulations involving this pair, 998 of them resulted in rebellion, a romantic screw-it-all impulse to give up everything for true love. The test the System set for them was actually to disobey the System.

“Burn the disco, hang the DJ,” sing the Smiths in the real world, where the original Frank and Amy have yet to meet. Their own dating app, which ran the thousand star-crossed simulations, uses this information to announce a 99.8 percent-compatible match. Their eyes shyly find each other across a crowded bar. Cue the triumphant credits.

There are real obstacles to love that are not just social constructs, not least the astronomical improbability of meeting that one special person in the right place and time.

And yet, what will be this couple’s story? It’s hard to imagine they will have the same existential connection as their digital clones if they can just walk across the room and be together. They have no shared adventure or impossible victory, no sense of what they almost missed. The genius of the System is that it keeps people apart in order to bring them together, like The Tempest’s Prospero throwing obstacles in the path of Ferdinand and Miranda so their courtship will succeed: “This swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.”

This structure does not seem to exist out in the world for which it’s designed, though. Oddly, the digital alternates (which all go poof when the simulation completes) seem more human than their real-life counterparts. They are the ones who experienced heartbreak and longing. They are the ones we were rooting for. As annoying as it is to hear the app glibly regurgitate “everything happens for a reason” (nearly as awful as hearing the same in real-life response to a tragedy of one’s own), it’s true that their pain has real meaning and affects whom they become.

But it isn’t really the System that destines them for each other, anyway. It can give them a rough experience, but it can’t give them their intrinsic chemistry, something far outside the scope of computing even for digital lovers. Separation does not make them belong together; it just gives them gratitude for and clarity about it when they are.

We don’t really need vanishing mores to provide us with that, either. There are real obstacles to love that are not just social constructs, not least the astronomical improbability of meeting that one special person in the right place and time. And though we can’t check on it as they do in the show, even the most magical relationship has an “expiry” to it — the hardest limit of all, unseen but always ticking closer.

When Frank and Amy match the second time, she asks that they not check their expiry. She wants to enjoy the time they have together without the demoralizing knowledge of what is to come. She wants the experience of that bittersweet Garth Brooks song: “And now I’m glad I didn’t know / The way it all would end / The way it all would go / Our lives are better left to chance / I could’ve missed the pain / But I’d have had to miss the dance.” She wants what we have — and what her counterpart will not.

So if you’re unhappily single, like the writer for Wired who described finishing the episode and sobbing uncontrollably, take heart: Your pain is not for nothing, and you are not alone. And if you’re lucky enough to have found your ultimate match already, this is an excellent opportunity to be reminded: Against the miserable odds, there you are.


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