Season 3, Episode 4 – San Junipero
Black Mirror has never been known for eliciting positive emotions with its episodes. Dark, cynical, and disturbing, yes. But uplifting? Not really. Before “San Junipero” came along, the most uplifting episode in Black Mirror standards is “Nosedive,” but that was uplifting in a cathartic sense instead of an affirmative one. When you think about it, taking the what-if scenarios that every episode has presented is easier to bring in a dark and dangerous direction. It’s much easier to see how advancements in technology can be used for wrong instead of right. It’s why Black Mirror is so effective in the first place. The show naturally taps into our fear of mankind eventually destroying itself with its creations. A quick Google search says that there are over 15,000 nuclear weapons all over the world, most of which are ready to be launched within just minutes should a country choose to do so. Hardly a comforting thought.
But for the first time, Black Mirror steps away from the worst-case scenarios and instead brings us its biggest surprise so far: an episode that is both touching and poignant. “San Junipero” starts off unassuming enough. We follow Yorkie and Kelly’s blooming romance in a place called San Junipero, with the only unusual thing being that they seem to be able to travel through time. When over half of the episode is finished, everything is explained to us: San Junipero is a virtual reality that exists in a massive cloud storage where the dying can have their entire consciousness uploaded into, allowing them to leave their frail bodies in the real world. Yorkie and Kelly, who are both in their 20s in San Junipero, are actually sickly elderly women in the real world.
It’s a beautifully crafted episode because the focus isn’t in revealing what San Junipero actually is. The focus stays between the two characters who are given a second chance to live out another life. We find out that Yorkie has never been romantically intimate with anyone in the real world because she became paralyzed after a car accident when she was just in her 20s. Kelly, on the other hand, has lived out a full life with a family of her own. Both her husband and her only daughter are dead, and neither one of them are living in San Junipero. The episode then becomes about Kelly’s choice: Does she stay in San Junipero with Yorkie or does she simply fade out from existence like her own family?
There are so many things to love about this episode. The plotting is clever without drawing attention to itself. Charlie Brooker constructs the episode in a way that gives us the pertinent information without us knowing about it. Previous episodes would give out hints and foreshadow events, but in this one it’s as if we’re exploring the world of San Junipero through the eyes of Yorkie. She’s as much a stranger to it as we are, and by the time its true nature is revealed, we accept it easily because we’ve been acclimatizing to it this whole time. Some of the finer details are eventually explained to us back in the real world, which helps us understand the whole picture.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davies are both brilliant in the episode. Mbatha-Raw in particular is excellent as she is given the heavy task of playing a character who has lived a life that’s double in length and experience to her own. The pivotal scene where she explains her entire life to Yorkie is both heart rendering and, most importantly, convincing. We believe that Kelly has lived out an entire life and that choosing to stay in San Junipero isn’t an easy choice for her. Similarly important is Denise Burse’s performance as the elder Kelly, who in just a few minutes of screen time effectively brings a tenderness and serenity to the character that completes the picture.
By the time we watch both characters ride off into the sunset to live out their new carefree lives, it’s easy to look for the hidden darkness that lies beneath the episode’s concept of a virtual reality heaven. And one can definitely choose to see it that way because Yorkie and Kelly’s story is just one among thousands in San Junipero. There are characters in the background that don’t seem to be living a life of fulfillment, and writer Charlie Brooker could’ve easily focused on one of them instead of two characters who were given a second chance. But it’s refreshing to see a concept be explored on the positive side rather than what terrible things it can entail. “San Junipero” is an uplifting tale that makes one excited about the possibilities of technology. Black Mirror’s claim to fame is showing what society can become if we take one wrong step, but showing what can go right can be just as compelling.