Charlie Brooker’s body of work is defined by its pessimism. From the pointed critique of lazy hipster irony in Nathan Barley to the gory satire of reality shows depicted in Dead Set, his work pinpoints the worst of humanity. Black Mirror continues that bleak trend, sometimes to the point of parody. Last night, Brooker won his first Emmy. It was for the only episode of Black Mirror with a happy ending, “San Junipero.”
The relative optimism of “San Junipero” is what gives this piece of television its magic. The episode, from the third season of Black Mirror, follows two women as they fall in love in a virtual reality simulation of the 1980s. Kelly is bold, with a magnetic personality. Yorkie, played by Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis, is hesitant and shy, unable to be honest with herself and others even in a simulation. They can only meet for a few hours every weekend, and they do, over and over, on dance floors, beach bungalows and arcades. San Junipero seems like a paradise, because it was designed to be. Over the course of the episode we learn that it’s a simulation where people’s consciousnesses are uploaded after they die. Kelly and Yorkie are both elderly women in care facilities. While Kelly finds San Junipero and the idea of eternal life perverse, Yorkie has spent the past 40 years confined to a hospital bed and can’t wait to live in San Junipero full time.
Black Mirror often follows the most dismal course of events possible in a given episode. In “Playtest,” an episode from the same season in which the lead character tries out a groundbreaking virtual reality game, it turns out that he actually died in the beginning and the whole episode is his dying dream. In “Be Right Back” from the second season, a woman buys a robot replica of her dead husband whose personality is based on all his texts and online postings. While she knows it’s an imperfect copy, she finds herself unable to destroy it and locks it in her attic, presumably for the rest of her life. In “The National Anthem,” the first episode of the show, the prime minister of the United Kingdom fucks a pig. This is not the kind of show that usually allows characters like Kelly and Yorkie to be happy, and it gives us very good reasons to agree with Kelly that no one should live forever.
In a less thoughtful show, Kelly’s viewpoint would win out. Despite having genuine feelings for Yorkie, her daughter died before San Junipero was created, and her husband opted not to join the simulation when their child couldn’t. While Kelly and Yorkie flirt with each other, we see glimpses of San Junipero lifers who grow desperate and depraved in a world where they can’t die and can have everything their heart desires. There’s potential for San Junipero to be ugly and unhealthy. Brooker instead reminds us that while unchecked technology has granted us many horrors, it can still improve lives as well.
Yorkie crashed her car 40 years prior to the start of “San Junipero” after coming out to her parents, who didn’t take it well. She’s been kept alive on life support for decades. The Yorkie we meet in San Junipero isn’t someone we’re meant to pity, and her accident hasn’t made her any less strong-willed. She is excited by San Junipero, a place where she can just be a 20-something out lesbian. For all of Kelly’s cynicism and grief, why should she denigrate a desire that simple, the desire to just be able to be oneself? Even if Black Mirror goes to great lengths to explain how trends in technology can turn bad, the fears that Brooker portrays come from fundamentally wanting people to be happy. These are cautionary tales of the ways that technology can rob us of our humanity—yes, even the episode where the prime minister fucks a pig—and empathy and love are actually things Brooker wants us to hold onto. In “San Junipero,” he lets us see how technology can bring us closer together. He lets Kelly and Yorkie be happy.
At the end of “San Junipero,” Kelly joins Yorkie full time in the simulation. They move into a beach house, hop in their red convertible, and ride into the sunset listening to Belinda Carlisle. It leans into cliche because these are characters who so desperately need these cliches to be true. In a difficult, often unfair world, sometimes you just need to give people the permission to be who they are and have what they want.