Last year I reviewed a few episodes of Black Mirror, the British dark series about grim futures with technology:
I fired up Netflix and watched the supposedly best episode, “The Entire History of You,” about a troubled couple using the technology of life-recording to break up in the ugliest possible way. Now I’ve counselled couples who break into each other’s phones and this was much the same, but more horrific than even that could be.
It was well-written, powerful, and depressing. Let’s focus on awful people and show how technology can enable them to be *even* *more* *awful*! …
There’s no denying these are really great — artful, like the best short stories. But minus any Human Wave sense of struggling to beat back the darkness.
Because being fully human has a *purpose*, if you are well-adjusted. It might be religious, it might be building Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere and reaching the Omega Point with as much knowledge as possible, it might be building the best world for your children’s children’s children. But there are positive goals to strive for, not just surviving and contending with other humans for a shrinking share of a shrinking world. Raising children is a risky exercise, and you do it when you have some faith in the future. Malthusian dread and belief in ever-darker futures kills off the will to fight and to win against those who would tear it all down.
Now that I’ve seen all of the episodes of the British seasons and the “White Christmas” special with John Hamm, I still think the overall bleakness is akin to torture porn, with horrible people doing horrible things to each other enabled by advanced technology. But there’s no denying how excellent it is, in both script and execution. It is much like sifting all the episodes of Twilight Zone for the grimmest 10%, then unleashing those as the whole.
I had heard the American third season, funded by Netflix, would be a little sunnier, with “San Junipero” the episode cited as showing this most clearly. And that turned out to be accurate — much more human, much more kind, much more optimistic.
The episode starts with the resonance of the name — “San Junipero” brings up associations with “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” the heightened-real-world simulation game set in California. Video games appear several times in the episode. And then one of the first things we see in a small town’s downtown strip is an ad for Lost Boys, the teen vampire movie set in 1980s Santa Cruz. San Junipero turns out to be a re-creation of a beach party town much like Santa Cruz, though it looks like filming was done further south in the beach towns north of San Diego. The producers licensed some great 80s music as well, so the episode ends with Belinda Carlisle singing “Heaven is Place on Earth.”
We follow a shy, bespectacled young woman, Yorkie, as she enters a disco obviously wary of the social goings-on. She meets the vivacious, attractive Kelly, who’s trying to blow off a guy who’s attached himself to her. Sparks fly.
The unwary viewer doesn’t get a hint that this isn’t your usual beach town until some dialog hints that many of the people in the town are dead. It turns out San Junipero is a simulated village full of the sims of people dead or just visiting in old age to get ready for “crossing over” to join the dead in a digital afterlife and to stimulate their brains to ward off dementia. The living are limited to 5 hours a week to prevent side-effects, and their visits end abruptly when the clock strikes midnight. So for the visitors it’s always Saturday night, and the partying is constant, especially at the decadent Quagmire orgy warehouse.
Unlike other episodes of Black Mirror, this one centers around a romantic relationship that doesn’t go horrific or turn into a trap. Both girls / young women are adorable in different ways, with the shy, fawnlike Yorkie attracting the outgoing, fiery Kelly. The lesbian sex is hinted at tastefully, and the dynamics between them believable. When Kelly goes missing, Yorkie goes looking for her in different years, a fun look at period styles and music.
Difficulties arise, of course. It turns out Yorkie is really dying in a hospital after spending nearly all of her life as a bedridden paraplegic — her parents took her coming out at 21 badly, and she drove off and crashed, breaking her neck and severing her spinal cord. So she’s never really had a life, or sex, and her hunger for attachment scares Kelly, who just wants to have fun — or so she says.
Kelly turns out to be nearing the end of her life, too, in a care facility. She has made up her mind to die naturally and not “pass over” to San Junipero because her husband had refused, and even though she doesn’t believe her husband and daughter are really waiting in Heaven for her — they are gone forever — she wants to honor his memory and their 47 years of marriage by going with him.
If you don’t cry at the end you have a heart of stone.
But while some religious conservatives might find the lesbian relationship and simulated afterlife troubling, this is an optimistic view of technology’s effect on humanity compared to the rest of Black Mirror. There are interesting questions about the meaning of life — if you are only simulated, what is it you are living for? Can you have children in San Junipero? I touched on some of these in Shrivers, where intelligences could choose to submerge themselves in a simulated afterlife to become the Revenant, abdicating responsibilities to relive old memories and pleasurable fantasies.
But the idea that dying people could live again to enjoy some of the life they had denied themselves for family and health reasons is pretty damn attractive. Thus the waterworks. I’m tearing up writing this, as my mother slowly declines in a memory care facility and forgets who we are.
[edit: turns out filming locations were near Capetown, South Africa!]