WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 3 episode ‘San Junipero’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.
From what I’ve read on the internet about ‘San Junipero’, viewers seem to be split as to whether the ending portrays a utopian happily-ever-after or, in more traditional Black Mirror style, an afterlife trapped in digital hell. Writer Charlie Brooker has been pretty explicit about his intentions: ‘They have the happiest ending imaginable… they drive off into the sunset together, because, why not?’ Given that the norm for same-sex relationships, especially female same-sex relationships, in fiction tends to be death or misery, Brooker’s choice of a happy ending is just as controversial as the many horrible endings served up in other episodes of Black Mirror, and he’s right to defend it. But ‘San Junipero’ interrogates the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope in a less straightforward way as well. Our heroines are alive at the end of ‘San Junipero’, and that’s important. But it’s also important that they are dead.
For anybody who hasn’t seen ‘San Junipero’, and ignored the massive spoiler warning, I’ll quickly summarise the plot. Kelly and Yorkie meet and fall in love in what seems to be a club in the late 1980s. This is Black Mirror, so it’s not surprising when we find out something else is going on. San Junipero, it turns out, is a digital paradise, and in the real world, Kelly and Yorkie are old women, thousands of miles apart. While Kelly is dying of cancer, Yorkie is paralysed after a car accident when she was twenty-one, when she drove her car off the road after her parents rejected her for being a lesbian. Yorkie wants Kelly to stay with her in San Junipero after she dies; it’s possible to upload your consciousness into this virtual reality, so you can live indefinitely before you pull the plug. Kelly’s loyalties, however, are torn. Her husband refused to take this option when he died because he wanted to join their daughter, who passed away before the technology was available. She tells Yorkie that, even though she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, she doesn’t want the technological alternative, leaving Yorkie – who has only really had the chance to live through San Junipero – distraught and alone. You can’t understand what I shared with my husband, Kelly tells Yorkie, as she leaves her crying on the beach; how much I loved him.
The striking end credit sequence sees Kelly reverse this decision. While her physical body dies, her consciousness lives on in San Junipero, dancing and driving with Yorkie. The soundtrack, in one of the most eerily perfect matches I’ve ever heard, is Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is A Place on Earth’. Kelly and Yorkie have got their happy ending, and all is right with the world.
But if that was really all there was to ‘San Junipero’, it wouldn’t be quite as heartbreaking and brilliant as it is. San Junipero, for Kelly and Yorkie, is so seductive not because it offers eternal life, but because it offers the opportunity to live a different life. This is simple enough for Yorkie. She never got the chance to live a full life in reality, so obviously she would jump at the chance of heading to a virtual heaven with Kelly. For Kelly, however, things are more complicated. She loved her husband and her daughter. She openly identifies as bisexual in the episode, but – while obviously this doesn’t affect her sexuality in the slightest – she got to live out her days, and indeed, go to her grave, outwardly fitting the heterosexual, monogamous norm. But because of San Junipero, she can have a second life as a young woman, in love with another young woman. She can be ‘normal’ and ‘transgressive’ at the same time. She can have it all, but only after she’s dead.
In this sense, ‘San Junipero’ technically fits the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, but it also forces us to think about why it exists. Kelly and Yorkie’s paradise is so magical precisely because they aren’t faced with the kind of hard choices that lesbians and bisexual women often face in real life. Yorkie never had to face her homophobic parents again. Kelly can ‘play it straight’ and be true to herself at the same time. By telling us a story that is so tempting, ‘San Junipero’ reverses the logic of every other Black Mirror episode to date, and reserves its greatest despair for the world in which we already live. By showing us a better future, Brooker makes us the black mirror.