Black Mirror: 304 “San Junipero” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Every now and then, something happens in the world that genuinely surprises you. And in 2016, we’ve been blessed/cursed with an endless veritable smorgasbord of events that just seem to come out of nowhere. Now, we have possibly the most unprecedented of them all; a Black Mirror episode with an ending that isn’t soul-crushing or bleak, and is in fact- take a deep breath- decidedly uplifting.
We open San Junipero with Mackenzie Davis’ Yorkie, shyly and unsurely walking towards a vibrant club named Tuckers in late 1987. Stepping inside, Tuckers is a strange blend of two worlds, of a classic American diner aesthetic and of sugary 80’s nostalgia. Once inside, she’s asked to act as a cover story for Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly to get away from a persistent admirer, and the two strike up a friendship that blossoms into something much more than that. The central performances here are utterly sublime- this episode would simply not work if the actresses involved were any less than 100% committed to their parts to play, but because their chemistry together is so fully realised- so honest, so tender yet powerful- that it’s palpable. Yorkie is a shy, aloof type while Kelly is the spirited life of the party, yet they are a terrific match. When their love for each other begins to shine bright it’s electric. The circumstances of their characters are indeed so terrible, so tragic, that to see them in their younger guise, their prime, is immensely powerful. In reality, Kelly is an old, widowed woman from a long marriage who is dying in a hospice waiting for terminal cancer to take her. Yorkie is a paraplegic who has been in a coma since she was 21 and spent decades in it, and the contrast between the two characters in their different age states is striking. And yet, their love remains just as strong once their circumstances are revealed, because that’s the power of San Junipero- the technology of the episode that is described as a “nostalgia therapy” for Alzheimer’s sufferers, that offers older or terminally ill patients the chance to live out a paradise world for 5 hours every week, with dead citizens being permanent San Juniperans.
The San Junipero technology on offer is rather overwhelming, seeing the effect it can have. Watching Yorkie being able to walk for the first time in decades, being able to do all the things she has been denied by being in a coma for so long. Simple shots like her at the beach enjoying the waves lap at her feet add immensely to the story. It’s astounding to see a piece of Black Mirror technology that is, first and foremost, a force for good, a tool for compassion and healing, something completely humane. Because of this, Charlie Brooker has offered us something that goes against the grain of all other episodes from the show, and is incomparably powerful for that.
The sheer beauty of this episode is of how wonderfully it all pulls together. The first half of the episode is deliciously vague, with certain details like why midnight means the end of the night’s frivolity are withheld. There are plenty of hinted details that never reveal the extent of the situation, and many character moments that reveal a huge amount about the characters upon rewatching, from Yorkie’s reaction to the car crashing on the arcade game (she was paralysed in a car crash when fleeing home after her family fought with her after she came out to them) to her being unable to dance very well- as she’s not had the chance since she was paralysed. It all adds up to make the episode more than a cohesive piece of work, it’s a truly special achievement, an exquisitely told story. The relationship at the core of the episode is overpowering at times- Kelly and Yorkie are so emphatically in love with each other than you can’t help but root for them completely. Yorkie’s initial discomfort and unsureness, asking Kelly to help her when the first throes of love take over, are undeniably beautiful, as this awkward introvert and the confident, extroverted party girl fall head over heels in love with each other. It puts a point on love truly transcending all- if you’re in love, you’re in love, and you can’t stop that feeling. It transcends their bed ridden, care home realities and permeates right into the paradise of San Junipero.
Director Owen Harris does a simply gorgeous job, proving without a shadow of a doubt that he is the go to director for when Black Mirror tells its most human stories, returning after Series 2’s crushingly emotional Be Right Back, where Hayley Atwell attempted to resurrect her recently deceased ex. The aesthetics in the episode are simply second to none- from the wide, sweeping shots of the beautiful locations on show to the pitch-perfect original soundtrack by Clint Mansell (which tenderly manipulates our emotions at just the right times) and the lyrical soundtrack of chosen hits that are all relevant to the story in ways you don’t initially realise- from The Smiths’ Girlfriend in a Coma to INXS’ Need You Tonight. The real master stroke here comes from the use of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth though. Just like the use of Radiohead in the previous episode, the use of Carlisle here matches symbiotically with what we see on screen- with the tone, the feeling, all that is unfolding. It’s the perfect marriage of music and visual storytelling, and is an impossibly satisfying pay-off for the episode to end on.
As you feel San Junipero might have played its final hand, when the credits begin to roll as Yorkie drives off to live her new confident and care-free live in paradise, you’re left on the knife-edge as you wait to see just what Kelly’s decision was, and the punch-the-air brilliant release when her decision to stay with Yorkie is revealed is effortlessly played. Despite being hamstrung by a promise she made to herself to pass over naturally and be with her husband and tragically early deceased daughter, Kelly realises that she can still be happy, and in love again. After all the suffering, all the anguish, reward. As Belinda Carlisle sings her heart out, shots of the content Yorkie and Kelly dancing carelessly together on the dancefloor are intercut with shots of the shining, dancing digital souls in the data banks where San Junipero resides. It’s poignant in a way that cuts deep to a multitude of emotions, but mostly just sheer joy. Their love has transcended everything- their circumstances, their fears, and the physical world itself into this digitalised paradise where their love can thrive. It’s hard to describe how I felt when I watched it, really. But the overwhelming thought that kept coming over me was that what I was watching was important. San Junipero is more than a television episode, it’s a feeling- and one that can speak to us all. It’s an all-time great love story.