"San Junipero" begins and ends with Belinda Carlisle's hopeful, lighthearted hit, "Heaven is a Place on Earth." There is no doubt that the song fits perfectly as a precedent to the overall message of the episode. Even though I am new to the show, it is quite obvious that Black Mirror is known for shamelessly going beyond measures to explore society and technology in a way that is honest, yet cringe worthy to the viewer. However, this time, Charlie Brooker (the creator of Black Mirror) has given us an episode that is both beautiful and sad, but most of all, existentially refreshing. Brooker has created an episode that stands out because it does not necessarily leave us in turmoil.
Who doesn't enjoy a modern love story? The insecure and innocent Yorkie (played by the lovely Mackenzie Davis), and confident, glamorous Kelly (portrayed by the gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw), unexpectedly meet in a flashy, party city known as “San Junipero.” Although they are polar opposites, they connect instantly.
Towards the first few scenes, Brooker indicates subtle hints that "San Junipero" is not exactly what we think. Kelly befriends Yorkie at Tucker’s, an 80s nightclub, while trying to avoid Wes (a guy she had a one night stand with). We receive our first hint about the reality of “San Junipero” when he tells Kelly: "Two hours, thirty five. There's not much time left." At first we might think that he is referring to the club closing for the night; later we realize that, literally, time is of the essence.
Almost admiring that Yorkie does not fit in with the scene; Kelly buys her a drink and encourages her to dance. Yorkie feels uncomfortable that she cannot dance, and that people are staring at her. Embarrassed, she rushes outside and Kelly follows her. Yorkie confesses that she is self-conscious that others will disapprove of her dancing with another woman. Kelly kindly reassures her that no one is judging her. Yorkie opens up to Kelly, learning that her parents never really allowed her to be happy. There is both disappointment and hope in Yorkie’s voice as she states that there are “so many things” she would like to do. As the conversation continues, Kelly makes an advance on Yorkie. Yorkie panics and tells her she cannot because she has a fiancé. Yorkie walks away and immediately regrets rejecting Kelly. As the scene closes, Yorkie steps in a puddle of rain that shows the reflection of a mystical moon.
The next scene opens with the title, “One Week Later” and we briefly hear the catchy, sardonic Smith’s tune, “Girlfriend in a Coma” (another clue given by Brooker). In the awkward, comedic scene, Yorkie is attempting to find her style. She tries on various clothes from different eras, but decides on her former good-girl look. She returns to Tucker’s to find Kelly, but quickly expresses discouragement when she sees Kelly dancing and talking with another man. She follows Kelly into the bathroom and surrenders to her, telling her that she “does not know how to do this” and to “help her.”
After Yorkie and Kelly make love, a satisfied Kelly remarks, “You’ve never slept with a woman before.” The two then intimately discuss their lives, and Yorkie tells her she has never had sex with anyone before (even though she is engaged to a man named Greg). Yorkie then curiously asks Kelly about her sexuality. It is clear that Yorkie has never had the opportunity to talk to anyone about being a lesbian, until now. Kelly tells Yorkie that she is bisexual and has always known her attraction to women, but has never acted on being with one because she was in love with her husband.
After the night they share, Yorkie goes through different time periods to reconnect with Kelly, but has trouble finding her. A sight for sore eyes, Yorkie is relieved when she finally finds Kelly in the millennium. Kelly, on the other hand, is not so happy to see her and walks away from her. Hurt and confused, Yorkie pours her heart out, essentially telling her that she has fallen in love with her. After a heated argument, Kelly gives in and tells Yorkie that she did not plan for her, but has fallen for her too. The two spend the rest of the night together discussing the future.
In another honest conversation, Kelly tells Yorkie that she has “three months” because “it has spread everywhere” (assuming she is referring to cancer). Yorkie thinks that Kelly is going to stay in “San Junipero” but she tells her that “when she is done, she is done;” the reason behind this is her late husband Richard, who chose to leave without ever visiting or staying in “San Junipero.” Astonished that Richard would chose to leave Kelly, Yorkie expresses gratitude for a place like San Junipero because, without it, she would have never met Kelly. Yorkie does not believe that Kelly would ever really like someone like her, but Kelly insists on really meeting her. Although she is hesitant, Yorkie agrees to allow Kelly to visit her in Santa Rosa, California (where she is residing). Kelly is living in Carson City, Nevada.
