For those struggling to cope with the fact that a former reality star who defrauded thousands of hard-working Americans, is on tape bragging about committing sexual assault, and is advised by a propagandist who caters to white nationalists will be the next president of the United States, Black Mirror isn’t the likeliest pick-me-up destination. Charlie Brooker’s anthology series provides a disturbing glimpse into the future, satirizing the ways people’s lives may (will?) be upended by technology. Among its dystopian curiosities are a British PM blackmailed into shtupping a pig to death by hashtag—oh, and the most feel-good hour of television this year.
Welcome to the world of “San Junipero,” a magical coastal town in California awash in neon lights, dance clubs, and sanguinity. There, in the year 1987, the reserved Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meets the vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and falls head over Keds in love. But after losing her virginity to Kelly at a romantic oceanfront villa, the clock strikes midnight and she disappears, prompting the heartbroken Yorkie to embark on a time-hopping search for her lover, visiting the ‘90s and then 2002, where she spots her playing Dance Dance Revolution. They share another beautiful night together, and after, Yorkie confesses that she is dying, while Kelly convinces her they should meet in real life.
This brings us to the present, where we learn that San Junipero is a virtual reality simulation. The consciousnesses of the dead are uploaded to a cloud, allowing them to live in San Junipero as their younger, carefree selves forever and ever.
“It’s a version of the afterlife that I think is plausible—it’s what I can wrap my head around. I can’t quite wrap my head around an actual afterlife, but a technologically-assisted afterlife I could,” Brooker tells The Daily Beast. “It’s the first script I’d written for season three, and I was keen to upend what I thought a Black Mirror episode was. I’d read people saying, ‘Oh no! It’s going to get all American!’ so I said, fuck it, I’m going to set it in California, fuck you, I’ll choose protagonists that wouldn’t necessarily leap into my head, and I’ll explore a hopeful use of technology to shut up people who think it’s written by the Unabomber.”
“San Junipero” is the fourth episode of Black Mirror’s stellar third season, and its first to not only feature exclusively American-set stories (the series, like its visionary creator, is British), but also be produced by Netflix. Brooker says he was “trying to think of a story to do about the afterlife—which is something I might still return to,” but initially envisioned the piece as a story about someone using technology to research whether there was an afterlife or not. But he became inspired by the practice of “nostalgia therapy,” as well as his desire to do a period episode of the show.
The “forbidden love” storyline of two gay lovers in 1987 America came later, too. “In my initial thinking of the story it was a heterosexual couple, and then for this season I was keen to not always default to a guy,” says Brooker. “Because I’m a bloke, quite often when I’m picturing a scenario there will be a bloke in the middle of it, so I thought, ‘What if it wasn’t?’ It immediately became a much deeper story because they get married in 1987, which wasn’t possible then.”
When Kelly visits Yorkie in the present-day, she’s comatose in a hospital. Kelly learns that Yorkie fell into a coma forty years earlier after getting into a car accident following a row with her parents when she came out to them. Since the living can only visit San Junipero for five hours a week, Yorkie wishes to be euthanized so she can stay there forever. And since her religious parents won’t euthanize her, she wishes to get married so her spouse can sign off on it. Kelly agrees to marry Yorkie, and euthanizes her so she can remain in San Junipero.
The episode was directed by Owen Harris, who helmed the excellent Season 2 episode “Be Right Back,” and shot in just 14 days in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Cape Town was so gorgeous, and it was really special for me because I’m half South African—my Dad is from Pretoria—and it was the first time I got a chance to work in South Africa,” says Mbatha-Raw. “And actually Mackenzie’s mother is from South Africa, so both of us have a South African parent and we got to do this together.”
“There was one particular day where we were filming on the beach and this ostrich—out of nowhere—wanders through the housing estate and sits down on the beach behind where we were shooting and has a sand bath. It was so surreal,” she continues. “For the concept of ‘San Junipero,’ there is this unreality about how beautiful it is there which is pretty apt.”
Mbatha-Raw, who was robbed of an Oscar nod for her turn as a troubled pop star in Beyond the Lights, is perfection as the kinetic Kelly, flaunting impressive dance moves to a series of ‘80s classics. Brooker even created a 42-song Spotify playlist for the episode.
“There was so much inspiration from this episode—certainly Madonna, but also Janet Jackson with the shoulder pad jacket and Prince, with that original Versace purple jacket that our costume designer found,” shares Mbatha-Raw. “The music is so iconic and it really takes you to a certain place in time. For me, I’ve always used music as a way in for the character and always make a playlist for a way into a certain scene, or to channel a certain energy for the character. For this, there was a built-in playlist that Charlie had already written into the script, so it was great.”
Yorkie is bothered by how Kelly can only visit her in San Junipero for five hours a week, and confronts her about it—only to learn that Kelly has a past of her own: she was married to a man for 49 years and they had a daughter who, sadly, passed away before the VR afterlife was developed. So when her husband died, he chose to be with their daughter instead of San Junipero.
After some deliberation, Kelly, who’s become very ill, decides to be euthanized—and chooses to spend the rest of her days in VR bliss with Yorkie in San Junipero. As the two young lovers ride off into the sunset, Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” comes on, and… cue waterworks.
“It was weird because I’d done a rough treatment of it and gotten to the scene where they meet in the hospital and I thought that was the end, but when I sat down to actually write it, I was enjoying it so much that I thought, No, I’m going to keep going!” says Brooker. “The afterlife element came in quite late. At one point I heard the Belinda Carlisle song while out running—because I’d made a playlist of music from 1987—and I can’t remember if that’s what slightly gave me the afterlife idea, or if I’d already had it. I was so worried about clearing that song but thank god we did.”
Thanks to its uplifting ending, LGBT storyline, brilliant script, and committed performances, “San Junipero” has emerged as the crown jewel of Black Mirror’s third season, receiving heaps of online praise from fans. The reaction hasn’t been lost on Brooker, who says he’s been so taken aback by all the love that he’s now considering penning more positive Black Mirror episodes in the future.
“I’ve been really gratified by the response to it,” he says. “People are crying all the food out of their bodies, which is perfect, and what I really like is it seems to be resonating with people across the board—regardless of their orientation. People are seeing that it’s a love story about two humans.”
It is, in many ways, the perfect TV antidote to President-elect Trump: an inclusive, poignant tale of love conquering all. A story that reminds us how, in the immortal words of Maya Angelou, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”