Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E4 “San Junipero” (Netflix)
Reflections From a Black Mirror
That tweet is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. He did comic-style cover art for all of his favorite Black Mirror episodes, but the rest of his stuff is even more jaw-dropping. You can check it out at his "Redbubble" site.
There are only two episodes left after this, so if you haven't read all of my "Reflections From a Black Mirror" series, catch up now.
My last "Reflection" was the episode "Men Against Fire"
San Junipero: The Play by Play Details
Okay, buckle in, this is going to be a long one, there are LOTS of angles to this episode.
San Junipero has a 1980's musical theme (for the most part). So, to get everyone in the right state of mind...here is my most popular #Spotify playlist to date the "80's Club Friend's Playlist" (I was a club DJ in the 80's).
San Junipero, in a sense, a traditional girl-meets-girl story, but it is not traditional in any other way, it touches on how we look at consciousness, aging, issues of sexual identity and identity altogether.
So, Carol Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), a somewhat mousy 20 something woman, is standing outside of an art deco style club/arcade called “Tucker's” when she sees a vivacious girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) walk by and into the club with a male date.
She is so entranced by this girl's passing that she follows her in and tries to watch her dance inconspicuously from the video game area (Must be the 80's because this is all happening while 80's music is playing and there is only one decade I can think of where a nightclub/arcade would be considered normal).
Despite seeming terrified, Yorkie comes up with an excuse to make contact and finds out that this girl of her dreams is named Kelly.
Luckily, Kelly also seems interested in Yorkie (so interested that they manufacture a reason to ditch Kelly's "boyfriend" and hang out together and, after an intense conversation, Kelly ends up propositioning Carol but Carol turns her down (despite appearing to want nothing more than to say yes to Kelly's proposition). Carol is clearly very conflicted about her desires.
One week later, they meet again, and this time they do hook up, but only after it becomes clear that Carol has spent her entire life wanting to have sexual relations with women but has never acted on those ideas and has absolutely no idea how to move forward.
Thankfully, Kelly is a willing teacher and the coupling was (apparently) very satisfactory to both Kelly and Carol.
Carol shows back up at Tucker's a week later but can't find Kelly.
She tries Tucker's again a week later (one of the many tells that something is not as it seems – why can they only meet once a week and at this one club?) but still no Kelly.
She finally asks a bartender if he has seen Kelly and he tells her she might be hanging out at a different club (called Quagmire). Again, she seems only able to go to Quagmire after another week of time has elapsed.
So, a week later, she goes looking for Carol at Quagmire (which turns out to be a pretty good approximation of what Hollywood seemed to think punk clubs looked like in 80's and 90's cinema...basically, in this instance, lots of random bondage images all played to the strains of The Pixies?).
Anyway, Kelly isn't at Quagmire either (poor Carol) but the boy that Kelly ditched for Carol at Tucker's is there and tells her that she might have more success trying to find Kelly in "different time periods."
So, at this point, it becomes pretty clear that all of the participants are in some way participating in a very lifelike Simulacrum (a more sophisticated version of an open universe full-immersion AI video game)
Carol takes the guy's advice, and always after a full week (this Simulacrum has strict rules) starts visiting The Quagmire and Tucker's in different era's.
She tries the 80's, 90's and 2000's before finding Kelly again at Tucker's.
Not Surprisingly, given all the avoidance, Kelly doesn't seem particularly happy to see Carol.
Kelly explains to Carol that she is only in San Junipero as a "tourist" and is basically just committed to having as much fun as she possibly can during her weekly visits.
Carol angrily tells Kelly that their hook-up had meant a lot to her, calls her cruel and shallow, and then storms off..
Kelly follows Carol out the door, into the street, and finally to the rooftop of a nearby building.
When Kelly finally catches up to Carol, on the roof, she asks her if she has set her pain levels to “zero” (remember, this is most likely a simulacrum, so committing suicide would probably only be virtual suicide).