Nothing is as pretty as it seems. We finally discover the truth about “San Junipero.” “San Junipero” is a virtual reality for the almost-dead, who are given the chance to visit (as tourist) and for those who "pass" and decide to stay permanently (full-timers/locals). "San Junipero" is generated by a “Cloud” which connects to the mind and allows the user to live in a simulation of their choice. We learn that the “real” Kelly is an elderly woman who is suffering from (what seems to be) cancer, and has about three months to live. The “real” Yorkie is a quadriplegic, who has been in a coma for over 40 years. Yorkie lost her limbs when she was 21 after suffering a car accident, the same day she came out to her parents (who as a result disowned her). Yorkie is set to marry Greg the following day (Greg has agreed to marry her so that she can be euthanized since her family has refused to euthanize her). In understanding that Greg is marrying Yorkie as a favor, the selfless and compassionate Kelly offers to marry Yorkie instead.
My heart sank into my stomach seeing the physical and mental condition that Yorkie and Kelly are really experiencing. For anyone who is sitting comfortably on their behind, “San Junipero” also serves as a raw reminder that our current lives are only temporary and sickness is very real and very ugly. I wholeheartedly sympathize with Yorkie and her choice of wanting to stay in “San Junipero” post-death. The scene where the “real” Kelly kisses bedridden Yorkie on her forehead is one of the most humane connections I have seen on television.
After Kelly and Yorkie marry, Yorkie passes over to “San Junipero.” We return to the “real” Kelly, who returns to her assisted home and is connected to the “Cloud.” In “San Junipero,” she visits Yorkie in a wedding dress and the two ride off together. Yorkie later breaks down and begs Kelly to stay with her in “San Junipero.” Kelly tells her that even though she does not believe in heaven or any form of the afterlife, she owes it to her late husband and daughter to leave as they did. She then recklessly drives off, crashing her car and endangering herself, but in “San Junipero” she cannot be harmed. Maybe she wanted to feel as Yorkie did when she crashed at 21? Towards the end of her life, Kelly realizes that she has something to live for again, even if it means that she cannot be with her late husband and daughter. It is clear that Yorkie has given Kelly purpose. Resilient Kelly speaks her last words: “All things considered, I think I’m ready." Her caretaker asks, "For what?" "For the rest of it,” Kelly responds. We then see Kelly with Yorkie driving in their new car and dancing in "San Junipero,"an indication that Kelly has chosen to live out her new virtual reality with her wife, Yorkie.Fans of Black Mirror understand that the show requires plenty of patience and an open mind. The beauty of “San Junipero” is that initially it gives the impression of being shallow and superficial, but as the episode reaches its climax, the story becomes unexpectedly reflective.In a matter of an hour, Brooke is able to create a unique love story that allows the relationship of two main characters to develop. We are all enlightened by this episode, in particular, because it gives us something that the other episodes are missing: HOPE. Black Mirror typically thrives on dark themes showing the viewer how technology can be our biggest enemy (I still get goose bumps when I think of the episode, “Shut Up and Dance”). For once, the message “San Junipero” gives us is that technology might be able to free us from all the horrible crap existing in the world.How many of us think about death at some point in our lives?Every human has (at least once) questioned what happens after we die. We interpret it with ideas about religion, faith, or nothingness;now we can consider a different perspective. "San Junipero" gives us something more to think about. Even if we acknowledged the truth, how many of us could say that if we were given a second chance to create our own reality that we wouldn’t take it?
"San Junipero" also made me question my existence. A year ago, I had someone close to me nearly die. Since that day, I have wondered more about death and the afterlife than ever before. We all want to be in control of our lives, but death serves as the biggest proof that we truly are nowhere near controlling our lives. At any given second our lives could end. My point is that Brooker's idea of an alternative afterlife is ingenious because it gives certainty to what would normally be unknown. We have no knowledge of what actually exists after death. I believe in God, but I still have my doubts. Although I have faith, I have always questioned my existence because almost everything about this life is indefinite (this might sound like a contradiction but it's not). If we were gifted with the truth about the aftermath of death, would we be able to handle it? I know this much: if I could not exist on my own terms because of external forces, and were granted a second opportunity to exist and recreate my reality, I would take it in a heart beat. The glory about "San Junipero" is that it is not end-all so you can call it quits at anytime.
I also applaud Brooker for his insightful ending and admire that he wrote a story line for television where, finally, a romantic relationship between two women concludes on a happier note. Brooker does not make sexuality the major focus of "San Junipero," but between the dialogue provided, it is evident that he wants to shed light upon some of the issues of being a lesbian in society. He does so without making anyone appear weak, and on the contrary, allows room for, not one, but two, heroines. Even though the two main characters die; Brooker gives one the chance to experience love again, and the other to experience love for the first time. Despite it being a virtual reality, imagine a place where you can live and love without shame or fear. Of course some people already have this acceptance, but because ignorance and hate still exists it is sometimes impossible to achieve this kind of understanding. As fluffy and impractical as "San Junipero" seems, I adored every bit of the episode because for an uneasy subject such as death, it exceeds in its optimistic message that something better is waiting for us outside of this world.