Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode, “Hang the DJ” — the most hopeful, crowd-pleasing episode of this year’s batch — sees a couple who have their entire dating lives simulated on their phones, although we the viewer don’t understand until the very end that we’ve been watching a simulation the entire time.
The Dating System — which promises a 99.8 percent match — put Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) together on a first date and tells them that their relationship will last just 12 hours, so at the end of 12 hours they are forced apart by the System. The first date isn’t exactly successful, but Frank and Amy develop a cute rapport. There’s a playful chemistry between them, but they are not allowed to see where it leads them. Instead, they are immediately matched with a long-term partner, with whom both Frank and Amy grow immediately annoyed.
The two do run in to each other again, which stokes their affection for one another, and after the two date a number of people, the System matches Frank and Amy back together again. This time, it’s a longer term relationship, and it works. They fall in love, although a betrayal eventually drives a wedge between them. The System separates them, and they go their separate ways, that is until the System finally decides to match them with their life partner. Both Frank and Amy quickly realize that they don’t want to be with anyone else, so they decide to jailbreak the Dating App, and that is how the System matches couples. Couples who love each other enough to rebel against the App are matched together in the real world.
The simulation ends, and Amy looks up from her phone to find Frank in the same bar. Their eyes meet, and they share a knowing glance and awkward smiles before, presumably, they have an actual conversation and end up spending the rest of their lives together.
It’s a great episode, my favorite of the season and one of my favorite of the entire series’ run. It has a very Richard Curtis/Cameron Crowe vibe (the hand-holding callback was straight out of the sneezing running joke in Singles).
The one thing about “Hang the DJ,” however, is that it shouldn’t be contemplated for too long, because the whole thing collapses under even the lightest of scrutiny. Here are a few questions we have:
How reflective of reality are computer simulations? I used to play computer simulated baseball seasons, but one wrong input, and the results are shot. And it almost seems like the simulation is designed to match two competently paired people and then put them together with assholes and narcissist so that eventually they’ll settle for one another because it’s better than the alternative.
Also, is everyone in the bar at the end of the episode in on this System? Or is it a complete coincidence that Frank and Amy happen to be in the same bar when the simulation ends? Do Frank and Amy get a preview of the simulation? Or is it just 1s and 0s, the entire dating lives of two strangers playing out inside of our phones? Can they watch? Is there, like, a highlight reel? How long is a miserable year-long relationship in a simulation? Like, a split second? If the simulation paired Frank and Amy on their first date, did it already know the outcome? Was the simulation an exercise just to provide verifiable evidence? What if the relationship is decidedly one-sided, and only one half of the couple rebels against the System? You just end up with a yokel hanging out in a room with a bunch of happy couples?
What was with that long glance at the end of the episode. There’s a look of happy recognition. Like, “Hey! We’ve already had sex on our phones!”
Then there’s a smile that seems to say, “Man, we’ve really been through something, haven’t we?” except that it all took place inside a program and I assume they did not see the entire simulation play out. They’re still strangers.
Then there’s a brief look of horror that seems to say, “What have we done? We’ve left our entire romantic future up to a computer program? Oh my God, what is wrong with us?” Or maybe it just says, “Hmph. You didn’t have a nose ring in the simulation. I didn’t sign up for a nose ring.”
And then she shoots a glance back that briefly says, “You’re cute, but I am way out of your league. Has this program been hacked? Because I could see someone designing this entire system just so that creepy dudes can get laid.”
And then, finally, a look that says, “Fuck it. HAL 9000 knows what’s up. Let’s grab a drink, go back to my place, and begin the next 50 years of our lives together. Thanks, Artificial Intelligence!”
Finally, what happens to the 2 out of every 1,000 people that aren’t matched? Charlie Brooker actually answered that in an interview with EW:
“Now we do see at the end, [the app] runs it 1,000 times and two didn’t rebel. So I would think they would be matched with a random other person and their world would end. We did have a lot of torturous conversations about what’s really going on. We decided it’s a cloud-based system that’s simulating 1,000 different run-throughs of yourself and a potential partner to see how many times you’d rebel against it. And it deliberately is setting a tight framework. And if they do rebel, that means they’re destined to be together. So if you don’t rebel, the system has served its purpose and your reality ends.”
In other words, “Sorry, you’re sh*t out of luck. You’re gonna just have to do it the old-fashioned way, except that 998 out of 1000 people are already paired up thanks to Artificial Intelligence, so enjoy those cats for the rest of your life.”