Note: This post discusses details from the "San Junipero" episode from Season 3 of "Black Mirror."
The cult favorite anthology series "Black Mirror" is known for telling unsettling stories about our increasingly digital lives. Season 3 continues that tradition, but one episode is more hopeful about future technology than its predecessors.
Initially, "San Junipero" seems like something apart from the "Black Mirror" canon. The installment drops subtle hints about the seaside town where Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fall in love after meeting at a club. But it's roughly 25 minutes before we really find out what's going on: San Junipero is a virtual reality that Kelly describes as "immersive nostalgia therapy."
In San Junipero, the pair are essentially avatars who lead a care-free existence. In real-life — which exists in the ambiguous near-future characteristic of most "Black Mirror" episodes — both women are dying. Kelly is in her early 70s and dying of cancer. Yorkie has been a quadriplegic for more than 40 years and is in a coma.
Yorkie and Kelly happen to meet in 1987, but San Junipero exists in various decades. In a Reddit Ask Me Anything this week, "Black Mirror" creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote the episode, and executive producer Annabel Jones described the eras as "different 'rooms' running concurrently."
Even before the twist is revealed, the episode explores technology as Yorkie and Kelly visit different points in time. On her first night in San Junipero, Yorkie plays a round of the arcade game Bubble Bobble and an awkward guy in layered button-downs invites her to play Top Speed. (She blanches when she sees a car flip in the game demo, which makes sense later when we learn that she became a quadriplegic after running her car off the road.)
In 1980, Yorkie passes a storefront full of new model televisions and finds the arcade guy playing PAC-MAN at the club. When Yorkie finally tracks Kelly down in 2002, she passes a window display of flat-screen TVs and finds Kelly and the arcade guy playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Music also helps distinguish the different eras, and the carefully chosen soundtrack hints at what's to come. Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" is featured more than once, and the episode also makes clever use of "Girlfriend in a Coma" by The Smiths. In one memorable scene, Yorkie swaps different cassette tapes in her Sharp QT-38 stereo while trying on different outfits. As "Addicted to Love" blares, Yorkie primps in the mirror with slick-backed hair and a long-sleeved black dress (a nod to the music video for Robert Palmer's 1985 hit).
Between the nostalgic elements and the romance, "San Junipero" feels more upbeat than most "Black Mirror" episodes. In their Reddit AMA, Brooker and Jones assured fans that they're "actually pro-technology."
"We LOVE all the product and UI design. It's not waving a fist at the iCloud," the showrunners wrote. "It's a mix of human stories and sometimes funhouse twist-in-the-tale stuff. The people who think it's grumpy are the grumpy ones. Boo to those people."
Still, some tension arrives when Kelly reveals that she doesn't plan to spend the afterlife in San Junipero as Yorkie does. Kelly's late husband, Richard, with whom she spent nearly 50 years, was not interested in exploring the San Junipero system. Kelly plans to be buried with Richard and their daughter, who died before San Junipero was even an option. Though largely unspoken, Kelly is opting for an uncertain afterlife over an artificial one.
After Yorkie dies, we see her happily driving her red convertible along the beach in San Junipero. Kelly's fate is more debatable. "Black Mirror" fans know to keep watching through the credits, and we see a casket in front of a headstone bearing Kelly's name, along with that of her husband and daughter. But then we see a building for TCKR Systems, where an electronic machine places two nodes side-by-side into an interface holding thousands of blinking nodes. In a flash to San Junipero, Kelly and Yorkie dance at the bar where they first met.
As Vulture notes, fan theories have already surfaced as to whether the credit sequence means that Kelly decided to spend her afterlife in San Junipero with Yorkie. One plausible theory is that both endings exist. The evidence focuses on Yorkie's first night in the bar, when the guy in button-downs told her that the game Bubble Bobble had different endings. "Depending on if you're in one or two player. It was kind of the first game to do that."
The debatable ending allows people to make their own decisions about what happened, based largely on what they would do in a similar situation. "San Junipero" plays on our collective fears about death and loss and, in true "Black Mirror" fashion, raises questions about how (and whether) technology could improve our experiences. The ending is appropriately ambiguous — even a little haunting — because there is not a clear answer to those questions.
But those looking for a happy ending should take comfort in this response from the showrunners to a Reddit user's question about whether they had considered a darker ending or wanted to "tell a much happier story" with San Junipero.
"It was the intention to vary the tone of the season," they wrote. "The ending just came out that way because we loved the characters and wanted to gift them a happy ending."