Black Mirror is excellent.
The cult show returned for it’s third season in October, debuting six hour long episodes to Netflix, for everyone to binge watch and theorize if these technologic situations could happen. This season had many high points: “Playtest” is a gruesome, tense exploration of personalizing horror video games; “Men Against Fire” explores how the military can manipulate victims with a very topical refugee slant; and “Nosedive” crucified social media addiction while tossing in questions of society’s handling of both class and race.
But none of these compare to “San Junipero,” the time traveling fourth episode of the new season, an entry that is potentially the best hour of the series. The episode is a perfectly styled and directed tale of how dorky twentysomething Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and fiesty twentysomething Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet in a 1987 club, becoming fast friends. The episode starts as one thing, claiming a presence in the past, only to reveal itself to be a cover for many different subjects.
SPOILER WARNING: from here, I have to let you people who have not watched the episode go. Spoilers ahead—but hear me out: this is the must see television episode of 2016. It is so perfect and so full of heart, the type of media item that gives you hope in your fellow person. You must watch. It is available on Netflix now.
The episode follows Yorkie and Kelly around as they chase each other primarily through 1987, in a place called San Junipero that is known for being “fun” if not an actual place. You feel like you’re in an episode of Saved By The Bell, wondering where this place can be. Is it a set? Is it real? Where are these people going later? What are they doing here? What is the significance of midnight?
It’s eventually revealed that both women are much older: Yorkie is a severely paralyzed septuagenarian (Or somewhere thereabouts.) while Kelly is a nonagenarian (Or somewhere thereabouts.) battling an end-of-life illness. Neither has long to live. The two fall in love as you realize that Yorkie is a lesbian who has lived an unfulfilled love life while Kelly is a bisexual who was happily married to a man for nearly five decades. The two are lost at the end of their lives, searching for meaning in an immersive reality therapy program that doubles as cyber-heaven. It’s called San Junipero.
The episode is flawless. It plays like an hour long movie, offering hope and sadness and ample reminders to live and love. There is so much heart in the episode, so much genuine affection that it doesn’t seem fictional. You feel like you are Yorkie or Kelly, that you are at the end of your world seeking someone to travel with you to the other side. The closest media item that compares to this is Hanya Yanagihara’s superlative A Little Life. The two stories are about devastating losses tied up in uplifting loves, overshadowed by looming death. They’re a bundle of life’s best and worst moments—Love, life, and death and the interaction of the three.—told in intriguing ways. What “San Junipero” does is deliver the subjects to you in a believable techno-future with performances that goes so far beyond what is required of a Netflix show or Black Mirror.
Obviously the story is a landmark for the obvious reasons: it’s a complicated untangling of life shown through a same sex relationship—but it’s more than that. It’s the lone media items where sexuality doesn’t actually matter, where the characters barely discuss their sexuality as something beyond love. The episode isn’t about accepting sexuality—and that’s huge. Yes, there are elements of this (how Yorkie’s family didn’t accept her sexuality; how Kelly loved her husband, daughter, and now Yorkie) but “San Junipero” isn’t a coming out story. Like the Bechdel Test for queerness, these are two same-sex oriented characters whose narratives are not dominated by their being same sex oriented. Their relationship charges the story ahead without a need to unpack or recount the history of same sex relationships in society. Yorkie and Kelly just are.
That is the difference. That is something so refreshing and so touching that, for queer audiences, it feels like a new benchmark of acceptance. Watching the episode, you feel like you have finally been heard. You feel like you see yourself on screen. It is an unrivaled moment in queer media representation, showing the community as universal instead of the abnormal. It’s beautiful.
That was the intention, too. As Mbatha-Raw and show creator, producer, and writer Charlie Brooker shared with Vanity Fair, that’s where they wanted to position the episode from the start—and they succeeded big time.
Another refreshing part of the episode is how well written Kelly and Yorkie both are. Their sexualities do not define them or their stories. “That’s what I thought was beautiful about the episode,” Mbatha-Raw said, “that it transcends any labeling. It’s really about human beings being human beings in love. And I think that, hopefully, we’re at that place now. Things don’t have to be an ‘issue.’ You know, it’s nice to see people just being who they are.”
That statement sounds so obvious and something that we’ve heard over and over and over again as it relates to queerness and minority stories in media. I usually roll my eyes into infinity, annoyed by the sentiment of straight people going gay for entertainment.
This is different though. What Black Mirror‘s team intended to accomplish with their future show was to level queerness as it relates to the universal experiences of life and it was accomplished through a time traveling, COS wearing narrative that shows that, yes, queer people live and love and die just like everyone else.
Yes, the episode had it’s flaws—What happens when TCKR loses power? Can the afterlife people get jobs?—and the media responses have been lopsided, from questioning the ending to erasing Kelly’s bisexuality. Regardless, the episode is a masterpiece for audiences of all backgrounds. It’s the sort of lone, unique entry into television that stands as an example as proof of the media’s power. It’s a revelation to be watched and watched over and over again. It’s that good. And, yes, it will make you cry—A lot.—sticking with you like a stain of reality on your soul—just like A Little Life.
If you haven’t seen “San Junipero,” it’s available now on Netflix. Charlie Brooker also released a playlist of the songs for you to cry along with because, every time you or I hear “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” I will tear up thinking about Yorkie and Kelly.