In ‘San Junipero,’ Heaven Is A Place On Earth

The best episode of ‘Black Mirror’ takes a detour to the ‘80s to tell a timeless queer love story.
Episodes San Junipero

This essay is part of our series Episodes, a monthly column in which TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s revisiting arguably one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, “San Junipero.”

When the deceptively dreamy queer romance “San Junipero” premiered in October 2016, Black Mirror wasn’t known for its love stories. The dystopic, tech-obsessed Charlie Brooker series had so far featured stories that ranged from bleak to horrifying, with an occasional detour into pitch-black humor. But love? That wasn’t in the show’s repertoire, so when glitzy, vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) sidled up to wide-eyed, slightly square Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), fans were bracing themselves for the worst. Instead, what we got was the best of a series that, for just an hour, finally lived up to its Twilight Zone comparisons. “San Junipero” is sci-fi at its most ebullient, a layer cake of joy and raw emotion that ends, miraculously, in a place of carefree love.

For the first half of the episode, the story seems to take place in the ‘80s, in the party town of San Junipero. It’s there that Yorkie meets Kelly, when the glam girl pops into the booth beside the newcomer and says, “Whatever I say, go along with it!” It’s an instruction meant to inspire Yorkie to improv along as Kelly avoids an old flame, but it may well be Yorkie’s new motto. Long before we figure out exactly what’s going on in San Junipero, it’s clear that Yorkie isn’t very experienced at all the things that Kelly loves: dancing and chatting and flirting with girls. She’s a little awkward but game for anything – except the racing video game with images of car crashes that she blinks away with a shaken look.

With its sapphic romance and deeply felt story, “San Junipero” came along at the perfect time to become a pop cultural phenomenon, but shippers were right to love it; Davis and Mbatha-Raw have fantastic chemistry. Yorkie likes Kelly for her confidence and experience, while Kelly’s curiosity is piqued by the fact that Yorkie, the only girl in San Junipero with glasses, doesn’t try to be anyone but herself. Only, Yorkie has a hard time being herself when the two dance together. She gets overwhelmed and leaves the dance floor to get some air. When Kelly catches up with her, she makes the first of many small admissions that hint at her full story. She’s never been on a dance floor, she says. She has a fiance named Greg, and when Kelly asks her to bed, Yorkie leaves her with an awkward handshake instead.

Black Mirror isn’t perfect, but many of its best episodes feature impressively unguessable twists. “San Junipero” is no different, but it smartly refuses to treat its twists like a mystery to be solved. Instead, Brooker litters the script with casually mentioned details that make the uncanny nature of the city of San Junipero clear, even if the truth about it isn’t. Kelly and Yorkie can only meet on Saturdays and hang out until midnight. A man at the bar who seems to be in his 20s talks about getting microsurgery for his kneecaps. People make a sharp distinction between the tourists and locals, the latter of which one character says “are like dead people.” It’s all strange but not exactly ominous.

Before Brooker plays his hand, Yorkie and Kelly go to bed together. Yorkie says she’s never been with anyone before, while Kelly admits she was married to a man who “chose not to stick around.” By the time Yorkie opens up about the root of her thrill-seeking, saying, “Now it’s me, and I’m passing through and before I leave, I’ll have a good time,” it’s hard to remember what kind of show we’re watching. Mbatha-Raw infuses the character with a sense of self-possession that can be aspirational in one scene and heartbreaking in the next. She’s the coolest girl in the room, and she chooses to be all alone.

It’s that habit of detachment that leads to the episode’s disorienting second act. The next weekend, Yorkie can’t find Kelly, and when she starts looking for her, things get weird. Brooker and episode director Owen Harris begin to make the strangeness of this world evident just as Yorkie begins to see it not as a getaway but as a lonely cage for wanderers who don’t know what to do with themselves. She goes to a club Kelly mentioned, and it turns out to be a hotbed of BDSM, brawling, and assorted self-destruction. Yorkie punches a mirror, and it’s suddenly back to normal, along with her bloodied hand. Halfway through the episode, the premise of the episode is dropped into conversation with a perfectly understated reveal. Kelly’s friend doesn’t know where she is, he says, but he’s spotted her in “the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2002 one time.”

It turns out San Junipero is a simulation, a place where people can party and play without the worries of their real life. Only when Yorkie and Kelly do reunite we find out, it’s not that simple. The technology is called “immersive nostalgia therapy.” While it was originally designed to help dementia, it can also be the permanent home of dying clients whose consciousness is uploaded into the system. Suddenly, this sweet love story has some ethically terrifying consequences. Yorkie says she’s dying and doesn’t want to stay in San Junipero; her husband passed away two years ago, and he’s somewhere else now.

“San Junipero” could’ve easily gotten lost in the painful underpinnings of its plot, the hurt and heartache that draws dying people to a made-up town. But instead, it treats San Junipero as something real. This isn’t to say that the show takes an ethical stance about virtual reality, but that it acknowledges the beauty of collaboratively created digital spaces. When Yorkie and Kelly tell each other where they live in real life and make tentative, anxious plans to meet, it’s a conversation that has echoes of two internet friends deciding to plan a real-life hangout. Just as the relationships forged on message boards or Twitter timelines or in group chats are real, so, too, is the tender, tentative love Yorkie and Kelly cultivate in San Junipero.

It’s that tenderness that makes their real-life meeting the most poignant part of their star-crossed love story. Kelly, in real life an elderly woman with a few months to live, has a youthful, slightly giddy nervousness when she steps into Yorkie’s hospital room. Her lover, it turns out, is in a coma. She has been since she drove off the road 40 years ago after coming out as gay to her parents. All of Yorkie’s traumas and all of her innocence suddenly make sense, and Kelly takes in the news – told to her by Yorkie’s “fiance,” a caretaker marrying her to give her the legal right to euthanasia – with grace. There’s no deception in love, just pieces of a person you haven’t put together yet. When Kelly finally has all the pieces of Yorkie, she pieces them back together and admires what she sees.

The story doesn’t end with a simple happily ever after. Before the pair ride off into the sunset to the poppy joy of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” they have to face some tough truths. Kelly doesn’t want to move on when her husband isn’t with her. Yorkie is young at heart and wants all of her love all the time. Even once the pair have married in real life – a symbolic yet sincere marriage, since both will soon die – they fight in San Junipero. But life is short, and love feels good, and what’s the point of forever if it’s not with your favorite person? “All things considered, I guess I’m ready,” Kelly says one day, once her body has all but failed. “For what?” her own caretaker says. “For the rest of it,” Kelly answers.

As a queer, interracial love story that also takes on age and disability, “San Junipero” felt like a minor miracle in 2016, and it still does now. It’s a gem of meaningful representation in the middle of a philosophical black hole of a series. It’s also one of the sunniest interpretations of existentially upsetting topics like immortality, sentience, and autonomy ever put to screen. It’s easy to look to the future and see only darkness, but every now and again, Black Mirror reminds us we would do well to think about tomorrow and picture a glittering type of love — the kind that flourishes in the light of day.

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Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)