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Black Mirror season 3, episode 4: "San Junipero" is the show's most beautiful, most hopeful episode yet

Heaven is a place on Earth. How wonderful, and how cruel.

Black Mirror
Mackenzie Davis in “San Junipero.”
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This article is a recap of Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” There are spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

When “San Junipero” ends, we sit in a daze for a moment.

“If I die, you can spend eternity in virtual heaven with Mackenzie Davis,” I say to my wife, because finding the weak point in the wall around an awkward moment and puncturing it with a joke is a thing I do.

“I know,” she says, but she doesn’t mean it. We’ve been together a very long time, and imagining a world outside of what we have is hard to do.

I have always believed, on some level, that I will live forever. It’s a holdover from spending most of my childhood believing in a more traditional heaven, with mansions of gold and angels floating about. I not only expect immortality — I welcome it. I eagerly follow along with others’ ideas about how humans might cheat death, via medicine or technology, and nod to myself as if I might be the first man to live to 1,000, despite what the science says. When I die, I’ll feel a little like a failure.

My wife and I have argued about this before. The thought of living forever scares her a little bit, because when you struggle with depression, like she does, you already know what forever feels like — all those long days locked inside yourself, forgetting where you put the key. If you were truly endless, really and truly eternal, you’d go mad. You’d almost have to.

But Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” opens up these fault lines between us again, like the crinkles in wax paper when you scrunch it up. The episode is about two women, one named Kelly (played by the great British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw); Kelly outlives her husband, and even though she keeps receiving dire cancer prognoses, she outlives those too. She’s dying, but in the way we all are, where the other end of her life lies somewhere at the end of an indeterminate hyphen.

If Kelly is floating, then Yorkie (Davis), the woman she meets in the town of San Junipero, is fixed. San Junipero is a computer-created afterlife that elderly people can upload their consciousness to — for five hours a week while they’re still alive, and permanently after death. Yorkie knows not just the date of her birth but the date of her death, which will come after she finally marries her fiancé and he signs the papers to allow her to “pass over,” to cease living and become a permanent resident of San Junipero.

Yorkie, as it turns out, is a quadriplegic. She’s been lying in the same bed, in the same vegetative state, for more than four decades, since she was in a massive car accident at age 21. She came out as a lesbian to her parents, and their angry response prompted her to flee from home, straight into the accident. Her marriage will be a legal formality, as the only thing standing between Yorkie and her desire to die (and permanently pass over to San Junipero) is a living relative to sign the paperwork. Her new husband, a nurse at the facility Yorkie lives in, will handle said paperwork just moments after their marriage is complete.

Kelly has no real desire to stay in San Junipero full time. When her husband died, after the couple was married for 49 years, he refused to upload his consciousness to the town. Instead, he believed that death was a vital part of life, and hoped that he might be reunited with the couple’s only daughter — whose death preceded that of her parents and the invention of San Junipero — in traditional heaven. Kelly doesn’t believe in traditional heaven, but she feels she must keep the promise she made to her husband to die as he did, and hope something else is waiting.

Black Mirror
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie in “San Junipero.”

Thus, when Kelly and Yorkie meet in San Junipero and fall in love, it’s inconvenient for both of them. Kelly gives Yorkie something to live for; Yorkie gives Kelly something to die for. The easier promise to violate is the one to Yorkie’s fiancé, who is only too happy to stand aside so Yorkie and Kelly can wed, letting Kelly be the one to end Yorkie’s life.

But it’s harder to break a promise to a ghost, even if you don’t believe he’s a ghost. Kelly knows she can choose to delete herself from San Junipero at any time (though one imagines that in the world of Black Mirror, she’s backed up on a hard drive somewhere). However, spending even a few days in San Junipero after her death, “honeymooning” with her new wife, feels like a betrayal to her. Her husband isn’t alive, and she doesn’t believe he exists in any sort of afterlife where he can judge her for what she’s done. But a promise is a promise, and 49 years is a long, long time.

The structure of “San Junipero” is both smart and satisfying, from the way every little clue (even the over-obviousness of the ’80s and ’90s references sprinkled throughout the hour) adds up to the sly wink that is the use of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”

But what sets the episode apart from the rest of Black Mirror’s third season is the way it beautifully balances character revelations with plot and setting revelations. Every time you learn something new about how San Junipero functions, or discover some new story twist, series creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker is right there with an equally big reveal about Kelly or Yorkie’s backstory.

Though the episode, like the others in this season, is long — just over an hour — it never feels long. It’s a love story, after all, one of the very oldest sorts of stories, and it mostly leaves viewers wondering if these two crazy kids will work through their differences and get together. But it’s also complicated, a tale of second chances that behaves like a story of first love.

Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Heaven is a place on Earth.

Black Mirror is always at its best when it examines how technology stretches what’s human about us to its breaking point. And though the series deserves much of the credit it receives for its dark satire of tech, it’s simultaneously one of the smartest shows on TV when it comes to love. What becomes of that bond when you stretch it so thin that it threatens to snap? Could love exist in an eternal present, trapped in the amber of youth?

Previous episodes of Black Mirror — particularly season two’s masterful “Be Right Back” (still my favorite installment of the show) — have argued that technology can undergird love and replicate it, but never entirely supplant it.

“San Junipero” is the same way. Its titular town promises eternal happiness but really offers endless lethargy. Hints of that creep in around the edges of the episode, as illustrated by the patrons of a bar called the Quagmire, whom Kelly suggests plunge themselves into deeper and darker pursuits in the name of feeling anything.

You don’t need to go deep and dark to know where this will go. You just have to be alive and know a little of what love can be like. Yorkie and Kelly will get bored of each other. They’ll fight. They’ll stop finding the sight of each other exciting. They’ll get old, even though they look young.

But Brooker doesn’t leave us there. The last time we see the couple in human form, they’re dancing together; then the episode cuts to the blinking lights of their separate but conjoined computer program selves, blipping away in an endless warehouse somewhere. We know what’s coming, but, as with all relationships, we choose to live with the hope that this time, it won’t.

I do hope that if I die before my wife, she’ll find someone new. I hope she’ll find some other happiness, because at some point, after all the fighting and the boredom and the creeping spread of age, you realize that love was never about any of that. It was always about wanting the best for the other person — even if it didn’t involve you. Within the gauze of contentment, that can be hard to admit, but deep down, you each hope the other will find the endless expanse of a new, uncharted future.

Black Mirror season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix. Read the rest of our episode reviews here.