Black Mirror’s Hang the DJ, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and why rebellion is at the heart of finding true love
Mild spoilers ahead.
Award-winning sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror has a really strange effect on viewers – one that not many movies or TV shows can boast of. Fans look forward to being shocked by dysfunctional human-technology relationships and dystopian worlds depicted on screen. It has become a global, collective celebration of human doom and despair.
me getting ready to have a black mirror induced anxiety attack pic.twitter.com/oMXOILD3z6
— ★who is she★ (@mirahope_) June 6, 2019
This is perhaps why many fans are disenchanted by the latest season, describing it as “less dystopian, more derivative” than previous ones. But before Season 5 came a couple of episodes which also deviated from the tone people have come to associate with the show, which were met with positive reviews and critical acclaim: USS Callister, San Junipero and Hang the DJ.
Hang the DJ is named after a line in a song titled ‘Panic’ by the English rock band The Smiths. In the context of the episode, it plays out like a call to dismantle the system and punish the powers-that-be (“Burn down the disco/ Hang the blessed DJ”).
Hang the DJ is the story of Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole), debutantes in a ‘System’ they have signed up for, which promises to find a 99.8 percent match. It puts individuals through multiple relationships with different people for varying periods of time, documenting their personality traits and reactions, and ultimately pairing them with the person they are best suited for.
Amy and Frank fall in love and detest the fact that they had to separate after 12 hours; it shows in the way they longingly look at each other when dating other people. Through a series of trials and tribulations (involving the System’s rules), the couple realises that the process is “meant to keep them apart”, and that the only way to be together is to escape the System. They ultimately do this, and when they reach the perimeter of the System, they find 997 versions of themselves. All of these versions disintegrate, and the words ‘998 rebellions logged’ flash on the screen.
This is when you realise that the Amy and Frank you met before are merely simulations, that their real selves exist in another world which resembles ours. They have been matched by the same System as the one in the simulated world – with a 99.8 percent match guaranteed.
Save for the last few minutes which are set in the real world, Hang the DJ is a critique of dating culture as shaped by apps like Tinder. “It must have been mental before the System,” Amy notes on their first date. Frank talks about option paralysis (the inability to make a decision when you have too many choices) and how difficult it must have been to break up with people in the days of yore.
They’ve spoken too soon; 30 minutes into the episode, they’re going to see how tiring it can be to date many people in quick succession in order to find The One, especially if you’re not over your ex yet. They’re going to see how it is possible to discover flaws in a seemingly perfect relationship. They’ll experience what it is like to be trapped in a relationship which is a total mismatch, where you detest the person from the very first date.
They’re going to realise how meeting new people can turn into a routine; Coach, the device that guides them in the System, informs them about new partners with the same frequency that an Uber driver is alerted about new rides.
The dance of dinner-sex-sleep seems repetitive despite doing it with a new person, the homes they co-habit in are identical, and the sex is mindless (after a point).
The guiding device Coach spouts a line that has been littered across countless rom-coms and self-help books: “Everything happens for a reason.” The viewer sees that the matchmaking algorithm seems more concerned about the procurement of information about participants than nurturing emotional connections.
Amid all this, Amy and Frank truly begin to fall in love, whether it is over shared bites from meals that have been pre-decided by the System, or while discussing their cynicism about and disillusionment by the whole process. When they realise that breaking one of the System’s rules has jeopardised their chance at happiness (the chance they were given was limited anyway), they decide to defy it. This defiance means a great deal, if you consider that Coach is constantly reminding them about toeing the line, and there are guards with taser guns appointed to ensure no one transgresses.
A chance to be together represents the ultimate idea of hope in the simulation.
That their simulated selves would defy the System 998 times out of a thousand speaks volumes about their love for each other. It is, after all, what the System considers a measure of compatibility; the number of rebellions in the simulation = the compatibility of the couple in the real world.
(This article will not comment on the end of the episode and the codification of rebellion by a dating app – for it deserves an entire essay)
Hang the DJ shares striking similarities with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (streaming on Hotstar), an absurdist dystopian black comedy that deals with many of the same themes – the ardous process of finding a partner, the presence of an imperfect system whose sole purpose is to match people, and the idea of rebellion as a way to pursue the kind of relationship you truly desire.
Colin Farrell’s character David, who has recently been left by his wife, is escorted to a hotel meant for those who are single, divorced or widowed, to find a partner. The rules of the hotel are simple and strictly enacted: No smoking, no masturbation, and if you don’t find a partner within 45 days, you will be turned into an animal of your choice, so you have a second chance at finding a mate.
There are sessions where the hotel staff extol the virtues of being married, whether it is preventing women from getting harassed by other men, or having someone to save you, should you choke while eating. They even have remedies for fighting couples, to prevent them from uncoupling. “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps,” declares Olivia Colman, who plays the hotel manager.
This, along with the sheer pressure to find someone, forces many to go to great lengths to pretend that they are compatible with another hotel resident, such as pretending to have frequent nose bleeds.
The single people in the hotel often go on hunts to find ‘Loners’ – people who have chosen to defy the rules and stay single. This buys the hotel residents more days to find a partner – and there couldn’t have been a more veiled depiction of the ways in which society persecutes those who choose to not marry.
Following a traumatic experience, Firth’s David decides to escape from the hotel, and he is found by a group of Loners. You’d think that outcasts would allow people to live life on their own terms but no, the Loners too have rules which are as rigid as the hotel’s: No relationships, no sex – no flirting, even. Time is set aside so that the Loners can dance, but they only dance to electronic music because it does not require a partner. They turn being single into a full-time job, even digging their own graves because someone else from the group would not do them this small mercy. And the punishments are all severe and physical, from blinding, to serious injury, to amputation.
In The Lobster’s universe, there is no space or tolerance for the in-between-ers.
The only succour then is rebellious love, which David finds in Rachel Weisz’s character, who is also a Loner. They develop an entire system of communication so that they can talk to each other without being caught. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Firth and Weisz can be seen slow dancing together while listening to the same song using earphones, far from the group.
They are eventually caught, and Weisz is blinded to punish the couple and deter them from being in a relationship. But what happens next has convinced me that just like Amy and Frank, Firth and Weisz's characters would also have a 99.8 percent compatibility in the System – if not higher. David helps her adjust to a life without vision, trains her to better identify things by touching them and eventually ensures they escape from the Loners.
In Hang the DJ’s System and The Lobster’s hotel, choice is illusory, and individuals don’t have real agency. They delude themselves into thinking that the person allotted to them or who they think they are compatible with is The One, so as to achieve a goal that society has thrust upon them. In such universes, genuine companionship is found beyond the realm of rules and establishments, where rebelling is bravery, and love is worth fighting for.
Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 11:46:05 IST