How San Junipero Took Black Mirror To Another Level

Black Mirror's best known for hardcore techno-fear - so how'd its most lighthearted episode end up being one of its best?

black mirror san junipero Mackenzie Davis Gugu Mbatha-Raw

I recently powered through Netflix’s Black Mirror for the first time. With the release of the show’s fifth season a couple of months ago, and with my friend group constantly discussing it, as well as having watched another stunning sci-fi anthology series on Netflix, Love, Death and Robots, I felt like I owed it to myself to give the series a spin.

And it was nothing short of awesome.

The brainchild of creative cynic Charlie Brooker, the anthology series is a well written exploration of hypothetical situations in how humanity gets shafted by technology and typically will leave viewers in a comatose state of depression. I mean, any series which opens up with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom doing the nasty with a pig is going to elicit a lot of negative emotions.

However, that is the overriding flavour of Black Mirror. While each episode may range from a familiar not-too-distant future to an alternate universe where the laws of our reality don’t apply, Charlie Brooker always writes each story of Black Mirror with the basic formula of humans plus our growing reliance/ obsession with technology equals bad.

That is until you reach San Junipero, the fourth episode of the third season. While it shares the consistent themes of humanity interacting with technology, it doesn’t leave the audience wanting to smash up their laptop for fear of their life. If anything, it’s a heart-warming tale of love, which makes it stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the rest of the series. However, at the time of its release, publications considered it to be the best episode of Black Mirror, and the episode is still talked about by fans years after its release. Why is that?

Well, San Junipero acts as a huge contrast to the rest of the season. While the other episodes deal with things like military technology, an underground network punishing criminals anonymously, and a play test for a virtual reality horror game, San Junipero is a retro themed episode following a pair of women, Yorkie, played by Mackenzie Davis, and Kelly, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who meet in a digital universe and start a relationship. While the setting may reek of the 80s, it turns out San Junipero is actually a computer programme which functions as therapy for the elderly and where the dead can upload their consciousness to live forever in a virtual heaven.

I found myself comparing Brooker to other people in film and TV who have explored a similar avenue. Watching this episode then looking into Charlie Brooker’s views on it reminded me of an article written in the 2016 issue of Scotland Loves Anime magazine, featuring an interview with Naoyoshi Shiotani. Shiotani is well known for helming the cyberpunk anime Psycho Pass, but has also created sweet comedies and children’s films, like Tokyo Marble Chocolate. In the interview, he talks about how working on such a dark project like Psycho Pass, a dystopian world with consistent themes of heavy violence and government control (something that it and Black Mirror have in common) demanded that he find time to rebalance himself.

‘The director argues such balancing acts are healthy creatively. “if you’re only focusing in one direction, you lose perspective, whereas if you have both sides in balance, you can see better.” He points our that also makes good drama; tears and bitterness strengthen a comedy, while happy scenes make a tragedy cut deeper. Shiotani believes in playing audiences, shifting their emotions from one side to another.’

It is this particular passage that I feel best reflects how Brooker approached creating San Junipero. Season three also contains arguably the darkest episodes of Black Mirror, Shut Up And Dance and Playtest. Both of these episodes deal with some profoundly dark themes, paedophilia and the concept of personal fear respectively. According to an interview with Charlie Brooker, he came to think that six “downers” were too much for any viewer to handle, as well as wanting to experiment with the tone of episodes ever since the show was bought up by Netflix. Effectively, by the time audiences reach San Junipero, they’ve processed a few hours of depressing content – especially if you’re binging the lot in one go, like I did. With San Junipero, viewers are allowed to explore the other end of the spectrum of their emotions while taking a breather from the pit of existential hopelessness that is the rest of the show.

Fans of the show often compare this episode to another of Black Mirror’s more light-hearted stories, Hang The DJ. However, as YouTuber Bryce Edward Brown points out, these episodes aren’t as similar as you perhaps might think. While both San Junipero and Hang The DJ have strong romantic themes which stand out from the rest of the bleak episodes, Bryce explores the idea that while the characters in San Junipero are truly human versions of themselves, Frank and Amy from Hang The DJ are actually cookies (a concept the show uses perhaps a little too much) in which digital versions of people designed for simple tasks, which can’t help but take away from the episode’s impact.

Crucially, San Junipero was unlike anything the show had seen when it first appeared. It’s the equivalent of someone shoving existentialist dread and depression down your throat, only to then turn around and give you a puppy. After such a positive reception, it seemed only inevitable that another episode similar to it would be made – hence Hang The DJ – but that didn’t pioneer the shift in tone of Black Mirror.

Black Mirror is a stunning show that explores macabre ideas in fantastically creative ways. Charlie Brooker’s underlying commentary of our relationship with technology is an interesting but heavy deep dive into humanity’s darker side. If he had kept it that, it would’ve still been a great show. However, with San Junipero, Brooker gives us something else to look forward to. It is the show’s version of hope lying at the bottom of Pandora’s box. It is the episode that takes Black Mirror from a great show to one of the most unforgettable experiences on television.

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