Prison or Utopia? How Black Mirror’s romance episodes show the positives and negatives of escaping real life with tech

Though primarily known for its unsettling ability to predict the dire consequences of near-future technologies, what perhaps shocked audiences most when Black Mirror returned last year was its willingness to dabble with that most complex of human themes: love. Season 3’s San Junipero proved that, when needed, Charlie Brooker is a creator capable of presenting technology not just as a trap, but occasionally an idealised form of escape where one can find solace as well. I think any self-confessed social media addict can relate. The recently-released Black Mirror season 4 episode Hang The DJ continues to break down these boundaries once again, equally using romance to further explore the spectrum of artificial escapism. 

Spoilers for both episodes ahead. 

In many ways, both of Black Mirror’s romance-driven episodes could be deemed the inverse of each other. What I mean by this is that where San Junipero sees its two protagonists – Yorkie and Kelly – treat their cloud-based utopia as the only way to continue their undying love for each other, Hang The DJ challenges Amy and Frank to rather gruellingly break free from staying as ghosts in a monotonous machine. Both episodes are successful in relaying the uncharacteristically Black Mirror conceit that “love will conquer all”, while still managing to highlight the perks and drawbacks of their respective artificial worlds.

(Image credit: Netflix)

At first glance, it’s easy to see why the simulated reality of San Junipero would be a hard prospect to refuse. Like a kid in a candy shop, who wouldn’t want free reign over their favourite musical decade? As this story of two star-crossed lovers trapped between times unfolds, it’s revealed that the very purpose of the era-spanning simulation is to offer the ill and elderly an artificial afterlife in which they will be able to live to their full potential. For some of San Junipero’s residents however, the falseness of the fabrication surrounding them is far less appealing than it sounds. 

“You want to spend forever somewhere nothing matters?” pleads Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly, struggling to reconcile with the dewy-eyed Yorkie, on why she feels that for as long as they stay in San Junipero, their love is worthless if not allowed to flourish in the real world. This falseness of love within an artificial setting is precisely what inspires Hang The DJ’s two lovers to flee beyond the wall of their all-too regimented bubble world. They might not know what lies in the great unknown, but by the episode’s climax both Amy and Frank have come to the same realisation that Kelly wrestles with.

Speaking of Hang The DJ’s dystopian setting, it’s immediately apparent that the walled-off areas residents are forced to roam hold no candle to San Junipero’s vibrant retro-futurist aesthetic. The blandness makes sense given the episode’s final revelation, but the big difference here is that it allows the escape to feel more justified. Here it’s made clear that technology holds the power to be a prison as well as an angelic paradise, an idea Black Mirror’s earlier episode USS Callister also, interestingly, touches upon.

I think, therefore I am

The more Hang The DJ progresses, the more we empathise with Frank and Amy as they are consistently beaten down by the calculated mechanisms that can arise in a world dictated by a cold AI. Known solely as ‘Coach’, this unsettlingly plausible dating app acts as the only method in which people can find their soulmate, resulting in a level of romance automation that couldn’t be further from the real bond forged in San Junipero. “I don't want whoever the system reckons the one is, OK?”, iterates Joe Cole’s Frank emphatically by the end. “I want you”.

Right up until the final rug-pull realisation that what we’ve been witnessing is nothing but algorithmic code attempting to gauge the probability of the real-life Frank and Amy being a match, Hang The DJ shows the dangers of a contained society that holds a much darker edge than the rom-com we were initially sold. Brooker here is quite clearly commenting that, at least presently, just because one can use technology as an escape, we still shouldn’t let it govern us. When viewing it in this light, Yorkie and Kelly’s decision to stay in San Junipero might appear suddenly bleaker, but (lest we forget) their only other choice was certain death.

(Image credit: Netflix)

While the smart conclusion to Hang The DJ is satisfyingly definitive – Frank and Amy seem set for a long life of giggles and rock-throwing, to this day for me, San Junipero’s final moments could run hot or cold on the heart. You see, as Yorkie and Kelly drive off into the distance to the air-grabbing rhythms of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place On Earth’, we’re still left wondering whether it’s their literal consciousnesses we’re seeing or a simulated copy of them that’s been allowed to live on. This sense of lingering ambiguity is what rather appropriately allows San Junipero to neatly settle within the rest of Black Mirror’s satirical third season. Season 4 is a lot more experimental. 

If these episodes prove anything, it’s that despite their apparent uplifting conclusions, technology can be a prison as well as a utopia. Both technologically twisted romantic dramas end the exact opposite to each other (San Junipero’s protagonists find hope inside the machine while Hang The DJ’s wisely choose to venture out), but said twists of the knife are made all the more biting when you take into account that both fake realities oppress the ability for love to bloom. The contrasting journeys experienced by all four characters is Brooker’s way of saying that this simply will not stand - no matter what. 

Aaron Potter

Aaron is a freelance writer who appreciates a good video game story just as much as great visuals and gameplay. Having covered the subject for places like WIRED, Den of Geek, PLAY Magazine, NME, PC Gamer and more, he’s well equipped to discuss a range of topics and industry goings-on through in-depth features, developer interviews and thoughtful reviews. His favourite game ever is 2005’s TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, a madcap character shooter from the makers of GoldenEye 007 that he first played whilst on holiday in Butlin’s Minehead. Because who needs to have fun in the sun, anyway?