Warning: Some spoilers below for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode “Hang the DJ.”
A year later, I’m still thinking about “San Junipero.”
The alluringly romantic episode starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis as young women who fall in love in a virtual reality was made even more memorable by its use of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” at the episode’s conclusion. It was heart-stirring and tear-inducing, the exact opposite reaction you tend to have when watching most Black Mirror episodes. Ever since it began with a British prime minister fucking a pig, the series has swirled around a cocktail of technology and horror stories that has branded it an updated version of The Twilight Zone.
“San Junipero” remains many fans’ favorite episode of the series, because it’s so moving and so unexpected from a series that showcases the dangerous effects of technology. It was inevitable then that another romantic hour would make its way into the series after the reception of “San Junipero.” That episode is the stellar, standout “Hang the DJ.” In this installment, Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole play participants in a dating app that controls every aspect of your relationship, from what you order for dinner, to the length of time you’ll be together. As the app continues to tear them apart and pair them with other people, despite their obvious attraction to one another, Campbell and Cole break free of the app. It’s then that we discover that their entire lives were a simulation and the app actually creates realistic versions of ourselves in a virtual reality to determine how compatible we are in the real world. A match is a success if the partners love one another enough to attempt to escape the simulation.
The episode is memorable because it’s tinged with some of the horror of technology controlling every aspect of our lives, but it’s ultimately a hopeful story. The success of “San Junipero” and now “Hang the DJ” highlight how peculiar it is that Black Mirror’s nihilistic take on dystopia actually excels more when it is an optimistic look at romance and how, despite all these damning advances in technology, it’s love and human connection we still crave. It’s why one the series’ stronger entries, “The Entire History of You,” is so fucking heartwrenching. It shows the breakdown of a marriage as a husband watches his wife’s memories and learns about the affair she had. You crave the emotional connection between Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker and your heart breaks as technology drives them apart. Or take Season 2’s “Be Right Back,” in which Hayley Atwell uses technology to cling to memories of her dead boyfriend Dohmnall Gleeson.
When Black Mirror began, it was easy to view it as a stand-in for The Twilight Zone. It was, after all, a creepy anthology series that often devolved into horror. But Black Mirror doesn't particularly excel when it dives into horror and it certainly doesn’t succeed where Rod Serling’s examination of the human condition did. Serling used The Twilight Zone to examine how we treat one another as humans and Black Mirror depicts how we react to technology. By its aim then, Black Mirror is limited in its scope.
There’s a new update of The Twilight Zone on the way from Jordan Peele, the writer-director behind Get Out. This seems more in line with what we need from a horror anthology, as Peele’s film manages to plumb the depths of humanity in ways that Serling wasn’t able to in the 1950s. Even when The Twilight Zone did address race, it wasn’t as particularly nuanced a take as one that could be delivered in 2018. Black Mirror continues to show us that technology is bad, a topic which seems to have run its course, except for in episodes like “Hang the DJ” and “San Junipero” that focus on the human emotion at the core of these stories.
If anything, Black Mirror excels more when it’s The Love Boat instead of The Twilight Zone. There have been attempts at romantic anthologies since the successful series left the air in 1986, but only Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has managed to tackle romance and the messiness that is how we love one another for a modern age. As Black Mirror progreses, I’ll continue to crave its more romantic, optimistic outings and hope that Brooker will either fully embrace that as a concept, or deliver us a new series where it’s the central focus. The world is nihilistic enough—how about some love?