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Black Mirror finds love (and a great episode) in a hopeful place

“Can you just make this easy for me?”

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Black Mirror

"San Junipero"

Season 3 , Episode 4

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Throughout its three seasons, Black Mirror has been consistent on a single idea: technology is a trap. Sure, the shiny new toys we develop and buy and bring into our homes might not be inherently evil, but each new freedom they allow us is just another opportunity for the human mind to tie itself into knots. In Charlie Brooker’s malignant worldview, that app you just downloaded is always going to bring out the worst in you. It’s a perspective that speaks to a deep fear in nearly everyone, a conservative terror of change that imagines life as a perpetual series of binary choices, a constant stream of ladies-or-tigers that, sooner or later, is going to turn us all into lunch. If new technology is an opportunity to change the world, there’s no guarantee we won’t be changing for the worse. We are the race the made the atom bomb; the race whose ingenuity and ambition is slowly choking itself to death on fossil fuels and climate change. It stands to reason that eventually we’ll build the perfect mousetrap—only we’ll be the ones with whiskers.

The power of “San Junipero,” which is beautiful and deeply moving and almost astonishingly humane, comes from taking the opposite approach. Late in the episode, a woman tells her wife, “It’s not a trap.” The line comes quickly, in the middle of a heated conversation about some very heavy stuff, but in a way the whole hour turns on it, because she’s right. The delightful freedoms of San Junipero, a virtual reality experience that allows users to enjoy the same perfect city through different eras, are exactly what they appear to be. No one is plotting against anyone. There are no strings, no horrible reveals. Just this once, things turn out okay.

Yeah, I fucking cried like a baby, so what of it? It’s just such a goddamn relief from this show, to have something like actual mercy in a series that’s so regularly content to wallow in our worst impulses. Sure, “Nosedive” had a happy ending too, but that came after what seemed like ages of humiliation and finger-wagging—pointed, plausible, and entirely deserved finger-wagging, but finger-wagging nonetheless. It’s a good episode, but “San Junipero” is a great one because for once, nobody’s straining to make a point. There’s a moral here, and it’s a good one, but it’s delivered with the causal understanding that some lessons, we have to learn on our own time.

The hour is structured beautifully as well, spending a whole first half building a relationship between Yorkie (the sublimely uncomfortable Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, delightful and heartbreaking by turns), offering enough clues to let us know that things aren’t exactly as they seem without ever completely distracting from the connection between the two women. By the time Yorkie starts traveling to different eras searching for her absent lover, we’re as much (if not more) invested in that search as we are in discovering just what makes San Junipero unique.

And it is unique: We start in 1987, and there are comically overstated era signifiers everywhere, from the Lost Boys poster hanging outside to the compilation of late ’80s hits on the radio. That, plus the stand-up arcade machines and the boxy, garish fashion, combines into an effect that’s less about establishing a time period and more about swaddling the locals in reassuring reminders of a past they might not even remember. It’s odd, and we get a few more clues—like the fact that something seems to happen at midnight, or the week delay between Yorkie and Kelly’s encounters—to suggest things aren’t what they seem even before Yorkie starts decade hopping. (Admittedly, the whole “this is an episode of Black Mirror” bit is also a tip-off.)

Part of the genius of the entry is that it holds information back just long enough to make sure we care about its two leads, but no longer. There are no final twists, outside one small piece of character backstory. Once Kelly and Yorkie decide to meet in the real world, we find out pretty much everything in short order: How San Junipero is a simulation; how both Kelly and Yorkie are both significantly older than they appear; how the “before midnight” rule is because living people are only allowed five hours a week in the system, to keep them from losing grip on reality; how it’s possible to stay in San Junipero after you die. There’s no serious effort made to explain the details of that last part, which is important—it’s critical that we accept this as actual truth for the episode’s ending to work, and getting bogged down in plausibility concerns would be a disaster.

We also learn that Kelly was married, and that her husband died, and that she’s nearing the end of her life, struggling with a terminal disease (I don’t think anyone says “cancer,” but it has to be cancer, right?) and a three month expiration date that keeps extending outward. Yorkie is in a coma, a quadriplegic who lost the use of her limbs after a car crash when she was 21. She’d just been in a fight with her parents after coming out to them. Now, she’s planning to marry a nurse, Greg (she mentioned her fiancé earlier; it’s another sign of this episode’s fundamental decency that Greg turns out to be a nice guy, not the obstacle we initially take him for), so that Greg can sign a form allowing her to die. Once she dies, she’ll go over to San Junipero permanently.

Which is what happens. Kelly offers to marry Yorkie instead of Greg, there’s a quick ceremony, and then Yorkie wakes up as a resident of a virtual world, feeling the sand on her toes for the first time in decades. And here, we assume, is where things will get nasty. There’s always a catch, right? Kelly’s husband refused to pass over to San Junipero because their daughter died before the technology was available, and Kelly is determined to follow in his footsteps, even though she believes there’s nothing after death, no actual heaven, no loved ones waiting to greet her. It’s a self-flagellating belief, but it also appears to be the correct one, at least insofar as everything else we’ve learned on this series has shown us. Using a computer to escape an inevitability of life has to be too good to be true. We have to learn to accept suffering as an essential part of existence.

Only, again—it’s not a trap. Kelly is clinging to her grief and to a responsibility which, by her own admission, no longer truly exists. And even if it did, staying in San Junipero for however long it lasts (and it won’t last forever, because nothing does) wouldn’t rob her of the chance to die. It could be that the only real obligation to life that any of us have is to keep living for as long as we can, as well as we can; and even that might not be true. Maybe there are no obligations. Maybe it’s just the heart, and what it wants, and however you can manage to live with that.

It is not a hugely dramatic climax. Yorkie begs Kelly to stay with her; Kelly breaks down, furious, and reveals what’s really holding her back; then Kelly purposefully crashes her car, mirroring the accident that robbed Yorkie of the use of her arms and legs, only in this reality, there’s no pain. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but there is no other shoe. For once, the technology is actually merciful, and the people who maintain it have no greater goal than easing the suffering of others. The only real trauma is what you carry with you, and it turns out, all you really need to do is just let go. Kelly ends up staying in San Junipero after all. She’s happy. Yorkie’s happy. The last thing we see is a huge storage area full of blinking lights, each small circle representing a soul—or the nearest electronic equivalent—that’s passed over, stayed on, without any guilt at all.

This probably isn’t an approach that could work with every episode: Having characters struggle with something before realizing it’s all pretty much okay (even if it hurts) is a hard model to sustain tension with, and Black Mirror depends on a certain amount of tension to hook its viewers in. A small part of what makes “San Junipero” so effective is all those hours leading up to it—all those bad apps and sinister advancements that left protagonists broken, desperate, and alone. To have that suddenly turned on its ear, even if only for an hour, is something of a minor miracle. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for kindness. Either way, this is one of the best hours of television I’ve seen this year, and it achieves its ends with a calmness and grace that seems almost effortless. And yeah, I know what that’s worth.

Stray observations

  • The closest the episode ever comes to creepy is Yorkie’s trip to the Quagmire, a hardcore club on the outskirts of town where people can get into all kinds of crazy, gloomy shenanigans. It seems like a pretty grim place, but then, they’re living in a consequence-free reality, so it can’t be that grim.
  • “What are you doing?” “I’m regarding you.”
  • The font changes on the “One week later” title cards as Yorkie searches various era were cute.
  • Kelly is bisexual; Yorkie is a lesbian; there’s some family drama for her, and some initial awkwardness, but it was nice that the episode acknowledged these things without making them the core of the narrative. This is just who these people are.
  • “Wanna go to bed with me?”