Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is known for its twisty and cynical stories of society and modern technology (particularly media technology) in conflict. Unusually for a critically acclaimed show during the new TV golden age, it isn’t spawned from some other media nor is it a long-form, story-arc dominated serial. Each episode, although tied by common themes, are standalone stories, which puts it closer to the SFF TV tradition of the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits.
Twisty as it tends to be, it can be hard to review because the central premise of an episode can either be misleading or revealed as a plot twist. San Junipero has elements of both. So beware, some major spoilers after the fold but I’ll say this upfront – this is a touching love story and yes, I did nearly cry a little and it might make you cry a lot by the end.
A young woman, dressed unfashionably is walking through a lively town after dark. She heads nervously into a nightclub. From the styles of dress and the music playing and the arcade game of Bubble-Bobble ( a different ending when two people play), the era is the late 1980s. San Junipero is a holiday town, full of tourists and fun seekers and while the young woman (Yorkie – played by Mackenzie Davis) looks out of place, she is clearly hoping to make some kind of connection here.
Kelly (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on the other hand, is everything that Yorkie is not. Self-confident and the life of the party town of San Junipero. Attempting to shake off a former lover, Kelly finds herself making befriending Yorkie.
So proceeds (for awhile) a tale of a holiday romance – with a pattern of mistakes, misunderstandings, denials and reconciliations. But…clearly, something isn’t right. Firstly we know what series we are watching and two women finding each other emotionally and physically against a backdrop of late 80s popular music isn’t by itself a Black Mirror episode. The week-long intervals between Yorkie’s visits to San Junipero are odd. The odd midnight deadlines that some visitors to San Junipero have are unexplained. Snippets of conversation seem off…Finally, when searching for Kelly, Yorkie is told to look for her in 1980, the 1990s or 2002.
The reveal comes fairly early. San Junipero is a virtual world and both Yorkie and Kelly have real lives outside of this virtual world. And here there is a subtle shift. Whereas the story had previously followed Yorkie and Kelly was the enigma, the story now follows Kelly as she tries to learn more about Yorkie.
Following Kelly into the real world, we learn she is an old woman living in a nursing home and slowly dying of cancer. For Kelly, San Junipero is a kind of therapy as well recreating – a means by which she copes with the grief after the loss of her husband. Undeterred by her failing health, Kelly decides to seek out Yorkie in real life.
And that’s really where the story begins in earnest but I shan’t add more spoilers.
Death, love, loss and emotional freedom are all explored. The science fiction elements aren’t new – virtual reality, uploading minds and the use of both ideas as virtual heavens. The idea of a virtual heaven is at least as old as P.K.Dick’s Ubik but San Junipero treats the idea as both somewhat hedonistic and benign.
The originality comes from applying these ideas to structure a deeply moving love story. Much of that strength rests on the acting of Davis, Mbatha-Raw and Denise Burse who plays the old ‘real life’ Kelly. Their stories and back stories are full of depth and passion and sadness that keeps pulling at your emotions even as Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” swells over the credits and a final montage of events.
Wonderful – some stories don’t need multiseason arcs.