Backstories To The Future
Kelly apologizes for running from Carol and explains that while she had not been looking for anything serious that first night at Tucker's she had been surprised and scared by how much her tryst with Carol had affected her.
She explains to Carol that she is bisexual but that she was married to a man who recently died and that she is currently a terminal cancer patient visiting San Junipero (a simulacrum) as a tourist (someone who is doing a test run in San Junipero before deciding if they want to move their consciousness to the simulacrum permanently after they die).
Believe it or not, this is not a new idea. I was reading Science Fiction about the uploading of human consciousness into an electronic reality as early as the 80's and this is, more or less, similar to the central premise of the Matrix movies as well).
Kelly also explains that she and her husband had a daughter who died young and that her husband chose not to upload his consciousness to a simulacrum. Later we find out that her husband felt that if her daughter had not been given the chance to upload that he didn't feel it would be right to make a choice his daughter was never given. It also seemed like maybe he wouldn't have wanted to reside in a place where he could never again find his daughter.
We also learn that Kelly does not want to become a permanent resident of San Junipero. She loved her husband and daughter and doesn't want to be locked in the Simulacrum.
So anyway, San Junipero is a simulation where people can continue to live out their consciousness after death and where “tourists” can “sample” San Junipero living but only for short periods and only once a week (and only until 12 am).
Even the afterlife has bandwidth problems (sigh).
When people, either tourists or permanent residents, are in San Junipero, they seem to be able to inhabit whichever physical version of themselves that they most like to identify with. So, in other words, if you prefer to think of your 23-year-old self, you can be your 23-year-old self in San Junipero.
Apparently, you can also visit different places in different times but only different places in San Junipero (or in whatever “town” that you upload to after death). Carol, in fact, at one point, admits candidly that she was jumping between different decades just so that she would be able to dance to different music at the clubs (my kind of girl for sure).
So, I left out that Carol mentioned a few times earlier that she was getting married to a "nice" man soon. The real twist in San Junipero is that it turns out that Carol is also a tourist.
Carol, in real life, knew that she was gay, told her parents (who were very conservative) and after they freaked out she ran out of the house, drove off, and got in a car wreck. The car wreck has kept Carol's body in a coma for over 40 years but she is going to die soon (which explains both why she is a tourist and all of her desire-filled reluctance and repression throughout San Junipero).
I am not sure that I understand all of the medical details but in this version of the future, they seem to be able to communicate with Carol's brain even when her body is in a coma.
Carol is actually getting married, but she is getting married to a middle-aged attendant at the hospital housing her body who wants to help her legally escape to San Junipero (her parents, who have her power of attorney, would never give legal permission to go to San Junipero, so she needs to get married in order to legally upload her consciousness to the simulacrum).
Kelly offers to take the nice attendants place and marry Carol so that at least the person marrying her actually truly cares about her. So, Carol and Kelly get married. And this should be a happy ending, but there are a few more surprises.
First, Kelly and Carol do meet outside of San Junipero before they die, get married, and then meet again in San Junipero but that meeting does not go well for them.
Kelly still does not want to permanently relocate her consciousness to San Junipero or spend the rest of her life with Carol. Obviously, Carol is less than thrilled to hear this news and to find out that while Kelly cares for her she is still really committed to her dead husband.
They split after fighting.
Next, you see Kelly die, but she is not wearing one of the uploading devices on her temple (although, in fairness, you can only see one of her temples).
The second to final scene shows Carol driving along the beach in San Junipero and she stops the car and jumps out (drumroll please) and there is Kelly....Much celebration.
As the episode fades, you see a computer arm putting two "consciousness upload" modules into a server on a wall full of servers.
Somewhat like two stars in a galaxy of stars.
The Cinderella of San Junipero
The different versions of Disney's Cinderella are, at the deepest level, an attempt at building a mythology of desire. If young girls want to be princesses and to be chosen for marriage by a Prince, Disney hopes, at some level, that the desire remains tied to Disney as well.
