BLACK MIRROR may be the series that breaks the idiotic fad of multi-episodic arcs concocted purely to fabricate vacuous suspense for an entire season while nothing of import actually occurs. This trend reached its zenith with six seasons of J.J. Abrams’ LOST, the last four of which appallingly exploited one’s patience. We aren’t completely rid of the habit. MR. ROBOT thrives in spite of its ongoing arc, but that’s in part because its characters are each fascinatingly layered and complex.
Created for Channel 4 and migrated to Netflix, this anthology’s episodes each run a full sixty minutes in which not every question is resolved. However, we are meant to ponder the ones that aren’t rather than waiting like dupes for an answer promised that never comes, perhaps until after death. Does that make network television a religion?
Writer/Producer Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR is part Twilight Zone, part Amazing Stories… Both series explored how the modern world, culture, and technology, affected our lives by turning one or another element on its side. In BLACK MIRROR, the result is often a sobering social commentary on our sociocultural trajectory, given how technology enables our narcissism and distances us just enough to obliterate our empathy. “San Junipero” tries the obverse route, a world that steers away from Orwell and Bradbury’s dystopias… or does it?
SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t already seen the episode, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.
In 1987 a bespectacled, diffident Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) finds herself in a bar/arcade called Tucker’s. An awkward teen, Davis (Billy Griffin Jr.), chums up to her by explaining that the coin-op she’s playing has multiple endings. Davis strikes out through no fault of his own. A good kid who means well, he might write parodies of 80s pop music some day. Yorkie looks and feels out of place even in a time to which she’s perfectly suited. We don’t yet make anything else of learning that her eyeglasses are purely for effect. Enter Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the fiery club kid in a sequined denim jacket–riffing off Appollonia in PURPLE RAIN. She and Yorkie hit it off immediately, by which point you think you see where this is all going, but you don’t. What follows will take you through an emotional and temporal journey on par with the series finale of Six Feet Under.
As the episode progresses, clues drop that all is not as it seems. Yorkie observes that the fashions look like they were copied from a movie, as if Tucker’s were a carefully crafted facsimile of the 1980’s. We might dismiss this as evidence of the pop culture echo chamber the 80’s really were–fashions copied from MTV, Miami Vice, Pretty in Pink… But the seams in the curtain start to rip: Repeated references to time limits and the differences between seeming and being alive. San Junipero, it turns out, is a virtual space where the elderly and the terminally ill go to die.
As the veil lifts on San Junipero’s inner workings, we discover that Yorkie fell into a coma at 21 following her attempt at vehicular suicide, and Kelly’s health is failing but they’re both roughly the same age. A romance ignites, but what could these two have in common?
The episode’s leitmotif dwells in Kelly and Yorkie’s separate but constant gaze westward to the ocean. Symbolically, it fits that Yorkie’s youth was spent on the open coast with an uncharted future ahead of her, whereas Kelly had planted her roots firmly in the landlocked soil of the Nevada desert. Kelly had a husband, Richard, for more than forty years, and a daughter, Alison. In San Junipero, named for the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra y Ferrer who founded 21 missions along the California coast, she shows Yorkie the house that reminds her of her younger days. It’s not her childhood home. It’s where she raised Alison (that’s her in the photograph, not Kelly’s mother) who died at 39.
While Yorkie is scheduled to “pass over”, to become a permanent resident of the nostalgia-laden cybersociety, Kelly refuses. She cannot bear the guilt of having the second chance her daughter never did. There are allusions to religious faith (or the lack thereof) which poke around the edges of the question burning at the center of the episode: In what sense does our existence matter?
Let’s ignore the fact that cosmically we’re all pretty irrelevant in a universe that has, it turns out, ten times as many galaxies as previously thought (2 trillion for those counting). For Yorkie’s ultra-religious family, passing over is out of the question. The workaround presents a moral dilemma for Kelly who could spend her remaining days mourning her daughter, or she could spare Yorkie an eternity of the same loneliness she suffered in a life likewise cut too short.
