After Black Mirror’s “Nosedive; it’s easy to understand this year’s trend toward nostalgia. Now that we’ve grown so dependent on our gadgets and all they have to offer, we actually find ourselves longing for “the old days”: An era in which family dinners were not interrupted by mobile phones begging for attention; in which music still consisted of lyrical substance; in which schoolyard bullies couldn’t get to you inside the comforts of your own room. For this reason, shows like Stranger Things tugged on our heartstrings. It’s so refreshing to see our favorite TV characters relying on their own fantasy worlds to keep them entertained, so lovely to be invited into a household with just one phone fitted to the wall. Season Twenty of South Park has driven this point home with their “Member Berries fruits with the power to calm people, by way of their nostalgic ramblings. And I suspect Charlie Brooker may have been munching on Member Berries whilst working on “San Junipero,” too.
“San Junipero”, of course, goes beyond warm reminiscence, though this is very much a theme of the episode. Surprisingly, it fits into the show’s usual knack for futuristic story-telling perfectly. Whereas the show’s focus is usually on the dangers our gadgets pose, “San Junipero” speaks of the positive possibilities of technology—which isn’t to say the reality it depicts doesn’t come with its own set of perils, though for once Brooker opts not to hold these under a magnifying glass. This approach is a welcome breather after three episodes of brutal social satire and outright horror, but as was the case in “Playtest; the final moments in “San Junipero” leave a lot of questions unanswered. One might even say the two episodes are connected: In “Playtest,” I wondered whether Cooper would continue to “play” his game on a loop for eternity, physically feeling everything he is experiencing; in “San Junipero,” I questioned what sentient immortality might actually mean.
“San Junipero” is the ultimate, eternal holiday for some, a quick weekend getaway for others. In a futuristic world, people can choose to have their consciousness live on as avatars in the sparkling town of San Junipero after they die. They can return to whichever era they enjoyed most during their actual lifetime; every aspect of life—music, TV shows, fashion—can be re-experienced. While 80% of the town is made up of the avatars of the deceased, the remaining 20% are mere weekly visitors. Not everyone can become a visitor; it seems there is a cautious selection process, and only those who can truly benefit from it are granted a pass into this world. The paraplegic Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and the terminally ill Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)—elderly women who haven’t actually met in real life—are two such candidates. Their Saturday nights in San Junipero allow them to escape their broken physical bodies and dreary hospital existence and move through this virtual beachside town with a genuine lust for life. They have both chosen the decade of decadence as their “heaven on earth,” and meet in a club booming with ‘80s hits.
The episode’s premise is not especially far-fetched: It’s based on research on the benefits of nostalgic settings for those suffering from clinical depression and Alzheimer’s disease. But Brooker and producer Annabel Jones take the idea even further, introducing patients with physical debilities and allowing them to live the life they never could. The idea of granting people access to a world in which there are no such limitations is truly moving, as is, of course, the idea that we could all live on in a decade of our own choosing. Until you allow yourself to ponder the complexities of it all.
“San Junipero” is the first Black Mirror episode that doesn’t set out to make you feel uncomfortable, or even foolish. Nor does it scare the living daylights out of you. Instead of focusing on the device that transports visitors and souls into the town, or the possible consequences thereof, it finds its strength in something rather unusual for series: love. The heart of the story is without a doubt the relationship between Kelly and Yorkie, their past and present circumstances and their differing moral philosophies. And yet, it wouldn’t be Black Mirror if it didn’t encourage us to consider a reality in which our consciousness can be immortalized. Initially, Kelly mirrors her husband’s sentiments, thinking it unnatural to cheat death. But her love for Yorkie persuades her to stay for the long run. It’s an incredibly romantic notion to end on, but it doesn’t necessarily mean their story has a happy end.
While Kelly and Yorkie’s avatars are sentient beings—even capable of climaxing, purely on the basis of their emotional response—they can’t experience physical pain. Without this vital part of the human experience, how long can one hold on to genuine feelings of joy? This balance between the positive and the negative is a necessary aspect of existence, as much as the desire to die knowing we have lived fully. When death no longer exists as our final destination, what are we “living” for?
I realize I’m one of the few people who didn’t feel as uplifted by “San Junipero” as I was probably supposed to. But how could I, when the words of one of the most important bands of Kelly and Yorkie’s favorite decade echoed through my head so loudly? Who really wants to live forever ?
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.