Meeting people online is weird, but no more weird than going up to someone cute in public. There are different social codes on apps, but there are still social codes. These come about naturally, through pushes and pulls in the user base, so creating a fictional dating service—as does “Hang the DJ”—is more about creating the social experience than the app itself.
This is something Black Mirror can be hit-and-miss at, especially when much of its audience has experience with the topic. Its social media episodes are never quite as effective as its memory- or robot-based ones, because we as viewers have a higher bar for our suspension of disbelief. For example, I’ve met some significant others online, so when a couple (played by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) meets for the first time, the nerves, banter, and expectations all feel familiar. The unmanned golf carts taking them to the next destination and the security guards standing watch, however, do not.
This is the psycho-sexual hellscape of The Lobster, a world where the only people that exist are matched singles and Couple Cops that threaten to beat some ass if people don’t, like my favorite reality show Are You the One?, put it all on the line for love. But the central couple doesn’t know that, not at first. Instead, they mourn their brief time together, because every relationship their device (it’s Black Mirror; there’s always a device) allocates them comes with a built-in expiration date.
That can be an excuse for a fling, a devastating life sentence, or a heartbreaking limitation. It’s sad when the couple, who hit it off, is only allowed 12 hours of each other’s company and have to go their separate ways on the tiny golf carts. Never have golf carts been more richly imbued with metaphor. There’s light fun to be had here, but as far as commentary goes—which this episode leans on heavily, pushing its social experiment angle hard—it’s softball season.
The system is designed to give you your perfect match after a set amount of time learning about you. It’s designed to smooth out second guessing and regret, the inescapable side effects of thoughtful dating, with the promise of perfection at the end.
But, and maybe it’s just my inner curmudgeon talking here, rolling the dice on True Love™ has already been quashed by a real-life institution called arranged marriage. I’m not sure adding a dabble of technology and a bad-faith promise (unless you’re still holding out for your Disney Prince/ss) makes things inherently interesting. The repeated mantra that “everything happens for a reason” is the system reassuring me that it has a lot in common with my most hated Facebook friends.
Even if it can be exhausting, there are still gems of insight poking through the black and dusty coal. Cole’s character, stuck with a terrible long-term relationship after his 12-hour infatuation, is forever poisoned by thoughts of what could’ve been. His baggage follows him through some amusing Greta Gerwig/Girls-style bad sex, while that of Campbell’s character manifests in her focus on partners’ annoying tics.
The impulse to speculate is higher here than it is all season because there’re so many strange and seemingly contradictory hints at the way the world works. At one point there’s a well-attended wedding, but no character ever seems to interact with anyone else besides the person the system sets them up with. How do people meet if not through the messy collisions of relationships past and present?
Director Tim Van Patten creates some amusing imagery outside of his sex scenes (which are also amusing, with their varying degrees of sexiness), especially when he has to elegantly create a visual metaphor for a relationship’s breakdown. There’s a betrayal of trust, the kind that turns a stable relationship to shit in a second, and Van Patten mimics the usual explosive conversational confrontation with a small moment of technocratic doubt. However, there’s still Charlie Brooker’s lazy use of taciturn emotional blockage that derails an exciting and moving scene.
Then, wrapped up all too neatly, there’s the ending and the twist. Often those two are switched because that’s how it makes sense. Usually, episodes or movies have twists to make us reconsider all the prior plot in a new light. “Hang the DJ” twists for the sake of twisting, undermining its own reveal with its very nature.
Read all of Paste’s episodic reviews of Black Mirror here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.