Monday, January 10, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: San Junipero

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. We're moving up the list today to my #6, one of the best received of the bunch, the Emmy-winning San Junipero.

The Talent:
Showrunner/writer Charlie Brooker brought in Be Right Back's Owen Harris to direct, fitting in some ways as San Junipero is something of a brighter take on a similar story. Harris would go on to also helm Striking Vipers. Also of note: San Junipero stars slightly-before-they-were-more famous Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

The Setup:
Yorkie is a tourist visiting San Junipero, a pristine beach-side area filled with attractive young people and '80s style arcade clubs. Introverted but eager, Yorkie catches the eye of life of the party Kelly, whose advances send her running. One week later, they're hooking up, but now it's Kelly who's backing away. 

If you know more than one thing about San Junipero, it's that (SPOILER ALERT) "San Junipero" itself isn't real. Like many a Black Mirror world, it's a simulated reality. In this case, one designed as a digital afterlife.

Yorkie, who's been paraplegic for most of her adulthood, is ready to commit herself to an artificial heaven so long as Kelly can join her. But Kelly has lived a different life, one with a husband and daughter, both of whom died without packaging their essence into San Junipero's storage cabinet. Is it fair for her to abandon them at her end?

The Ending:
Apparently, yes, Kelly decides it is. In the rare happy ending for Black Mirror, Kelly and Yorkie are uploaded into the San Junipero cloud forever (or until a power surge wipes them out).

The Theme:
San Junipero hits very differently at different points in life, or more specifically, death. When I watched this episode a few years back, it felt like a breath of fresh, love-conquers-all energy from a show usually intent on crushing any ounce of optimism. We have, on average, 80 something years to get what we can out of life and for so many of us, that's just not enough time. Imagine a world so advanced that says, "you know what? You deserve more!" 

Today, I realize that this interpretation is the Yorkie version. She DOES deserve more, and why shouldn't she have it when her particular era has made that technology accessible?

But for Kelly, San Junipero represents something very different. While there's no real talk of life after death, Kelly does struggle with the idea that making a new commitment so close to her end is a betrayal of those she's loved. This time around, watching San Junipero so close to the loss of my own mother, I was very much touched by Denise Burse's performance as the earth-bound Kelly. Sure, the final song that plays over the credits is the fitting "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," but, well, what if it's not?

I generally fall into Charlie Brooker's school of empathetic atheism, so most of the morality in San Junipero lines up with my own. I suppose, if towards the end of my life, I'm given the chance to blissfully party in a consequence-free holodeck with my husband forever, I'd most likely take it (providing it also came with cheese, dogs, and air hockey). But there's also something that's been nagging me about this rewatch, and I suppose that's simply because I've thought a lot more about death and aging in the past month than ever before. 

Aging sucks. The wiser our minds grow, the weaker our bodies turn, and sure, none of us appreciate what we have when it's there. The idea that we deserve a chance to embody the full freedom of prime health with the knowledge of what came after is incredibly appealing. it real? Isn't the beauty of life the fact that it IS limited? 

Perhaps I can simply enjoy the sweetness of two worthy lovebirds and pretend its unofficial sequel in terms of world building was The Good Place, a similarly themed show that found the perfect way to express what it means to live a satisfying life with its finale. 

In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, his main character asks an omniscient narrator a devastating question that I often think about: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? His answer is no (well, "saints and poets, maybe") but in San Junipero, Charlie Brooker finds a way to cheat. It's a nice idea, but if you catch it in the wrong mindframe, it might not hold.

But maybe that's okay too? In Brooker's world of advanced technology guiding us in new directions, who's to say that a "fake" reality with a copy of your brain isn't good enough? 

Clearly, there's a lot to think about.

The Verdict:
San Junipero has a lot working in its favor: a distinct setting and visual style, whimsical tone, and most importantly, three deeply felt performances. I'm not going to be cute: this is a very good hour of television.

Technology Tip:
More general life than mere scientific innovation: always make a point to discuss your post-mortem plans with your life partner (and be sure to include stipulations for Futurama-esque developments)

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 2/10. There is some weight to Kelly having to make a heavy decision that might be betraying the family she made during her life, but for the most part, this is one of the most shockingly joyful episodes Black Mirror produced (unless you overthink it, like I did). There are additional theories floating around that there's a dark side to this version of the afterlife, but even Charlie Brooker has knocked those down, so let's just take this as a happy win, eh?

Quality Scale: 8/10
Sometimes, the Emmy awards actually get things right. This is quality storytelling done with heart.

Enjoyment Scale: 7/10
Also, it's sweet and pleasant, and hard to not feel warm watching (DEPENDING ON YOUR MINDFRAME WHEN DOING SO!).

Up Next:
We'll take a quick break in February to celebrate the Annual Shortening (wherein I focus the blog on vertically challenged villains) but come March, it's San Junipero's little sister, Hang the DJ!


  1. Ok so last year I wrote a blog post about San Junipero as well...


    ...and I also used the word whimsical to describe it! Funny, that.

    Sorry about your losing your mom. I can see how that would colour your second viewing of SJ. I really want to re-watch it because I liked it so much (I think it was a 9.5/10 for me) but don't know if I ever will because I'd hate to re-watch it and, for reasons like you mentioned, feel differently about it and come away liking it less. I think a lot of the way we experience art has to do with how we're feeling about the rest of our lives at that moment so I worry that I was at just the right place to receive SJ that first time around and love it, and don't want to have those feelings about it tainted by a second, perhaps less opportune viewing.

    1. Loved your post! And yes, I didn't even get into the style of this episode, but it really is smart in how easily it taps into our '80s nostalgia while not feeling forced.

      And yes, I think part of why this one is so special to so many is that it really does stand out as something so much more loving than the rest of the series (although the next episode on my list, Hang the DJ, comes somewhat close to it if memory serves). I definitely took it in as a creative love story on first watch, but just couldn't NOT focus on how it handled death this time around. Wonder if I'll see something even more different in it in another couple of years!