Season three of the science fiction anthology series “Black Mirror” has finally arrived on Netflix. Previous seasons explored our relationship to technology, specifically how evolving technologies might have a frightening impact on our lives. Season three, by and large, continues this trend. When storytelling is at its best it not only entertains, but also teaches us something about ourselves. “Black Mirror” attempts to look into a nebulous future and point out potential pitfalls. Like the seafaring maps of centuries past, the series outlines areas of uncharted territory and warns the viewer, fellow travelers on the road to the future, to tread lightly because here there be monsters.
Each episode tells a self-contained story with its own message or moral lesson. Within the coming digital pages, we’ll ponder the gospel of series to see if we can learn anything that might direct us more safely along our way.
Episode Four: “San Junipero”
This episode has been difficult for me to write about. It stands apart from the rest of “Black Mirror.” Most episodes take a modern technology, or a potential future technology, and outline the ways it might negatively impact our lives. Prior to “San Junipero” there hasn’t been a particularly upbeat story in the mix, but that’s all changed. This episode accomplished something the series had never done before, it left me hopeful.
From the very first shot you know this is going to be a different sort of story. Instead of being set in some vague near future, it’s clear from the “Lost Boys” posters, clothing styles, and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” on the stereo, that this episode takes place in the past. You ask yourself how that can be, it’ll all become clear before the hour is up, or before you reach the bottom of the page.
We’re introduced to Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) a socially awkward twenty-something as she enters a nightclub. After playing games at some arcade cabinets she strikes up a conversation with Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who buys her a Jack and Coke and takes her to the dance floor. Despite Yorkie’s clear interest in Kelly, her reserved and conservative upbringing prevents her from enjoying herself and she flees the dancefloor. When Kelly finds her outside she reveals that she’s never been on a dance floor before and was uncomfortable at the thought of everyone staring at two women dancing together. Kelly reassures her that no one in San Junipero is judging them but doesn’t push the issue. When Kelly invites Yorkie to bed, Yorkie tells her that she has a fiancé and leaves.
On screen text tells us that a week has gone by and Yorkie returns to the club in search of Kelly. Without speaking a word, we know that she’s set on making up for lost opportunities. Before the night is over they’re in bed together. Both parties seem content in each other’s company, but when Yorkie returns the following week, Kelly is nowhere to be found. In her search she ends up at a different club, The Quagmire, which makes the vampire orgies at the beginning of “Blade” seem like just another day. Here, residents of San Junipero come to find the limits of their experience. When Kelly can’t be found, Yorkie attempts to find her in other times. This isn’t exactly the first clue, but it’s the first time we’re certain that things in San Junipero aren’t exactly as they seem.
Yorkie finally catches up with Kelly a couple decades later, though neither of them have aged a day, and after some harsh words they reconnect. This is where the episode reveals its hand. Both Yorkie and Kelly aren’t the twenty-somethings they appear to be. Both are elderly women in care facilities.
Kelly is suffering from cancer that could take her at any time, the doctors told her she had three months to live. That was six months ago. Both her husband and her daughter have died ahead of her. Yorkie has no immediate threat of death but her circumstances are equally tragic, perhaps more so. She came out to her parents when she was twenty-one years old, they didn’t take it well. In the heat of the moment Yorkie drove off and suffered an accident that left her quadripilegic. She’s been in a coma ever since. Her only respite is her weekly five hours in San Junipero, a virtual city where the elderly are allowed temporary nostalgia therapy.
Each of us has a duty not to constrain the people we love.
The majority of the city’s residents (it’s estimated at roughly eighty percent) are actually dead. Having been permanently uploaded to the cloud where they spend their afterlife in the era of their choosing, never aging, never truly dying. Yorkie is set to marry Greg, a nurse that cares for her. Yorkie wants to die so that she can stay in San Junipero full time but her conservative family won’t allow it. A spouse can override their decision. When Kelly becomes aware of the circumstances she offers to marry Yorkie instead, Yorkie dies shortly thereafter. When Kelly returns to San Junipero a week later, Yorkie asks her to stay with her, In San Junipero, but Kelly declines.
What follows is a heated argument about the life she once had. The forty-nine year marriage, the deceased child who died before digital afterlives were a possibility, the husband who couldn’t stomach living forever when his child could not. Kelly made a promise to her husband and it’s one she intends to keep, despite believing that when she dies she won’t be with them again.
For the audience’s part, we get our happy ending. After some emotionally charged moments, Kelly does decide to stay with Yorkie in San Junipero. We see her take her last breaths as she says she’s “ready for the rest” and we see their consciousnesses added to a massive server system that runs the digital town.
“San Junipero” doesn’t offer a potentially evil technology. While there is an implication that perhaps forever is a bit too long. The existence of The Quagmire is evidence of that, immortal souls looking to feel anything again. It’s made clear however, that residents are free to delete themselves at any time. They aren’t eternal prisoners.
The real villain of the episode isn’t technology, but rather the constraints put on us by our closest relations. Yorkie’s family didn’t accept her in her youth, the point that she hid her true self until she was an adult. They couldn’t accept her even then and it led to a tragic accident that robbed her of the rest of her life. Only in her old age, in a virtual city, was she finally able to be herself. And then, even at the end of her life, they prevented her from making that final decision that would impact her life, namely when and how to end it.
Likewise, Kelly, despite having a whole and positive relationship with her husband and child, felt obligated to sacrifice a second chance at happiness because of promises made to the deceased. Promises made to individuals she knows no longer exist. She found herself beholden to an oath despite no one being around to enforce it.
The central message being that each of us has a duty not to constrain the people we love. Not to attempt to define their lives so that they fit comfortably into our own. Not to expect of them to live (or die) in a way that satisfies us. San Juniper offers hope for individuals who find themselves at the end of their lives and find that they aren’t quite ready to quit living. It also gives added meaning to Belinda Carlisle’s seminal ballad.