Life, if you were to subscribe to this particular myth, would either satisfy your desires literally (you marry a Prince), figuratively (you marry someone you think is Princely), or your desire would remain unsatiated or worse blocked by other elements of the myth itself.
Carol's desire was to eventually marry a Princess but her family structure and social structure wanted her to marry a Prince. She had to remain repressed and unhappy or satisfied and shunned. She wanted to live a different version of Cinderella but ended up Sleeping Beauty.
Then came a Fairy Godmother, in the form of San Junipero. Finally, she could explore her desires in a world that held the power of her wicked stepmother at bay. But, just like in Cinderella, magic had limits.
Carol could only meet her Princess once a week and only until Midnight before the whole fantasy turns into a pumpkin.
Life can be cruel, but you can live in the memories of your moments of joy.
Death (or the approach of death) is, according to this Cinderella story, the only way to break the rules mandating that the majority of our life results in dissatisfaction. It is the approach of death, in this universe, that makes magic real and satisfaction possible.
In Black Mirror, "Traditional life" is nasty, brutish, and short for both Kelly and Carol. In Black Mirror, only death can set you free to fulfill your true desires.
Many people watching San Junipero might not understand the importance of locating its heart in the 1980's.
The 80's was the decade of AIDS and a much less tolerant time for LGBTQ people in America. My introduction to the battlefield was finding out, when I was in high school, that the only clubs that didn't ask for ID's were gay clubs.
After making many gay friends from my time in these clubs, I started to hear many stories about facing violence and closeting.
I feel like there are many parallels between what was happening to Gay people in the 80's and what Trans people face today (we tend to oppress the people we don't understand).
I will never forget this video, which symbolizes the dangers inherent in being openly gay during the 80's (and it still profoundly affects me today). I think you can really get a good feel for Carol watching the end of this video:
Black Mirror Has Two Faces...I Mean Jokes
So, I just wanted to call out the purposefully funny music choices throughout San Junipero. Here are a few of the tipoffs and nods to the twists throughout the episode:
Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle
Heaven for Carol is living in San Junipero which is technically a server on planet earth.
Girlfriend in a Coma, The Smiths
This one is so on the nose I don't really have to say too much here.
Don't You Forget About Me, Simple Minds
Again, more than a bit on the nose :)
Living in a Box, Living in a Box
Um, they are technically living in a box (see above)
Professional Widow, Tori Amos
This song is pretty in tune with Kelly's position about her husband and death
Okay, working my way back to you by The Spinners is pretty funny too.
I have commiserated many times with my 72-year-old Mother as I got older about how while you feel physically different as you age, you always seem to feel the same inside your head.
I think this juxtaposition between what you feel in your head and how your body feels is one of the real cruelties of aging for most people (obviously, it might be even worse to suffer the degeneration of both your physical self and you mental self).
Anyway, I think one of the reasons that San Junipero is such a popular episode (aside from the beautiful but sad tone poem at its core) is because it suggests a world in which we can defeat aging.
So, way back in the late 80's and early 90's (while doing debate research) I started reading about advanced artificial intelligence futures (like nanotechnology, cyborgs, and what, at the time, was being called "artificial life").
As I did this research, I started to run into this fringe element of people interested in this same research whose ultimate goal was transhumanism or extropy (breaking the barriers of entropy). In other words, they were organizing around the idea of never having to die. In a perfectly transhuman future, in the opinion of these individuals, one could no longer count on death (they would, forevermore, be only able to count on birth and taxes).
Obviously, we are a long way from technology that would allow us to upload our own consciousness into digital storage (much less integrate it into a "matrix" like San Junipero) and I am not entirely certain how the mental acceptance of digital bodies would seem similar enough to make the experience seem "real" but San Junipero represents another possible extropian future.
I guess what I am saying is that San Junipero might have also caused some discussions in the Extropian community?
Okay, so that is it for San Junipero.
Only two episodes left fo me to recap:
S2 E4 "White Christmas"
S3 E2 "Playtest"
I have been putting Playtest off for a long time on purpose, I hope I can find some inspiration soon.