Warning: For those who have not yet seen "Black Mirror: San Junipero," this op-ed includes spoilers!
Girl meets girl in “San Junipero,” an episode in the third season of the Netflix dystopian sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror.” In it, a shy bespectacled nerd named Yorkie meets the outgoing, vivacious Kelly in a club in San Junipero, a beach town where sometimes it’s the '80s and sometimes it isn’t, depending on what you’re feeling.
For now, don’t think about how the town is a time-traveling virtual reality, where human consciousness can be uploaded after death as a sort of permanent retirement home. We’ll get to that later. For just a moment, think about how an episode that gave a lesbian and a bisexual woman a "happily ever after" won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
The episode, which stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, bested “Sherlock” on PBS and NBC's Dolly Parton Christmas special. Creator Charlie Brooker accepted the award and gave a speech in which he winked at the turbulent times we’re in that sometimes feel like an overly long “Black Mirror” episode.
Okay, back to time-traveling queer ladies. “San Junipero” tells the story of Yorkie and Kelly’s romance that transcends time and space in virtual reality. After meeting, Yorkie falls in love with Kelly, but Kelly is just in San Junipero to have fun. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” provides the theme song for the episode, by the way, which is an extremely appropriate choice.
It is later revealed that, in the physical world, Yorkie is surviving on life support. She was paralyzed from running her car off the road shortly after her parents rejected her for being gay. Yorkie plans to marry her nurse to authorize her euthanasia so she can be uploaded to San Junipero full time. Kelly, after finally meeting Yorkie outside of San Junipero in the "real world," offers to marry her instead and authorizes her euthanasia. But when Yorkie asks Kelly to join her in virtual reality, Kelly says she plans to die without being uploaded as her husband did, because their daughter died before San Junipero existed.
Spoiler alert: The two eventually end up together in a triumphant, gleeful reunion in San Junipero, where they race down a dirt road in a red hot convertible.
To that end, the episode subverts “Black Mirror’s” relationship with technology. The show typically paints a bleak picture of our future, replete with murderous honeybee drones and SnapChat-esque face filters designed to make the chore of soldiers having to kill other human beings more tolerable. Most of its subject matter impinges on plausibility, which is what makes it so disturbing.
There are elements of that nihilism in “San Junipero” as well. Kelly wanting to die without being uploaded to San Junipero and Yorkie having to marry her nurse in order to be euthanized raise layered ethical questions about technology, biology and spirituality.
It should also be noted that “San Junipero” touches on familiar tropes to weave its queer narrative: Yorkie came out of the closet and nearly died immediately after. And while the episode technically doesn’t “bury its gays,” well… they’re sort of dead already, the science fiction makes it a matter of personal interpretation.
But where “San Junipero” deviates from these templates, it opens up a possibility for its protagonists to obtain something we rarely see for queer characters, especially for queer women: a "happily ever after" storyline. When we see Kelly reunite with Yorkie, we are elated, relieved and, on some level, absolutely shocked. We simply aren’t used to seeing this from queer stories or “Black Mirror” episodes. Could it be? Is this a happy ending? Surely there’s a catch!
There kind of is. The joyful scene of Kelly and Yorkie riding off together in the convertible is interspersed with shots of a mechanical robot arm placing a blinking light — the consciousness of a human being — among many other blinking lights in a vault. It’s a somber reminder we’re still watching “Black Mirror,” after all. The effect is something like a robot handing you a bouquet of flowers. It’s lovely, and somewhat creepy.
That caveat aside, what makes the episode radical is far more important: It offers queer people the opportunity to find escape in media. Films about the queer experience often focus on the tragic, on the temporary nature of our joy, which has historically been interrupted by AIDS, murder, violence, homophobia or, I don’t know, someone simply finding out about it and putting an end to it.
Escapism, a theme that runs heavy through the episode, has historically been off the table for us when it comes to mainstream entertainment, where we either end up dead or being played for laughs. Is it any wonder we flock to our bars and clubs to find it, or look for queer representation in code, in the subtle and the cryptic?
“San Junipero,” on the other hand, presents a kaleidoscopic neon playground of queerness through the eras, allowing its characters to romp through the '80s and '90s in period-appropriate clothing without, it’s implied, the virulent homophobia of the past. It’s a blissful fever dream that doesn’t come at the expense of any of the episode's more serious themes.
There are excellent movies that draw deep from queer struggle, many of them radical in their own right. “Philadelphia,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonlight” are a few of the heavy hitters. But when it comes to queer movies where the couple rides off into the sunset together, we have a lot of catching up to do.
So it’s wonderful to see such an important episode as “San Junipero” snatch the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. Perhaps it will send a message to producers that they don’t have to rely solely on tragedy to tell emotional, resonant and successful stories about LGBTQ people.
“San Junipero’s” win comes to us at a time of unrest and uncertainty for queer people. And while I respect the episode too much to reduce it down to a mere portal for escapism, I would also say that its win, much like Kelly and Yorkie’s happy ending, is reason for hope. Maybe in time we queer folks will make heaven our place on earth. But in the meantime, let’s make more art where we do.