BY REECE GUIDA
Have you ever wondered how old souls would spend their time if they were graced again with the health of their younger bodies? This is the question of Black Mirror’s Season 3 episode four, “San Junipero,” where two women at the end of their lives, Yorki (who has been in a coma for 40 years after getting into a car accident at 21 after coming out to her parents) and Kelly (who is in a retirement home dying from cancer) get a chance to meet as their younger selves and form a romantic relationship because of a technology that mentally transports its user to a virtual paradise from their decade of choice. Living people who are impaired or in retirement homes can use this technology on a once-weekly trial run, but those who die and choose to have their consciousness uploaded to Tuckr databases can experience San Junipero for all eternity, or whenever they choose to opt out of it. The ethical issue of this technological immortality are played out in the relationship of Kelly and Yorki. While Yorki accepts the virtual paradise as an authentic mode of experience, Kelly is more hesitant, recalling her 49-year marriage to her husband who chose not to be uploaded to San Junipero because their dead daughter didn’t get that chance since the technology did not yet exist.
Some general backstory is required. Like all Black Mirror episodes, this is set in the near future and is meta. By meta, I mean how the show comments on technology complicating the essence of our humanity while remaining self-aware of what it is—a TV show played on the “black mirrors” of our unlit screens. Broadly, this episode carries that tradition by comparing the virtual paradise of San Junipero to a movie or video game. In “San Junipero,” Yorki finds herself in a South Beach-esque club amidst bad hair and a sea of varsity jackets. She is, however, drawn to the arcade room instead of the dance floor. In the arcade, a cute dork in glasses asks Yorki if she will play a racing game with him, to which she flinches and retreats after seeing the car crash.
Keep Yorki’s reaction in mind, along with the lovable dork’s following comment on the racing game, which is seemingly unimportant but actually hints at the broader artistic intent to this episode: “It’s got different endings depending if you’re in one or two player. It was one of the first games to do that.” In hindsight, I realized that this comment determines the course of the episode and the ethical question I referred to about technological immortality in the first paragraph. The dork, who appears two more times in the episode as an arcade prophet of sorts, is covertly referring to how this episode will end differently if Yorki exists permanently in San Junipero by herself or with Yorki.
After fleeing the arcade room, Yorki meets Kelly, an equally beautiful woman who uses Yorki as a cover to avoid talking with a guy that has been pursuing her. After the man has left and the two begin flirting, Kelly says, “People try so hard to look how they think they should look. Like they’re in some movie.” Movies, and arcades are considered enjoyable activities, which is reinforced by the limited setting of this episode thus far—nightclubs. (The episode also has a soundtrack based on hits of the decades it encompasses, trying to accurately simulate a time period like a movie does). In this world of leisure, these physically limited individuals can experience social and sexual pleasure. Kelly and Yorki become intimate after a cat and mouse game, but the next few weeks, Yorki cannot find Kelly—she seems to be avoiding her. At last, Yorki finds Kelly in 2002 in the arcade room of Tucker’s bar. As soon as the two lock eyes, the Dance Dance Revolution machine intercedes, saying, “You’re beautiful, select a song.” The way that arcade scenes dictate the structure of the episode suggests that this episode is an elaborate dance between lovers Kelly and Yorki. This is not too surprising, considering that people in retirement homes enjoy loads of sex.
At this moment, the conflict between Kelly and Yorki is evident; Kelly tells herself that she only wants fun (like someone who refuses to be tied down in hookup culture), not the more serious pleasures of love. From a LGBTQ perspective, this show also depicts women coming out and finally experiencing the homosexual pleasure that was unavailable to them in their physical reality outside of San Junipero: Yorki couldn’t access in a coma and that Yorki denied herself because of her love for her husband.
After Yorki and Kelly have reunion sex, we learn that Yorki needs marital approval to euthanize herself so that she might live in San Junipero, to override the wishes of her religious/conservative parents. In San Junipero, Kelly proposes to Yorki, and the two are married in reality so that Yorki can pass over, or stay in San Junipero after her death, which follows the wedding. When they meet for their honeymoon in San Junipero, the two get into a fight about Kelly staying in San Junipero after she eventually dies. Frustrated, Kelly commits suicide in San Junipero after their fight by driving her car off the road, only to awake unscathed at the sight of Kelly’s white-garbed body angelically holding her arms out before she is transported back to reality at midnight. This seemingly simultaneous marriage-death comments on how technology is marrying reality to the virtual world, and that departing from our earthly bodies can count as being born again in the digital realm. After this honeymoon dispute about Kelly not wanting to pass over in San Junipero to honor her dead husband, she changes her mind to spend paradise in San Junipero with Yorki.
Their union at the end of the episode diverges from Black Mirror’s traditional bleakness. The upbeat 1980s anthem “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays in the outro credits agaisnt scenes of Tucker databases infinitely huge server room, where millions of files of consciousness are uploaded to their heavenly cloud. We understand through Kelly and Yorki’s love story how technology might seem to offer a fundamentally hollow experience, but, as Kelly says on the beach after their marriage, “This all feels so real!” If what we perceive is our reality, then does it matter if what we see, feel, hear, touch, and taste is made out of pixels instead of atoms?