Black Mirror is a scary show. It’s not scary in the way American Horror Story is gory and peppered with jump-scares, or scary in the way some reality shows make you worried for the state of humanity. It’s scary in the way you feel after you’ve binged too many episodes in a row and your computer has to pause to ask you if you’re okay and you see your reflection in the screen and think, “What have I become?” (That reflection is exactly what ‘black mirror’ refers to, by the way. The cold, judgemental glare of a blank device screen.) The show preys on our societal addiction to technology, and takes what seems like a reasonable prediction of a not-too-far-away future and shows how very wrong we could go if we’re not careful.
Each episode of Black Mirror is self-contained, and while sometimes there are references to past episodes (in last year’s Christmas episode, for example, you can see the reality show from the second episode on a TV, among other references), implying all these episodes exist in the same TERRIFYING reality, but the characters generally don’t reappear in any significant way from one story to the next, so really never know what you’re going to get. So one minute you’re trying to erase the memories of an episode that was like if Pretty Little Liars was on HBO (and about men) and the next you have two girls flirting with each other.
“San Junipero” is the story of two young women who first meet in a bar in 1987. Their names are Yorkie and Kelly; Kelly is bold and all smiles; Yorkie is meek and hides behind the glasses she admits she doesn’t need. They dance, until Yorkie panics and runs outside, worried that everyone was staring. Kelly couldn’t care less. But eventually Yorkie admits she is engaged to a man and runs away.
One week later, Yorkie is back in San Junipero in 1987, but Kelly is dancing with a boy. Finally they meet in the bathroom and Yorkie admits she just needs some guidance. So Kelly guides her all the way back to her beach house and into bed.
After, they talk and bond and Kelly says she’s always known she was bi and had a husband for a long time, and they lie together until they can’t anymore.
A week later, Yorkie is looking for Kelly in San Junipero again, but can’t find her anywhere. That’s when someone suggests she try another time. Not place. So the next week she pops into San Junipero again, but in 1980. Then 1996. Etc.
Eventually she finds her in 2002 and they fight a little. They talk about pain sliders and full-timers and we learn that San Junipero is a place you can live when you die. Kelly admits that she ran because she was scared. “I wasn’t prepared for you.”
There are more beach house shenanigans, and Yorkie talks about her fiance again, saying he pities her. And Kelly finally talks about her own life outside San Junipero, and she admits she only has three months to live. And that she doesn’t plan on living here after. Her husband died and didn’t go to San Junipero, and she wants to go wherever he went. Kelly wants to visit Yorkie in real life, and Yorkie is scared, says Kelly won’t like her, but eventually gives in.
And in real life, they are elderly. Yorkie is unresponsive in a bed, hooked up to all kinds of machines, and Kelly kisses her on the forehead and says, “Hello, stupid.” (But like…it’s romantic.)
Kelly meets Greg, who is Yorkie’s caretaker and fiancé. Yorkie came out to her parents when she was 21; they didn’t react well, so she drove off and got in a car accident that paralyzed her. She’s been quadriplegic her whole life. He’s marrying her because she wants to be euthanized so she can live in San Junipero forever and her parents won’t consent to it. So what does Kelly do? Bold and daring Kelly? She pops into San Junipero for a minute and asks Yorkie if she’d rather marry her instead. It’d still be the same deal, just for legal reasons so she can be euthanized. But at least it would be a marriage that meant a little something.
So the ladies don white dresses and frolick around San Junipero and everything is hunky dory until Yorkie asks Kelly to stay. Forever. But Kelly explains that she was with her husband for 49 years, that they had a daughter that died at 39, before San Junipero existed, so her husband didn’t go either. They’re just…gone. They fight and eventually Kelly leaves.
When it comes time for Kelly to die in real life, the music churns out “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and Yorkie is driving a little red corvette and pulls up to the beach — where Kelly is waiting. The cheerful song is still playing while a machine slots Kelly’s thumb drive into a server next to millions of others, and in San Junipero, Yorkie and Kelly drive off into eternity together, where they can dance their hearts out.
