Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for the fourth episode in the third season of ‘Black Mirror.’
Bittersweet endings are characterized by a superficial sense of loss that gives way to a sense of the greater good. What would an opposite kind of resolution to a story be called? I don’t know if there is a term for it, but it might be worth inventing for the fourth episode of “Black Mirror’s” third season.
“San Junipero” opens with a young woman named Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) wandering through the streets of the titular Southern California town. At a nightclub, Yorkie is accosted by one of the more-‘80s-than-the-‘80s bar patrons, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). In a bid to shake an unwanted suitor, the stranger tells a bold lie about Yorkie, saying she is a friend who only has a few months to live.
As it turns out, Kelly’s ploy wasn’t so outrageous. San Junipero is a futuristic computer simulation populated mostly by the uploaded consciousness of individuals who have died, with a minority being the infirm elderly, who can only visit for five hours a week. The two apparently young women fall into the latter category: Kelly is, in fact, the one who is suffering from a terminal illness, and Yorkie has been in a coma for decades as the result of a car accident indirectly caused when she came out to gay as to her disapproving parents.
The two women fall in love, and Kelly visits Yorkie in the real world, marrying her to authorize the comatose woman’s euthanasia so she can become a permanent resident of the virtual paradise. Their joy is cut short, however, by a difference in opinion about the future. Yorkie has grown to love the simulated world, but Kelly plans to die naturally because of a promise to her husband, who chose to not “pass over” to San Junipero due to his religious beliefs—which Kelly does not share—and desire to be with their child, who died before such afterlife technology was available.
The episode ends with a montage set to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place On Earth,” a song so fitting that it would seem like the writers had constructed the entire episode around it.
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
A liquid runs through a clear tube attached to Kelly, who had decided to undergo euthanasia and live in San Junipero.
In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore.
Now Kelly has arrived, and she and Yorkie can be seen enjoying their eternal honeymoon together.
I Exist to Make Myself Happy
Many articles acclaiming the episode would have us believe the women are saved, and can live happily ever after. Love conquers all in this hopeful and astonishingly humane work of television. Even the name “San Junipero” is a gesture at Saint Junípero Serra, who was recently canonized for his efforts to bring as many Native American souls to salvation as possible, and his namesake episode presents a sober look at what kind of salvation people can cross their fingers for when it’s no longer reasonable to believe in God.
Even without the technological plot device of uploading one’s consciousness, saccharine-but-nihilistic impulses that might frame a simulation world as humanity’s salvation are still present. For Yorkie and Kelly (or any other lesbian couple, for that matter), the possibility of childbirth is equally impossible in principle inside or outside San Junipero.
But this isn’t just a matter of homosexuality; the logic for same-sex marriage has been baked right into opposite-sex marriage for decades. Where marriage was once, in our society in decades past, a set of obligations to people, past, future and present, it is now about love—two (or more?) people enjoying one another in a relationship they can terminate at any time. How, then, can we justify preventing two people who enjoy each other from getting married, no matter what their sex?
Thus, the homosexual relationship and the contraceptive heterosexual relationship of mutual enjoyment can be seen as microcosms of the paradise world of San Juniper: their existence is not justified by any created purpose, but by the moral philosophy that matter, consciousness, and existence are all to be melted down and rearranged to maximize individual enjoyment. Even if there is an option to have children in San Junipero, it would exist in the same way that gay adoption exists in our world: something—a consumer choice—that is instrumental to satisfying desires, not an end itself.
I Don’t Want to Break Out, I Want to Burrow In
But with Serra’s canonization came controversy. Attendant upon his single-minded pursuit of the spiritual good for the native people of California was a logically necessary suppression of their non-Christian culture.
In the world of “Black Mirror,” things aren’t so different: the old moral order only serves to prevent people from enjoying themselves, such as her family’s disapproval of Yorkie’s homosexuality and withholding authorization for her to “pass over” into San Junipero. Such cultural hang-ups are an impediment to the modern man’s new best bet at salvation, so it must be suppressed in the vein of the original Saint Junípero Serra.
But what the simulation’s namesake sought, like most other deeply religious people do, was transcendence: to break out of our limited universe and commune with whatever it is running on top of. Even irreligious tech billionaires are now looking for ways to break out of the simulation in a much more literal way. (This seems like an argument for God: whatever lies outside of our “simulation” might be conceptually identical to the Absolute.)
The apparently triumphant main characters in “San Junipero” were seeking the opposite, going one level deeper into the nested doll. Yorkie and Kelly didn’t find liberation. They, using the same principles we are expected to adhere to in the present day, arrived at a sustainable way to stay benighted and incurious. That’s because liberation isn’t a carefree journey of self-fulfillment. Liberation hurts.