If you were to try to come up with the archetypal Black Mirror story, chances are it would look a lot like one of the three episodes so far – an unrelentingly bleak look at the horrors of technology. And indeed, thanks to Charlie Brooker’s writing and some incredible talent around him, the show excels at telling such stories. So it’s a testament to all parties involved that the show can swing in the exact opposite direction, and pull off something quite so beautiful about technology being used for good.
Beauty feels an appropriate description for every aspect of ‘San Junipero’. Yes, obviously that includes the visuals and the people (it’s Hollywood, after all), but there was a whole lot more to it than that. It’s hard to put a finger on what it was about the characters, and the storyline, that was so resonant, but anyone who has watched the episode (which I’d hope is everyone reading…) will know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes something has the potential to just work. And I say this as someone known to friend’s as the pessimist to end all pessimists.
The premise of the episode – mind uploading (as a way of cheating death) – wasn’t particularly new. Doctor Who, Caprica, Tron and Asimov’s The Last Question are just some examples of the conceit’s exploration. Even Black Mirror itself explored it, in a way, back in ‘White Christmas’. And that’s just the technological side of the episode – delve into concepts of purgatory, and the list is endless.Yet ‘San Junipero’ certainly stands out from the crowd. Part of that is certainly the innate ability Brooker has throughout every episode to ground whatever concept he’s working with (a talent no doubt honed by his years of scrutinising everything in sight), but it’s equally down to the crucial decision to not bother trying to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. Less than a minute in, and Belinda Carlisle is belting out ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’. If that wasn’t enough already to get you going, it’s not long after that Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are talking about the dead people in San Junipero like it’s the most normal thing. Granted, this wasn’t quite a purgatory, rather a sort of ‘pre-death’, but even so the biggest mistake the episode could’ve made was having all these quirks (one week later, years have gone by etc., or Yorkie’s magic wardrobe of clothes she clearly dislikes), and then ending with jazz hands shouting ‘gotcha!’. No doubt everyone will have realised at different points (including some people who presumably are reading this and thinking ‘oh, that’s what was happening’), but the important point was that rather than making the reveal the story, the focus was instead squarely on Yorkie and Kelly.
And of course, part of it is the performances behind those two characters. Davis and Mbatha-Raw manage to pull off the space-time minefield their roles require, from their ‘base’ characterisations at the start – shy, uncertain Yorkie, and infectiously vibrant Kelly – through glimpses at their real lives, and on towards their final, full-time ‘San Juniperoan’ (is that the right demonym?) selves. Part of me worried that the ending – two women, happy and free in an open top car – was going to go the way of Thelma & Louise, but then a split second later it dawned on me that it had gone the way of Thelma & Louise: two women, happy and free in an open top car. Feminist stories like this are all too infrequent. Additionally, Denise Burse did a superb job as present-day Kelly – I only wish she had a bit more screen time in the episode.
Behind the scenes, we’ve already had Max Richter, Bear McCreary and Alex Heffes (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) scoring episodes – this time it was Clint Mansell. Does it need saying that his music suited the episode perfectly? There’s something surreal – as someone who will often have days with the soundtracks to The Fountain & The Leftovers on repeat – having such talent composing for the show, but it’s a clear indication of the benefits the show’s had moving to Netflix.
So once again, Black Mirror pulls it out the bag. What else has it got in store?
(And yes, guess how many stars it’s getting. Clue: it’s higher than 4…)