the miracle of dying

In Black Mirror’s San Junipero, heaven is a queer, feminine place on earth

David Dettmann/Netflix

People on the internet are obsessed with “happy endings.” Not celebrating their existence, of course, but poking holes in them. The goal after consuming media in 2016 is often two-fold. First, to identify the ways in which a particular plot line is really devastating and terrible. And second, to expose what it reveals about the future, whether that’s tomorrow or the year 2156. In the case of the notoriously didactic and dark series Black Mirror, predictions about our fate as a species are often bleak, with technology only seeming to make things worse.

So it was no surprise to me when some fans of the Netflix series couldn’t really process the gleeful conclusion to the third season’s stand-out fourth episode. “San Junipero” chronicles the love story of interracial queer couple Kelly and Yorkie who meet in a parallel universe where one can live forever in the year of their choosing. Far from the oppressive, cyberpunk alternate realities we are used seeing on screen, San Junipero in 1987 is the soft comfort of nostalgia embodied. The “town” is colored by pastels and neon signs and it sounds like eigthies ballads, waves crashing on shore, giggles. Most importantly, it’s not hyper-masculine or fatalistic. San Junipero is queer, feminine, and ultimately hopeful, as it affords two women the space to fall in love, something they couldn’t do in their “real” lives.

[Spoiler Alert!] When Kelly and Yorkie first meet they are both in San Junipero as “tourists,” trying out a trial plan of five hours a week in the computer-simulated reality, a kind of nostalgia therapy, to see if they want to become “full-timers” once they die. As we’ll soon learn, Yorkie is an expiring quadriplegic, a state she’s been in almost her entire adult life due to a car accident. (The tragedy happened right after she came out to her disapproving parents). Dying from cancer, Kelly is using the trial to fuck her way through grief. She lost her husband of over four decades and their daughter, and both chose not to end up in San Junipero. (Kelly says she was always attracted to women but quelled those feelings in the service of being a faithful wife).

Charlie Brooker admits that San Junipero is a “palate cleanser,” a huge departure from what the series is typically like. That’s part of why it’s amassed a kind of cult following. Brooker says that he first imagined the episode would center on a heterosexual couple, but decided to switch things up. A gay couple allowed for interesting “resonances,” as he puts it. (An example: the two women get married in 1987 San Junipero, which obviously wouldn’t have been possible at that same time in the real world).

Expectedly, this alternate reality does contain some of the more sinister hedonism you’d expect in any afterlife, most notably a popular BDSM club/dungeon named the Quagmire and the recurrence of some needy male characters. Perhaps it’s really sad to think that only in another universe could these two women find each other and realize their love. And as the final shot presents us with hundreds of tiny lit-up dots on a power board—all of other people that are living forever in San Junipero—it seems obvious that not all their stories are quite so earnest. (Or, at the very least, they almost definitely won’t be after decades in the afterlife.) In a fight with Yorkie towards the end of the episode, Kelly angrily calls the permanent residents of San Junipero “lost fucks” who live in a place where “nothing matters.”

These details might lead a viewer to see technology as the problem, but Brooker loves to talk about how this reading of Black Mirror more broadly is incorrect. “Technology is never the villain in the show, it’s always a human frailty or weakness that leads to calamity,” he told Vox. “We can always fuck up in amazing ways.” While the rest of Black Mirror might prove this cynical point, it ignores the season’s clear high point. San Junipero stands out as an example not of human failures, but of bravery, one that’s enabled by tech. In an interview with Collider about the episode, Brooker is quoted as saying that “technology does ruin our two people. But in a tweet he clarifies that he actually thinks the opposite:

“I said I wouldn’t do feelings,” Kelly tells Yorkie in 2002, of what she had wanted out of an alternate reality before getting there. But over the course of the episode, we see her slowly embrace just the opposite.

In the final shot, we are presented with a relationship not typically seen on TV. Yes, our queer main characters die, but not really, not in the same way they typically do. In San Junipero, a married Kelly and Yorkie can ecstatically cruise down a windy, ocean-side road in a red convertible as “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” by Belinda Carlisle blasts. They can live out the lyrics “I was afraid before/But I’m not afraid anymore” in all their cheesy, eighties glory. This is the happy ending.

But for all the focus on this ride, the most triumphant part of the episode really happens right before. Kelly is dying at an old folk’s home, struggling with her decision to return to San Junipero—Yorkie—permanently and in a way betray her husband. Looking out over the ocean she tells her caretaker, “I guess I’m ready.” “For what?” the nurse (us, really) asks in response, in which Kelly says, “The rest of it.” She could be talking about San Junipero, about technology, about “passing over,” about death. Or maybe it’s far more simple and she’s just choosing love, the most human choice of all.