The very best episode of ‘Black Mirror’ takes a detour to the ‘80s to inform a timeless queer love story.
This essay is a part of our collection Episodes, a month-to-month column during which TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of tv that make the medium nice. This time she’s revisiting arguably top-of-the-line episodes of Black Mirror, “San Junipero.”
When the deceptively dreamy queer romance “San Junipero” premiered in October 2016, Black Mirror wasn’t recognized for its love tales. The dystopic, tech-obsessed Charlie Brooker collection had so far featured stories that ranged from bleak to horrifying, with an occasional detour into pitch-black humor. However love? That wasn’t within the present’s repertoire, so when glitzy, vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Uncooked) sidled as much as wide-eyed, barely sq. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), followers had been bracing themselves for the worst. As an alternative, what we bought was the most effective of a collection that, for simply an hour, lastly lived as much as its Twilight Zone comparisons. “San Junipero” is sci-fi at its most ebullient, a layer cake of pleasure and uncooked emotion that ends, miraculously, in a spot of carefree love.
For the primary half of the episode, the story appears to happen within the ‘80s, within the celebration city of San Junipero. It’s there that Yorkie meets Kelly, when the glam woman pops into the sales space beside the newcomer and says, “No matter I say, go together with it!” It’s an instruction meant to encourage Yorkie to improv alongside as Kelly avoids an previous flame, however it might be Yorkie’s new motto. Lengthy earlier than we work out precisely what’s happening in San Junipero, it’s clear that Yorkie isn’t very skilled in any respect the issues that Kelly loves: dancing and chatting and flirting with women. She’s a little bit awkward however recreation for something – besides the racing online game with photographs of automobile crashes that she blinks away with a shaken look.
With its sapphic romance and deeply felt story, “San Junipero” got here alongside on the good time to turn out to be a pop cultural phenomenon, however shippers had been proper to like it; Davis and Mbatha-Uncooked have incredible chemistry. Yorkie likes Kelly for her confidence and expertise, whereas Kelly’s curiosity is piqued by the truth that Yorkie, the one woman in San Junipero with glasses, doesn’t attempt to be anybody however herself. Solely, Yorkie has a tough time being herself when the 2 dance collectively. She will get overwhelmed and leaves the dance ground to get some air. When Kelly catches up together with her, she makes the primary of many small admissions that trace at her full story. She’s by no means been on a dance ground, she says. She has a fiance named Greg, and when Kelly asks her to mattress, Yorkie leaves her with an ungainly handshake as an alternative.
Black Mirror isn’t good, however a lot of its greatest episodes function impressively unguessable twists. “San Junipero” isn’t any totally different, however it neatly refuses to deal with its twists like a thriller to be solved. As an alternative, Brooker litters the script with casually talked about particulars that make the uncanny nature of the town of San Junipero clear, even when the reality about it isn’t. Kelly and Yorkie can solely meet on Saturdays and hang around till midnight. A person on the bar who appears to be in his 20s talks about getting microsurgery for his kneecaps. Individuals make a pointy distinction between the vacationers and locals, the latter of which one character says “are like useless folks.” It’s all unusual however not precisely ominous.
Earlier than Brooker performs his hand, Yorkie and Kelly go to mattress collectively. Yorkie says she’s by no means been with anybody earlier than, whereas Kelly admits she was married to a person who “selected to not stick round.” By the point Yorkie opens up concerning the root of her thrill-seeking, saying, “Now it’s me, and I’m passing by means of and earlier than I go away, I’ll have a superb time,” it’s arduous to recollect what sort of present we’re watching. Mbatha-Uncooked infuses the character with a way of self-possession that may be aspirational in a single scene and heartbreaking within the subsequent. She’s the best woman within the room, and she or he chooses to be on their own.
It’s that behavior of detachment that results in the episode’s disorienting second act. The following weekend, Yorkie can’t discover Kelly, and when she begins on the lookout for her, issues get bizarre. Brooker and episode director Owen Harris start to make the strangeness of this world evident simply as Yorkie begins to see it not as a getaway however as a lonely cage for wanderers who don’t know what to do with themselves. She goes to a membership Kelly talked about, and it seems to be a hotbed of BDSM, brawling, and diverse self-destruction. Yorkie punches a mirror, and it’s out of the blue again to regular, alongside together with her bloodied hand. Midway by means of the episode, the premise of the episode is dropped into dialog with a wonderfully understated reveal. Kelly’s buddy doesn’t know the place she is, he says, however he’s noticed her in “the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2002 one time.”
It seems San Junipero is a simulation, a spot the place folks can celebration and play with out the concerns of their actual life. Solely when Yorkie and Kelly do reunite we discover out, it’s not that straightforward. The know-how is named “immersive nostalgia remedy.” Whereas it was initially designed to assist dementia, it may also be the everlasting residence of dying purchasers whose consciousness is uploaded into the system. Out of the blue, this candy love story has some ethically terrifying penalties. Yorkie says she’s dying and doesn’t need to keep in San Junipero; her husband handed away two years in the past, and he’s elsewhere now.
“San Junipero” might’ve simply gotten misplaced within the painful underpinnings of its plot, the harm and heartache that pulls dying folks to a made-up city. However as an alternative, it treats San Junipero as one thing actual. This isn’t to say that the present takes an moral stance about digital actuality, however that it acknowledges the great thing about collaboratively created digital areas. When Yorkie and Kelly inform one another the place they stay in actual life and make tentative, anxious plans to satisfy, it’s a dialog that has echoes of two web pals deciding to plan a real-life hangout. Simply because the relationships solid on message boards or Twitter timelines or in group chats are actual, so, too, is the tender, tentative love Yorkie and Kelly domesticate in San Junipero.
It’s that tenderness that makes their real-life assembly essentially the most poignant a part of their star-crossed love story. Kelly, in actual life an aged girl with a couple of months to stay, has a youthful, barely giddy nervousness when she steps into Yorkie’s hospital room. Her lover, it seems, is in a coma. She has been since she drove off the highway 40 years in the past after popping out as homosexual to her mother and father. All of Yorkie’s traumas and all of her innocence out of the blue make sense, and Kelly takes within the information – informed to her by Yorkie’s “fiance,” a caretaker marrying her to provide her the authorized proper to euthanasia – with grace. There’s no deception in love, simply items of an individual you haven’t put collectively but. When Kelly lastly has all of the items of Yorkie, she items them again collectively and admires what she sees.
The story doesn’t finish with a easy fortunately ever after. Earlier than the pair journey off into the sundown to the poppy pleasure of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” they should face some robust truths. Kelly doesn’t need to transfer on when her husband isn’t together with her. Yorkie is younger at coronary heart and desires all of her love on a regular basis. Even as soon as the pair have married in actual life – a symbolic but honest marriage, since each will quickly die – they battle in San Junipero. However life is brief, and love feels good, and what’s the purpose of ceaselessly if it’s not together with your favourite particular person? “All issues thought of, I suppose I’m prepared,” Kelly says at some point, as soon as her physique has all however failed. “For what?” her personal caretaker says. “For the remainder of it,” Kelly solutions.
As a queer, interracial love story that additionally takes on age and incapacity, “San Junipero” felt like a minor miracle in 2016, and it nonetheless does now. It’s a gem of significant illustration in the midst of a philosophical black gap of a collection. It’s additionally one of many sunniest interpretations of existentially upsetting matters like immortality, sentience, and autonomy ever put to display. It’s straightforward to look to the longer term and see solely darkness, however each every so often, Black Mirror reminds us we’d do effectively to consider tomorrow and movie a glittering sort of affection — the type that thrives within the gentle of day.
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