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Up until watching San Junipero I would have used words like “futuristic” and “modernistic” to describe Black Mirror, this time around the one word to describe it would probably be “retro”. In the nightclub scene of 1980s two young women meet. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) is a shy, reclusive young woman who walks into a feverish and pulsating nightclub only to find solace playing alone at the club’s attached arcade (when, come to think of it, seems about as feasible as putting a playground in a liquor store). Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the polar opposite, she’s an extroverted and promiscuous young woman, seeking momentary pleasures with one-off flings. When the two meet it’s “opposites attract” and soon it becomes a snazzy romance—resulting in a sexual awakening for the inexperienced, protestant-raised, Yorkie and the taming of the free-spirited Kelly.
In typical Black Mirror fashion not everything in this Utopian paradise is what it seems. [Spoilers to follow]. As it turns out, the two women are actually speaking in a virtual reality which only simulates 1980s aesthetics. In reality, Yorkie and Kelly are actually old women on their deathbeds, living their last days in young bodies inside a computer-generated fantasy world, while their real bodies weaken into old age.
San Junipero looks to be a number of things, a colorful statement on LGBT marriage, a deep meditation on life and death and a discussion on culture identity and gender politics. Anything meaningful this episode wanted to say, however, is undermined (or more appropriately obliterated) by the detritus melodramatic nonsense it tries to pass off as legible, thought-provoking storytelling. If Brooker’s idea of heaven was pastel-coloured nostalgia and sweaty teenage-angst, I’d sooner settle for oblivion. I couldn’t stand the immature and facile arguments coming from characters who were supposed to be old souls. Unlike the previous three episodes which (mediocre as they were) actually regulated a type of hard-edged credibility grounding them into a believable reality, San Junipero works on a the totally inauthentic notion that cheap, human goodness can earn anyone a happy ending.
If San Junipero manages to win you over, maybe it’s because it operates on the same dramatic appeal famously applied by mega-successful crowd-pleasers like The Notebook (2004) or Titanic (1997). The ultimatums characters give themselves, the obligatory emotional functions and plot-bricklaying become just too ostensibly traditional. San Junipero works neither as insightful commentary or even as a superficially engaging love story. Charlie Brooker instead settles in between, proud only of the complex issues it introduces, never mustering the gumption to work on its complex terms. I have never outwardly disliked an episode of Black Mirror until this point, and even if some bits worked, San Junipero makes a strong case this show is regressing into the short-lived novelty act, the same folly its predecessor (The ever-so-timeless Twilight Zone) managed to overcome half-a-century ago.