On “San Junipero” and Dystopia

Warning: Spoilers of Season 3. If you haven’t watched Black Mirror, do it. Do it now.

Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. The filming location for San Junipero

I am finally getting around to watching the third season of Black Mirror after previously watching the first two and fourth. The third season is plagued with extremes from social violence to romances provoked in computer simulation of what can only be described as Black Mirror’s heaven. The episode that has really gripped my attention is “San Junipero,” probably the least bleak of all Black Mirror episodes, and I felt inspired to write about it.

“San Junipero,” the story of two women falling in love inside the aforementioned Black Mirror heaven, is likely the most controversial episode of the series. A winner of the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie award, San Junipero tells of a romance that sprouts between Yorkie, a shy woman in her early twenties, and Kelly, an outgoing socialite and the bond that builds between them. At first, the sole focus is on the two women’s relationship with technology notably absent. After Yorkie and Kelly sleep together, the Black Mirror elements begins to reveal themselves as every week Yorkie is in a new era, snaking through the crowd to the sounds of the 80s, then the 90s, and finally the 2000s where she once again finds Yorkie. It is ultimately revealed to us that San Junipero is a computer simulation where elderly consciousnesses can exist and enjoy time as they once were. Yorkie and Kelly are on trial versions and limited to five hours in San Junipero a week, but those that “cross-over,” i.e. die, are able to spend eternity in San Junipero.

Yorkie herself is a woman who’s been suffering from locked-in syndrome since 21, after driving her car off a cliff when coming out to her family ended tragically; Kelly, an elderly widow who lost her daughter and then her husband. The love between the two is real, and drama is derived from whether Kelly will pass-over to San Junipero and be with Yorkie, or die a natural death like her husband chose to do. When Yorkie needs to marry someone to approve her euthanasia, Kelly chooses to propose, though without promise of joining her in San Junipero. Ultimately, the writers chose to give Yorkie the happening ending she wanted as she and Kelly ride off into the sunset in their endless youth.

This whole episode is supposed to be happy, a reprieve from the cathartic nature that Black Mirror most often lends itself too, but I’m left questioning what happiness lies in store for Kelly and Yorkie, and more so, for all of us as technologies like these advance. “San Junipero” isn’t a reprieve from the technologically driven dystopia of Black Mirror, it’s the flip side that convinces us we’re happy living in such a world. Black Mirror in casual description is the chaos of future technology and how it will affect our current society, but digging deeper Black Mirror isn’t just technological commentary or dystopia, it’s an indictment on how society at large will be ill-adapted to dealing with loss of phenomena that we characterize our lives by.

By this I mean there are certain facts we take for granted, the phrase “death and taxes” comes to mind. But where Black Mirror excels is in in its description of the post-scarcity world that’s a very possible future for us. I don’t mean post-scarcity in just the sense of food or money, but post-scarcity in all elements that drive humans to make the decisions that they do. Time, happiness, comfort, control.

“San Junipero” is an illustration of life without scarcity of time and main question it asks is: “what do relationships mean when no longer faced with a mandatory expiration date.” The conclusion to me is more dystopian than a lot of the other episodes, a world in which long-term decisions do not matter because there’s no constraint of time. San Junipero is fake happiness. It’s perversion. It’s the bottled-up sadness of those that fear death. And yes, by “those that fear death” I mean all of us. Whether we go nowhere or face the prospect of eternity is unknown, and both are as equally terrifying. San Junipero is as real a construction as the high of an addict. One should feel free in their time in San Junipero, but instead, each character literally lives until their next “hit,” when they’re allowed their next 5 hours to play out their fantasies of a different age.

“San Junipero” reminds us that cannot be truly happy if we are never sad. It is impossible for us to understand a concept without a contrasting example. If we are always the same level of happy, that is our baseline, we are no longer happy. Happiness, is a deviation from the norm. It’s a change of emotions in the positive direction. Likewise, we can never truly live, if we cannot die. Pardoxical, yes, but there’s no incentive. There’s no reason to better ourselves, and bettering ourselves is at the crux of how our relationships work.

We watch Yorkie and Kelly ride off into the sunset, but they are given the princess treatment of a Disney story: we don’t see them when they have their first fight, or when Kelly cheats on Yorkie, or when they just get bored of each. In San Junipero there’s no reason to grow and evolve, there’s no purpose because there’s no ending. It’s an eternity trapped in the shell of our 21-year-old bodies without having to mentally propel ourselves past that point in maturity. There’s a reason they’re always at the club and nobody ever works. Because this hedonistic ideal of Heaven is an accurate representation of what our society will be in a post-scarcity world if we do not adapt. And that is the terror in “San Junipero.”

This false-idol of what life “could be” seeps into the real world and controls the vulnerable and lonely in society. Just like a drug, the first hits of San Junipero are given out for free to entice more people to find a reprieve from the sadness and fear of real-life, with the insidious purpose of euthanizing the elderly in society when they naturally gravitate away from that fear. Instead of valuing the time they have left, the elderly in society lose any concept of value in time because it becomes unlimited.

San Junipero is so scary to me because it accurately depicts how the technologies we create to help people are still regulated by our scarcity era decisions. Those presuppositions are the driving factor that creates dystopia. It’s the same dystopian breakdown of societal values that happens on Westworld, when faced with no consequences how do you grow when the prospect of breaking down into the savage nature of human desires is an option?

And what of Yorkie and Kelly? Kelly makes a strong case for why she should choose death over San Junipero when talking of her husband,

“Forever? Who can even make sense of forever…49 years, I was with him for 49 years. You can’t begin to imagine. You can’t know. The bond, the commitment, the boredom, the yearning, the laughter, the love of it, the fucking love, you just cannot know. Everything we sacrificed, the years I gave him, the years he gave me, did you think to ask? Did it occur to you to ask? We had a daughter, Allison, always difficult, always beautiful, died at 39 years old bless her heart, and Richard and I, we felt that heartbreak as one.”

Love isn’t about the good times and happiness. Love is the commitment and boredom and the struggle that unites two people. Where will that ever exist for Yorkie and Kelly in San Junipero?

“San Junipero” is subtler than most Black Mirror episodes. It doesn’t hit you over the head with how bad the future will be. Instead, it gives hope on first glance, the perfect ending to the hard life that Yorkie has led. But digging deeper, looking closer, is this the society we want in the future? Is this how we will lead the most fulfilling lives with the thought of uploading our consciousness unto the cloud at the moment of death? I’m not so sure.

Image: Originally taken by Harshil Shah with a CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.

On “San Junipero” and Dystopia was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Publication date: 
01/20/2018 - 16:09
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