Black Mirrothon Part 11: ‘San Junipero’
If you spend any amount of time on discussion bards following the release of this episode
Title: ‘San Junipero’
Director: Owen Harris
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mackenzie Davis, Denise Burse, Annabel Davis, Raymond McAnally, Gavin Sternhouse
Premise: Two women meet in a nightclub in the 1980s and form a connection. Whilst their relationship is initially rocky it’s their acceptance of their reality that really stands between them.
Review: Let’s get this out of the way now…I’m not putting this at the top of the rankings. Yes, rage quit if you must but I do not consider this to be the best Black Mirror episode. It is excellent, no doubt there, but an optimistic view of the future isn’t what I signed up for with this show. Or perhaps dropping this on us in the biggest twist of them all, I’m not going to try an detangle Charlie Brooker’s mind.
The way this story drip-feeds us information is incredibly well implemented and, although it goes completely against how a sci-fi should be written, ensures that we’re invested in the story of Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Davis) before we become aware that circumstances are not what they initially appear to be. Even then there’s no big exposition moment where it all gets laid out to us, just piecemeal information that forms a complete picture.
We open with Yorkie, an anxious young woman visiting a nightclub at some point during the late 1980s complete with all the fashion, trends and music of the era. She meets Kelly, who seems to be her total opposite – confident and energetic. The two form a connection and meet again the next week and a relationship begins to form between them. At first Yorkie is hesitant but as soon as things begin to develop Kelly ups and vanishes. Yorkie seems to travel through time to different, equally cliched settings and eventually finds Kelly in 2002. At this point they are forced to confront their situation and decide what they want.
It’s revealed that San Junipero is a simulated reality mostly populated by digital copies of the deceased. In the real world Kelly and Yorkie are both elderly women in care facilities living in different cities, Kelly suffering from cancer and Yorkie having been paralysed from the neck down from the age 21. For Yorkie, San Junipero represents the chance at a life she missed out on, having been in an accident after coming out to unaccepting parents. Her religious family also reject the idea of Yorkie coming off life support and living full time in the simulation, as the living are only allowed to visit for 5 hours a week, so she planed on marrying her nurse so he had the legal right to allow it.
Having bonded in San Junipero and now met in real life, Kelly offers to marry Yorkie but refuses to ‘pass over’ into the simulation full time with her. Kelly has lost her daughter and husband and feels it would be a betrayal to them to live on in San Junipero without them. After some reflection she decides to live on with Yorkie and during the end credits she returns to San Junipero full time.
There’s dialogue early on in the story that doesn’t fit in, like discussing locals having ‘passed over’, being aware that they have limited time each week and the admission from Yorkie that she has only a few months to live, an admission that goes unchallenged and unquestioned by those around her. Later Kelly and Yorkie discuss where they’re living, which is the definitive point where is becomes clear that this reality isn’t the real world. Even when Yorkie begins appearing in earlier and later decades there is no explanation, yet it’s easy to dismiss all this as something to be worked out later because we’re all caught up in this relationship.
Seriously, the story of Yorkie and Kelly is one of the best romances we’ve ever seen on television. They both have tragedy in their backstory that informs their world view. Yorkie is ready for a fresh start, her first opportunity to live a life of her own choosing. Kelly is looking to enjoy herself as much as possible in the time she has remaining, how ever long that is. Although Yorkie has the more difficult circumstances it’s Kelly who has to put her history behind her, but they’re both ultimately becoming individuals again. It’s also worth noting that Davis and Mbatha-Raw are both amazing actresses and have real chemistry between them.
Unlike the rest of the Black Mirror episodes we’ve seen up until this point this is remarkably optimistic. It’s not just a good use of technology – it’s a future that removes our most common anxieties about death and ageing. It’s not just the ability to live forever or chose when and where we continue our existence either. Kelly and Yorkie represent happiness that they could never attain in real life. Despite of their intense bond and the joy they bring each other they would never have met without the San Junipero reality.
They even avoid painting it as an idyllic wonderland, as human problems still exist. We are introduced to Kelly having trying to dodge a needy former lover. Yorkie also carries across her anxieties, flinching when she sees a video game car crashing. We also get a glimpse at the ‘Quagmire’, a nightclub for BDSM and cage fights. Not that it’s a bad thing that this exists, it’s just interesting world building that adds a since of realism to the situation.
‘San Junipero’ is a seriously heart warming tale, well worth the acclaimed it has achieved.
That Moment When You Feel Your Stomach Drop: There isn’t one, it’s just all lovely.
Links to Other Episodes: I a retroactive reference the company who controls San Junipero, TCKR, is mentioned on a magazine cover in ‘Playtest’…and that’s it. ‘San Junipero’ kinda stands alone.
Ranking Black Mirror: Now I know many Black Mirror fans will rank this as the highest, but it’s a departure from the usual tone. Not that every episode has to be the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the best example of the show.
- ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
- ‘San Junipero’
- ‘White Christmas’
- ‘Shut Up and Dance’
- ‘Be Right Back’
- ‘White Bear’
- ‘The National Anthem’
- ‘The Waldo Moment’
- ‘The Entire History of You’