In the third season of the widely acclaimed British TV series Black Mirror is 61 minutes of some of the best television ever produced. It’s recently one Emmy’s for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special, which it adds to its two BFTAs an a host of nominations. The episode’s called “San Junipero”, and it’s one of the few entries in the series that doesn’t end with an (entirely) bleak comment on the impact of technology on our lives.
Series creator and show runner Charlie Brookner tells us the story of Yorkie (Makenzie Davis), an introverted outsider in the titular beach town, and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a regular party goer with a reputation for breaking hearts. The episode is striking right from the beginning for a variety of reasons; visually the entirety of the episode is absolutely fabulous. San Junipero is a fictional town in what we can assume is California, and the story begins in the blown out 80’s, all neon and purple rain. It’s of course raining on the first night, which means we get gorgeous shots like this in every other scene.
The other attention grabber is the apparent lack of the malicious use of technology that permeates the rest of the series. What we get at first is your typical 80s love story: two people come together in a bar, the extrovert gets the introvert talking, they have fun, it gets to be too much for the introvert and they run outside, a few minutes later and the extrovert finds them under a zinc roof in the rain, they have a heart to heart without really expressing their feelings and they separate. We as the audience are left with the usual desire to see these two characters say what’s really on their hearts. To be fair, there are plenty of hints that there’s more than meets the eye in San Junipero, and not just because of the show’s legacy. Consistent references to having a limited amount of time to midnight are the most significant tells, and the general perfect-ness of the town is similarly off-putting. At one point Kelly punches a mirror in frustration, only to reveal that her fist isn’t even cut, let alone bleeding. Still, we don’t really get a sense of what’s going on until Yorki attempts to find Kelly the following weekend.
In tracking down the girl that’s made such an impression on her, Yorki finds herself in a club where another spurned lover is similarly trying to track her down. Apparently she’s not in that decade. From here, Yorki, week after week, travels though the decades, the 80s, 90s, 00s, and onward, until she eventually ends up in the year Kelly’s been hiding in: 2002. It’s here revealed that the entire town, and the corresponding epochs are entirely simulated, and through a series of conversations we discover that San Juniper is in fact a simulated town that the elderly visit to live as if they were young again. The only stipulation being everyone gets 5 hours a week, unless they’re dead, in which case they can stay forever. Yorki and Kelly are, in our world, near the ends of their lives.
Without revealing too much more the episode asks a lot of difficult questions. Would you live forever if you could? Would living in San Junipero be heaven? or just a kind of purgatory? If we can live forever in a simulation run by our own minds, how much does the real world matter, and is it even real at all? When it’s all written down like that these questions remind me of The Matrix, which though seminal for many reasons, spends a lot more effort asking the same questions. The elegance of the world of this episode is impressive. We never get an explanation of how San Junipero exists, what the procedure of “passing over” after death really is, or any other points of lore, and we don’t need to. In part thanks to the work of films like The Matrix, audiences seem to need a lot less explanation than we used to. The concept of an alternate or virtual reality is at our door in the real world, so there’s less explaining that needs to happen when it’s represented in fiction. Granted, Star Wars never explains the Force (well, it tried to and we all know how well that turned out), and that worked because audiences got it, it’s a pseudo magical-religion, sure, cool, lets keep moving. Our imaginations are almost always going to do a better job of filling in those gaps than any writer.
As I mentioned at the start, the end of this episode is surprisingly optimistic. It happens that Yorki’s real self is on the verge of death, and so she decides to pass over to San Junipero, she’s going to stay there for good until she eventually wishes to terminate herself. Kelly can’t easily make that kind of commitment as her own husband and daughter passed away before San Junipero became an option. She doesn’t believe in the afterlife, but something still wouldn’t sit well with her if she were to spend the rest of her days in SJ. After a good bit of heartbreak though she of course shows back up in the simulation, and she and Yorki drive off together. For Kelly, forever can wait.