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The best episode of Black Mirror is the least Black Mirrory of them all

Like a lot of you, I’ve just finished binge-watching Season 3 of Black Mirror.

Although I enjoyed (perhaps not the right word) all six episodes, I agree with the apparent critical consensus: the best episode of the bunch is the fourth episode, which is entitled ‘San Junipero’.

It’s kind of ironic that ‘San Junipero’ is the standout episode, because in some ways it is the least Black Mirrory of them all.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, Black Mirror takes place in a near future, which has been described as “five minutes away”. It’s a future in which technology is either out of control or used for malevolent ends. It’s also a future in which technology ultimately leads to the characters’ downfall.

Until ‘San Junipero’, every episode of Black Mirror, including – and perhaps especially- the Christmas special, has ended on a downer. ‘San Junipero’ represents a departure from this tradition, and is the first (and last?) episode to have a “happy ending”.

Just how happy that ending is will be contingent on a) how you interpret the closing shots and b) your spiritual/philosophical beliefs. But more on that later.

*Obligatory spoiler warning*

So, a super quick recap – ‘San Junipero’ is the name of a virtual realm in which the dying can holiday and the dead can inhabit. That’s five hours a week for the dying and eternity for the dead. The episode focuses on two women, Yorkie and Kelly, who unexpectedly fall love in San Junipero. The catch is that Yorkie is about to die and Kelly isn’t so sure she is ready to commit to “life” in San Junipero.

Several things make this episode truly great.

Although other time periods are possible, what we see the most of is the ’80s. Fresh on the heels of the success of Netflix’s Stranger Things, this is either a nice coincidence or an extremely savvy choice by Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror. At any rate, who doesn’t love the ’80s? The music, the clothes, the video games, the…hair.

Three images of puffy 1980s hair

Hair Crimes of the ’80s, Exhibit A

If anything, Brooker is a master of mise-en-scène. The episode opens with a shot of a The Lost Boys poster, which functions as both an indication of the era and nod to the undead state of the inhabitants. Not long after that, we also see a collection of TVs showing ’80s icon Max Headroom, a character that was a true pioneer of the digital realm.

There are other small details to watch out for too. For example, after entering the arcade, a nerdy guy asks Yorkie to join him in a game of the racing game Top Speed. On the game’s screen we see the red car crash and then Yorkie uncomfortably declines. Later, we find out that she has been a quadriplegic for forty years, following a car crash she had at the age of 21.

Like a lot of Black Mirror, ‘San Junipero’ is primarily character-driven, and the two leads are played excellently by Mackenzie Davis (Yorkie) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Kelly). Mackenzie perfectly embodies the awkwardness of Yorkie, which I’m sure it is no accident sounds like “dorky”. As her foil, Mbatha-Raw adeptly navigates the varying emotions necessary for her portrayal of Kelly. Together, the women create a wonderful and believable chemistry that sells the emotional core that is so central to the episode. And it’s great to see a lesbian couple that isn’t necessarily doomed.

Another particularly zeitgeist element of the episode is the technology itself.

With the cloud increasingly becoming a part of our lives and the recent emergence of decent VR tech, the world of San Junipero doesn’t seem so crazy. The uploading-of-your-total-self part is where it gets murky, but as always, the enjoyment of sci-fi is reliant on a slight suspension of disbelief. Too preposterous and it’s silly, but a little hard to imagine and it’s just right. ‘San Junipero’ is right in the sweet spot of believable/cray. I would argue that several of the other episodes in this season veer towards the silly end of this scale.

So how about that ending?

On the surface it may appear well and good. Yorkie and Kelly can live and love together forever in San Junipero. Yup, Heaven is a Place on Earth alright. However, this doesn’t take into account those with religious beliefs. Kelly’s husband already chose to die the good old-fashioned way with the hope that he could be reunited with his daughter in “actual” heaven.

As an avid Black Mirror fan, I can’t have been the only one waiting for a dark twist at the end. “Maybe the computer servers will experience a power failure,” I guiltily thought.

One Redditor went even further, suggesting that Kelly never actually “passed over”, so that Yorkie is just happily kicking it with a Kelly simulation. After all, if they can create a whole world, why not just make a Kelly too?

I don’t buy it, and I prefer the dominant reading: Kelly passed over and her and Yorkie are “living” eternally in bliss.

But more than any other episode, ‘San Junipero’ got under my skin, both emotionally and intellectually. The episode asks us big questions and then it ends. This is not to say the ending is unsatisfactory. Quite the opposite – it leaves us wanting more.

Can you really live happily with someone forever? If I copy me to the cloud is it still me? Once permanently in San Junipero can I opt out at any point? How do I go about switching eras? Can bad things I imagine happen there too? Just how free am I? Are there trolls in there?

Perhaps one day our VR will get so good that we won’t feel the need to conquer other worlds. Sorry Mr. Musk, but why explore outer space, when we can roam the vast universe of inner space?

Even if you accept the ending as happy, there is something pretty creepy about having the essence of “you” reduced to some blinking lights in a robot–controlled server farm. No matter how cool the soundtrack is.

Brooker has said that ‘San Junipero’ was the first episode he wrote for the new season and that the different tone was done intentionally, as a response to critics. And in breaking with his own traditions, Brooker achieved something special with ‘San Junipero’.

It is well known that artists often produce their best work under confined conditions.

Brooker’s limitations were an “American” episode with a happy ending.

The result is a real knockout – the best episode of Black Mirror yet.

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