Is there a meaning, a purpose to that virtual existence? Is there a meaning to this one? If our identity is the product of our collection of memories and experiences, then aren’t the digital copies of Yorkie’s and Kelly’s memories and experiences also them? Perhaps not in the sense of biological continuity, but a transcendent “them”, breaking off from the continuity of space and time that their physical bodies experience–a virtual alternate universe. Will they find it difficult to relate, separated by fifty years of experiences? Will they get bored in this universe? Then again, what kind of a life was Yorkie really living as a closeted young adult trapped in the body of a comatose quadriplegic -or- Kelly waiting to die to, ironically, seek relief from harsh realities–abandoning rather than confronting her fear of attachment, twice? If we were talking about two people in the living world, my answer would be: Is it any of our god damned business?
And perhaps that’s the point that “San Junipero” drives home more cleverly than any LGBT romance I’ve seen to date. Mainstream attempts to tackle LGBT issues over-sexualize the story, particularly with regard to women’s same sex relationships as if they exist solely in service to the male gaze. On the other hand, within the community, story after story emphasizes victimization at the hands of our homophobic culture. We never see Yorkie’s parents and we never once are presented with a version of Kelly and Yorkie made to satisfy the egos of male broadcast network executives. This is Yorkie and Kelly’s slow dance; naught else matters.
There’s a scene at the Quagmire, another bar in San Junipero where full-timers go to mosh, to fight, to push extremes in a feeble attempt to try to feel anything. When Yorkie’s searching in vain for Kelly who seems to have fallen off the face of the server, one of Kelly’s exes suggests trying other time periods. If I had to guess, I’d say Kelly’s daughter was born in the 00’s. Why did he help Yorkie? It’s not clearly established, but it hints that Wes (Gavin Stenhouse) realizes what all the Red Pillers, MRA and PUA types don’t. It’s not about you.
Then why, my wife wondered, is there an overwhelming response from men shipping Yorkie and Kelly’s romance as it’s presented? The space-and-time-crossed lovers aren’t even heavily fleshed out as characters. We know nothing about them outside of this story. SIX FEET UNDER took six seasons to build our relationship with the characters to a point that made the series finale so devastating. How the hell does Brooker manage this in a single episode? That’s where the 80’s comes in.
Albeit anecdotal, I’d surmise that a survey of male Gen X’ers and Millennials would single out the 80’s as the decade for which we feel the greatest degree of nostalgia. Fans of BLACK MIRROR have commented on how fantastic the soundtrack is, how many nods and winks there are. But there’s something deeply philosophical at work underneath the retro trivia: some are too young to know that the upbeat tone of new wave and pop was our form of escapism from the realities of the Cold War, de-industrialization and mounting national debt–hurdles no child wants to have to deal with. It’s hard enough finding your identity and learning to be comfortable with it.
And here we are. Millennials are searching for that same escape, as the first generation to be poorer and less educated than their predecessors. One by one our heroes fell over the course of the two decades hence: Freddie, MJ, Bowie, Prince whose party anthem was, presciently, a polemic about nuclear armageddon. The punchline: Donald Trump is running for president.
Through these brief interactions of our story’s heroes, we’re transported back to childhood (a recurring device in film; poignantly revisited in FIELD OF DREAMS during James Earl Jones’ baseball monologue that isn’t really about baseball). In youth, our senses are more raw: Crushes hit us intensely; one song can save or destroy you. Adolescence is the place where our memories pop, where colors and sounds play the loudest. It’s the place we all go to when we long to feel again.
That’s why we get Kelly and Yorkie. If the mundane cynicism of adulthood is a Quagmire, Tucker’s (Flynn’s?) is the escape. Fuck the apocalypse. Down the blue pill, throw on your Vans or slouch boots and party like it’s 1999. Y2K forever…