Together! Smiling! Laughing! Can you imagine?
I came to this episode with absolutely no background on Black Mirror other than what Heather told me, which is that it’s essentially Dementor TV and ends horribly for everyone in every episode EXCEPT this one. Cool! Sounds like a blast.
I thought the buildup and establishment of the relationship between Kelly and Yorkie was very cute, and even if they’re both kind of cookie cutter (“I’m the nerd!” “I’m the party girl!”) the vibe between them felt real to me. I’d be reacting to Kelly the same way if I was in Yorkie’s position, to be honest. I thought there were some really nice lines, especially the ones that cut right to the heart of what it feels like to be queer and falling for someone and not really knowing what to do about it (“There were crushes. God, were there crushes,” “So you’ve been just… totally fucking inconvenient,” etc.). I also appreciated that it being an interracial relationship wasn’t made into this Big Deal, although as a white person my opinion on that clearly isn’t the one that matters.
I am a relentless optimist. But this year, more often than not, my open, hopeful arms have been greeted with a knife right in my exposed heart. So I don’t think I fully relaxed until the music stopped and I was sure it was over. And that’s when I realized my cheeks hurt from smiling, despite the fact that my tears from earlier in the episode had hardly dried. My heart was racing, my eyes were wide and wild. These two women were together. No subtext, no wondering. It seemed way too hopeful to be an episode of Black Mirror.
And I hate that even amidst my hope throughout the episode, there was that fear. Do you think straight people watch TV constantly terrified their favorites are going to die or be torn apart or just suffer general doom and gloom and never get together just because they fell in love? I imagine not. Unless all they watch is murder shows. A few weeks ago I went to a film festival and saw a movie about two women who were best friends who realized they were in love with each other. Long story short: they decided (for no good reason) not to be together and the movie ended with them being mostly miserable.
After, a bunch of men stood up and were like, “What a great, authentic ending,” and and the director was like, “We almost had a happy ending but the investors preferred the sad ending,” and another guy was like, “Yes, this is much better surely.” My friend and I were fuming. There was plenty of angst and drama throughout the movie, and there was a clear path to happiness for all, but no, instead all the women had to be miserable. Why. WHY.
The first time I watched, I worried that people would see this as falling under “Bury Your Gays,” and I would disagree. I think there’s a big difference between killing off your only queer woman/having your most powerful witch or strongest warrior struck down by a bullet that wasn’t meant for them right after they were reunited with their girlfriends, and having one of your many self-contained storylines being about two women who find out that the end of their physical lives can be the beginning of their happily ever after. And even though technically Kelly and Yorkie “ascended” like Root or Lexa, at least it was a choice they made, and they were still with the woman they loved in a tangible way at the end. They had agency over their own death and chose it to be happy.
Though I would argue that “queer women can only be happy together in a post-death utopia” isn’t exactly a solution to Bury Your Gays, either, or even the antithesis to it — and there’s something else going on here too. The disability equivalent of Bury Your Gays is called Better Dead Than Disabled. Carrie, how did you feel like Black Mirror handled that trope?
So in real life, Yorkie is quadriplegic and lives in a hospital bed on a ventilator, but in San Junipero she is young and able-bodied. It becomes clear that she wants to end her real-world life so she can cross over and “live” in San Junipero forever. So if you just look at it that way, it seems like they’re once again playing into this idea that you are, in fact, better dead than disabled and of course she wants to be able-bodied forever because why wouldn’t you want to be. But two questions complicate that, I think:
1) When you go to San Junipero, do you get to choose how old you are? If that’s the case, it’s interesting that there don’t seem to be many old people there; it looks like everyone decides to be young. And that also means that Yorkie isn’t necessarily choosing to be able-bodied, she’s just choosing to be a younger version of herself. Which is decidedly less shitty than if she had always been disabled in real life, and then magically got to be able-bodied in this afterlife simulation. So it’s not (necessarily) as downright awful as the vast majority of similar plot lines, which assume that everyone would be able-bodied if given the choice. And on a related note,
2) Are there any disabled people in San Junipero? I don’t remember seeing any, and if there aren’t, that’s a problem. Because then it’s at least strongly implied that no one would choose to be disabled in their afterlife, even if they were in their earthly life. Not good. It’s a huge theological question and struggle for a lot of religious disabled folks, and a misguided attempt at connection that a lot of religions make toward disabled people: this idea that one day you’ll “throw off your shackles and be free,” i.e. not disabled anymore, yay for you.
