‘San Junipero’ is, without a doubt, one of the most unique episodes of Black Mirror in all its three seasons. Unlike the other episodes, which are primarily straightforward one-sided criticisms of particular aspects of technology and society, ‘San Junipero’ deals with deeper, more thoughtful questions about the purpose of life, life without purpose, love without loss, and joy without sadness. Its open-ended and rather more uplifting ending has polarised viewers through its stark contrast with the more cynical endings we've come to know Black Mirror for, though I personally enjoyed this refreshing change of tone, demonstrating Charlie Brooker's great talent for constructing amazing television, not just his knack for depressing his viewers.
But onto the content of the episode, the major theme of ‘San Junipero’ is an exploration of the purpose of life, both inside and outside San Junipero. Brooker presents us with three alternate views on this subject, explored through the differing experiences of the users of San Junipero:
Firstly, there is Davis, the geek, representing the sad outcome for life in San Junipero. He attempts to socialise, but his multiple attempts at catching the interest of Yorkie fail miserably, and he spends the remainder of the episode in the background playing video games, mostly lonely and without company.
Secondly, there is Wes, Kelly's (former) friend, representing the depressing, cynical, more Black Mirror-esque outcome through his unnamed friends at the Quagmire: the home of unabated lasciviousness, the fight club, and driving away on motorcycles while laughing maniacally – San Junipero's answer to adrenaline junkies, in essence. These are the people who aren't living, but merely ‘living’; ‘living’ pitiful meaningless existences.
Needless to say, these two groups of people hardly portray San Junipero and its promise of indefinite life positively. Brooker, however, has us focus on a third group of people, through the protagonists of the episode, Yorkie and Kelly.
Kelly initially shares a fair bit in common with Wes, frequenting the Quagmire, visiting San Junipero for mere ‘fun’. Kelly, however, perhaps being only a part-time visitor, is more self-aware. She sees the adrenaline junkies at the Quagmire for what they are, ‘lost fucks … trying anything to feel something’, drawing the conclusion that life in San Junipero is without purpose: ‘You wanna spend forever somewhere nothing matters?’
Kelly values life for its richness, the love and the loss, the joy and the sadness, recognising that it is ‘the bond, the commitment, the boredom, the yearning, the laughter’ that makes love, and life, worth having – like her daughter, ‘Always difficult, always beautiful’ – and it is out of respect for this bond, forged in fire, that Kelly refuses to pass over. To abandon the memory of her husband and daughter, in favour of a meaningless existence in San Junipero? Never!
Yorkie, however, takes the opposite view. ‘It feels so real’, she says of the world, and of her relationship with Kelly, insists ‘It's real. This is real’. It is this mutual lack of understanding between Kelly and Yorkie that leads to the most tense and heartbreaking scene in the episode.
As we know, though, Kelly eventually comes around to Yorkie's side. When she crashes her car, Yorkie follows her, extending her hands to help Kelly up, symbolising kindness and empathy. As if imploring to Kelly, ‘You're wrong. We can have purpose in San Junipero. We can have real relationships, and real love, in San Junipero. This life is real, and I want to live it with you.’ Of course, though, 12 o'clock comes just in time to leave the audience in suspense, and give Kelly time to ruminate.
In the real world, Kelly decides that she is ready ‘For the rest of it’, and, as the credits roll, joins Yorkie in San Junipero, to the tune of ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’.
So, which is it? Is life meaningless without death, or are Kelly and Yorkie just as alive inside San Junipero as outside. Well, looking over reviews from critics, and comments from viewers on /r/blackmirror, it's clear that most people, myself included, felt the ending of the episode was uplifting, so either Brooker intended for this episode to end on a high note, or else he completely missed the mark, and I think it unlikely that Brooker would have constructed an episode designed to have anything but the desired impact on the audience.
A brief aside: Brooker has made a number of statements before and after the release of the episode, rebutting the depressing interpretation of ‘San Junipero’ in increasingly strong terms. /u/icywaterfall pointed out this interview with Brooker, where he mentions that, yes, there is intended to be greater variation in tone in season 3. This is explicitly addressed in the Black Mirror AMA, saying ‘we loved the characters and wanted to gift them a happy ending’. And finally, in this interview, Brooker says of this view ‘it's bullshit! … They have the happiest ending imaginable.’
One need look no further than the credits music to see evidence of this positive take on the themes. Unlike the brooding, dark, unsettling music of other Black Mirror episodes, ‘San Junipero’ closes with an upbeat pop track. The lyrics, too, are revealing: ‘They say in heaven love comes first’ and ‘In this world we're just beginning / To understand the miracle of living’. The music suggests that in ‘this world’, San Junipero, love is possible, and so too is living.
Of course, though, this is Black Mirror, and I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that the episode presents an unambiguously optimistic outlook. We can't discount the fact that Davis and Wes are, too, residents of San Junipero, showing that just because San Junipero provides the possibility of living a meanigful life, it is by no means a guarantee.
Adding even more complexity are the shots from TCKR Systems. I didn't personally read too much into this scene, and I found the walls of dancing blue and white lights rather more lively and upbeat than the eerie strobing of the cookies from ‘White Christmas’. Many others, though, found this scene unsettling, particularly in view of Black Mirror's usual take on technology. To me, then, these scenes reveal that San Junipero is undoubtedly completely unlikely any life you or I have ever known, and hence reinforces the thematic explorations of the episode: In this brave new world, what does it mean to be alive?
At the same time, though, the scenes from inside the server farm are interspersed with shots of Kelly and Yorkie having a fantastic time at Tucker's (not at the Quagmire!), cutting to a close-up of Kelly's and Yorkie's faces together, suggesting the intimacy of their relationship. We also see the automated arms inserting two new plugs into the ‘San Junipero’ board, ‘SJ 521-12 015’ and ‘SJ 521-12 016’. There is a strong implication that these are Kelly's and Yorkie's plugs, and the fact that they are numbered sequentially and placed directly adjacent to each other is further suggestive this intimacy. Even in the amorphous ‘cloud’, they are permanently physically close to one another.
And finally, a quick word on philosophy and identity. A few comments I read on the episode expressed some concern over whether San Junipero Kelly and Yorkie were ‘really’ the same as the real-world Kelly and Yorkie, or whether they were mere copies (think Greta's arc from ‘White Christmas’, or the Star Trek transporter problem), as well as concerns about the abuse of the technology (think ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ from ‘White Christmas’, or Tom Scott's Welcome to Life). These are perfectly valid questions, and ones which I find very interesting to consider. Within the context of the episode, however, I would not feel justified in labelling these themes of the episode. Black Mirror has already had two episodes on these topic, from the perspective of the ‘copy’ in ‘White Christmas’, and from the perspective of other people in ‘Be Right Back’. The generally uplifting tone of this episode is completely incompatible with the existential angst evoked by those two episodes, and I cannot recall even one reference to these questions in the entire episode, which would have been so easy for Brooker to work in had he wished them to be a thematic considerations of the episode. (It was pointed out that the line ‘It's got different endings depending on if you're in one or two player’ could be suggestive of this, but in lieu of a more concrete reference, I think it has too much literal value to be thematically convincing.) And why would Brooker want to make the same episode twice, anyway? To me, this episode raises plenty of philosophical questions about those topics I've written about above, but questions about the technology itself are not part of the episode. Perhaps watching Black Mirror has simply made us too cynical!