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When's The Best Time To Party In Black Mirror's San Junipero?
If you could spend the rest of eternity reliving one year over and over again, which one would you choose? That's probably not the takeaway message Black Mirror was aiming for with S03.E04, but dammit, it's what we're going with.
Hey, a happy ending on Black Mirror! Is that even allowed? I mean, is Netflix going to have to issue a hasty retraction a few days from now? "We want to assure our loyal Black Mirror viewers that it all ended horribly for Kelly and Yorkie. Please download the director's cut extended edition of this episode to see an extra forty minutes of their suffering."
And "happy" ending is kind of relative, you know. I mean, the show ends with both characters having died, each woman's consciousness uploaded into a mainframe computer so that they can hang out together in virtual perpetuity as avatars of their younger selves, which isn't quite how Horatio Alger would have handled it. But at least two people managed to find love after heartbreak, each finding someone she wouldn't mind spending the rest of eternity with, even if that eternity happens to be a collection of ones and zeroes. I bet you were expecting the credits to end with some low-level IT worker unplugging the server where Kelly and Yorkie had been uploaded so that he could speed up his online porn downloads. I know I was expecting that.
Given that "San Junipero" does not fit in with what I would describe as Black Mirror's usual ethos, I suspect that opinion will be divided on this episode. I thought it was pretty powerful stuff -- a nice reflection on the fearlessness required just to live your life, and how finding another human being you connect with in this crazy world is every bit as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Not many shows are going to tackle loss like this one did, and even fewer will do it as well. Did I tear up toward the end, especially as Kelly gradually peels away the protective layering she's built up over the years to realize that a virtually eternity spent with Yorkie isn't such a bad deal after all? No, you were the one tearing up, you crybaby. I didn't tear up. MY HOUSE IS FULL OF PET DANDER.
Because, really, Yorkie and Kelly faced some long odds to reach this somewhat hopeful conclusion. In Yorkie's case, after she comes out to her parents and they reject her, she winds up in a car accident that leaves her a quadriplegic for the next four decades and change. (Apparently Yorkie's parents, in addition to being intolerant monsters, are also unwilling to pull the plug, so they've really committed to a lifetime of doing her exactly zero favors.) Kelly, meanwhile is coping with the death of her husband of forty-nine years and the fact that he was so devastated by their daughter's untimely end that he wanted nothing to do with spending any amount of time in the suspended animation of San Junipero. Kelly looks out at what's awaiting after her life ends and sees a yawning void of nothingness staring back at her. It's a miracle that she and Yorkie manage to find one another, but also kind of fitting.
That's why, despite the sterile mainframe room where our episode ends and the little bit too on-the-nose choice of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place on Earth" over the end credits, there's a feeling of cautious hopefulness in "San Junipero." It's never too late to connect to another person, the episode seems to be saying, even if that connection is entirely virtual.
But if, like me, you're a bear of very little brain, you may find yourself trying to figure out the rules that govern the virtual world that the aged and dying can visit in short bursts and that you can enter on a permanent basis once you "cross over," as the episode puts it. For example: does everyone have to hang out in the party beach town, hopping from bar to bar? Because if so, hard pass. Hook me up with mainframe where people can spend eternity catching a ballgame or something; otherwise, if I'm spending between now and the end of time in a 1980s bar listening to The Bangles, I'd just as soon have my soul blotted from the record, please.
Also, with regard to the time jumping the dead and dying apparently get to enjoy in San Junipero, are you restricted only to the years you were alive, or the ones you were young and beautiful? I'm guessing so, since Yorkie seems stuck in the '80s and '90s instead of exploring more latter years when the intolerable -- I'm looking in your direction, Yorkie's Mom and Dad -- might have been outnumbered by decidedly more chill people.
The rules of "San Junipero" being what they are, though, let's rank the years Yorkie time-shifts to when she's trying to reconnect with Kelly, based on their relative pluses and minuses -- clearly the main takeaway the people producing Black Mirror were hoping we'd get from this emotionally-wrought episode. We're working under the assumption that you have to account for the crummy elements of pop culture as well as the good things, since one man's indelible party anthem is another man's unbearable ear worm.
Pros: The way Ricardo Montalban says "fine Corinthian leather." The old-school arcade games at Tucker's (the bar in San Junipero that isn't the horrific hellscape the Quagmire is) would be pretty fun to play. The U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game from the 1980 Winter Olympics would be pretty fun to watch over and over again. (Unless, of course, you are Russian.)
Cons: Hostage crisis in Iran, days of malaise, the impending Reagan electoral wipeout -- these are not fun news stories to have blaring in the background as you meander through eternity. It ends very poorly for John Lennon. Also, there's disco, and not the good kind of disco, either. (No, I won't be taking you to Funkytown. I will never be taking you to Funkytown.)
Verdict: Give 1980 a wide berth.
Pros: I will be straightforward with you all: by 1996, popular music was just pops and whistles to my cranky old man ears. And a cursory look at the top films of 1996 suggests it was an equally grim time at the cineplex. Fargo came out that year. That's a good movie. Wouldn't mind watching that again. Maybe not every day until the earth was subsumed by the sun, but better that than The English Patient, which merely feels like it lasts for an eternity.
Cons: Hearing Alanis Morissette warble "Ironic" -- a song that made my eyes cross with fury when I heard it two decades ago -- does not make me long to return to the glory days of 1996, Black Mirror.
Verdict: Of course, if we subscribe to that theory that you're subject to the news events of that particular year as much you are the pop culture highs and lows, that means anyone who opts for the time frame of 1996 or thereabouts will be subject to some Republican screaming about Bill Clinton's moral turpitude every time a TV's on.
[Turns to CNN, where this very thing is happening right now.]
Oh, God, what if I'm living in San Junipero?
Pros: The music selected for this episode -- Robbie Nevil! OMD! Robert Palmer! -- was not nearly as grating and off-putting as I remember at the time. Could it be possible that old age has made me sentimental for the Reagan Years?
Cons: No, I'm not sentimental for it all, so long as haircuts like the one featured in this episode are allowed to wander untamed out in public. Good Lord, did we use a lot product in the 1980s. I'm pretty sure our strategic reserve of hair mousse has never recovered. Also, that montage where Yorkie tries on different outfits? Clothes-changing montages were all we did in the 1980s. Productivity fell off a cliff as each of us spent hours each day trying on kicky outfits to bouncy background music.
Verdict: A remarkably strong contender for where to spend the rest of eternity, but I'm downgrading it for the much too clever use of The Smiths' "Girlfriend In A Coma." Subtle as ever, Black Mirror.
Pros: The episode shows a poster for The Bourne Identity, one of the better Bourne movies. It was not a particularly bad year for TV, as I've read in other places. I stand by my hair and clothing decisions from that year.
Cons: Did you know that you can defeat Al-Qaeda just by shopping online? Turns out you can't, actually, but this was something we actually believed back then. This was also the first year of American Idol: we could have crushed it in its infancy, but no, we hesitated, and fourteen more years of pop tedium is what we have to answer for because of our inaction.
Verdict: It's not a particularly strong field, but this is clearly the best year that Yorkie jumped to. If only she had jumped to 1990, though: she and Kelly could have enjoyed a Goodfellas/Miller's Crossing twin bill before slow-dancing the night away to Sinéad O'Connor. Also, my hair looked bitching in 1990.