Minor SPOILERS for "Hang the DJ"
“How long can happiness last anyway?” That single question could sum up much of the new season of Black Mirror. And after the year we’ve had, it seems perfectly fitting to delve into this bleak batch of episodes in which we see characters desperately try, disastrously fail, then try again mostly to get absolutely nowhere. As a result, the goal for many of them becomes mere satisfaction, the feeling of achieving a temporary fulfillment that comes with a price.
You can definitely see that portrayed in the second episode of the season, “Arkangel,” in which a mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) has a tracking device implanted in her daughter to prevent her from danger. The actual quote, though, is from the jaw-dropping final episode of the season, titled “Black Museum,” and uttered sadistically by a power-tripping soul collector (Douglas Hodge) who soon learns that he has messed with the wrong black woman (Letitia Wright) for the last time. It’s a fitting reference given the climate we’re in right now in which women, in particular black women, are calling for a reckoning with white male power. We also see this explored in the season opener, “U.S.S. Callister,” in which characters find themselves stuck acting out the fantasy of one dissatisfied man.
The question itself also reflects who we’ve become in this digital culture in which we often find ourselves with so many options, both good and bad, that we’ve become unaffected by traditional human connection. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or the perennial debate over Twitter friends vs IRL friends, we’ve lost our ability to find pleasure in human interaction. Dating culture has taken a particular hit, and perhaps the saddest thing is that no one really seems to care. Because it’s just one issue among many and it doesn’t provoke nearly the same sense of urgency as others do. And that brings us to the fourth episode this season, titled “Hang the DJ” It’s the story of a man (Joe Cole) and a woman (Georgina Campbell) struggling to find suitable partners through an advanced digital dating system that has already planned out their dating map, including expiration dates for each relationship (which spans anywhere from 9 hours to 5 years).
Sounds familiar, right? It’s what we’re already doing, spinning the dial on our dating apps and randomly stopping on a profile of a person who’s somewhat appealing for the time being, that the system has already handpicked for us based on a few keywords we inputted. “Hang the DJ” goes even a step further. Campbell and Cole’s characters just have to press a button (which kinda looks like a fancier version of the old school Simon Says game) and it not only identifies their next partner (only through a photo, mind, nothing else) but also how long they will be with him or her. There are no profiles to fill out or read. Just, you will date this person next and you will kick it with him or her for the next couple hours or few years. Have fun!
Like an 8-ball, you never really know what choices it will make for you. But the two protagonists get lucky on their first try; they are designated to each other and they actually click! Trouble is, the system has only allotted less than 24 hours for them to be together, after which they will move on to the next selection. So they’re forced to separate (the consequences of not splitting up are apparently very severe as men with Taser guns are at the ready to catch strays), as the system quickly re-shuffles for their next encounter. What happens with Campbell’s character next is particularly interesting as she gets placed with one nameless guy after another (the hot bod guy, the business man, you get the picture). She becomes increasingly detached as the system barely waits a day to send her her next date. It’s the same routine: empty conversation over dinner at the exact same restaurant as always, sex back at the same prop home as the last time, then a flippant wave of their hand to acknowledge the end of their time together. It’s vapid and careless, but it’s so indicative of how we date today in that we are not connecting with each other at all. And because we’ve become so dependent on the digital world, human interaction itself has become more and more obsolete. For dating, it also means hook-up culture has taken precedence. We’re no longer communicating or even pursuing relationships because hooking up is a faster, more convenient way to get on to the next option (which is usually just at the click of a button) without wasting time building a relationship that will likely not last anyway.
As also true for Campbell and Cole’s characters, who by the way are also nameless in the episode, relationships have lost their value. Even when the two are coincidentally re-matched and fortunately designated not one, not two, but five years together, curiosity for the next best thing destroys it. Because when they’re together again, they make a pact to not check the device to find out their expiration date, instead opting to enjoy whatever time they have together without knowing when it will end. But he’s so indoctrinated into a culture where nothing lasts forever and unhappiness is inevitable that he becomes antsy about who’s waiting around the corner (because someone always is). This interest in his relationship’s conclusion ultimately leads to its demise.
But does this romance ultimately have a happy ending? It depends on what you consider a happy ending. Our two protagonists try to hotwire the system and stay together once his restlessness triggers their expiration date, but they must contend with the consequences of trying to be nonconformists. Is fleeting happiness better than no happiness at all? Or are we all designed to seek the next best thing no matter what?