Then there’s the entire issue of whether and how Yorkie consented to try San Junipero, or if it was just given to her by doctors who assumed she would want it. They never show her communicating in the present day beyond, of course, the single damn tear rolling down her cheek as she “crosses over.” (Ughhhh.) Consent to medical procedures is a hot button topic in the disability community, as is euthanasia, which apparently she also wants. Supporting right-to-die laws or similar programs means that you feel like you can trust the decision makers on all sides, which isn’t a privilege lots of disabled folks get to enjoy. Many disabled people have horrifying trauma around doctors suggesting (in one way or another) that we are better off dead. The episode clearly portrays the end of Yorkie’s earthly life as a pathway to happiness, which is troubling if you’re anything other than able-bodied. At the same time, EVERY character, including Kelly, is struggling with what it means to die and what your options are afterward, so at least she’s not alone in this.
Yorkie says some things along the way that are refreshing to hear—like how she’s pissed off when people pity her. At the same time, she also tells Kelly that if they met in real life, “you wouldn’t like me, you wouldn’t want to spend time with me.” So she’s clearly not settled on that issue either, and struggling with what her body means, even if she can only verbally communicate that in San Junipero.
So while this episode is not perfect, disability-wise, at least no one says outright that “of course she wants to cross over.” I’m still worried that that’s how viewers will interpret it, even though there’s more nuance going on (because it’s easier that way—especially in media, disability-as-tragedy is the go-to trope and no one bothers to think any harder. Thanks, ableism!). But it’s at least a little more complex than I thought it was going to be.
Yes, absolutely. Queer people have so few options when it comes to representation on TV, and it affects our real lives so profoundly that it’s hard not to just shake it down to Good or Bad. You’re right, of course, that San Junipero is complicated. And our critique of queer TV is worthless if it’s not intersectional. It’s discouraging that we have to focus so hard on the very easily avoided Bury Your Gays trope that everything else gets swept under the rug. (Especially since, let me repeat, it’s very. easily. avoided.) Like: Well, as long as the queer women are alive.
And I am definitely not saying DON’T set that bar — I think it’s a very important bar. Gold-plate that shit, engrave it with the names of the queer characters unceremoniously ripped from this world. But I just think it can’t be the only bar in situations like these.
Black Mirror always has a twist that makes you question reality and what being human even means and what you would do in the characters’ situation, and it found a loophole of sorts (though I don’t think it was looking for one) through the Bury Your Gays conundrum, eased by the fact that even though it’s not a purely happy story, being dark as fuck and a little haunting, it’s treated with the same twisted storytelling respect as any other characters on any other episodes of this fucked up little show. It’s still an an interracial couple made up of a bisexual and a lesbian. It made me feel things in big way. And it was so nice to see the girl get the girl in the end. But, like you’re saying, Carrie, that can’t be the only way we measure it.
Right—ideally, the girl would get the girl and skip the ableist undertones, and we’d see a happy interracial couple grappling with the big issues (Including disability! Because yes, it does change a relationship!) without having to be like “well, it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t as bad as usual!” There are so many more interesting ways to frame disability than wondering whether we all wish we were dead, or as some “shocking reveal” partway through the episode. Maybe someday, TV. Maybe someday.