San Junipero is the best episode of Black Mirror

Over the past few days I watched all 13 thus-far-extant episodes of Black Mirror.

It’s a show that has been on my radar for some time, but what finally made me check it out was a particular recommendation from a friend of mine. He said that after certain episodes, in particular “The National Anthem” and “The Waldo Moment,” he had to sit in darkness for a while to contemplate his reaction on a raw, human level. I figured anything that could get that kind of reaction from someone whose tastes I generally agree with was worth investigating.

He was right, in that both of those episodes were pretty powerful, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the episode that I feel most strongly about comes in the most recent, third season of the show. “San Junipero” doesn’t quite come one as strong as some of the other episodes, but not only is it emotionally powerful, it takes the show’s premise in its most interesting direction.

For anyone still uninitiated, the series is an anthology centered around exploring humankind’s relationship with rapidly evolving technology. Most of the episodes (with the notable exception of the dystopian “Fifteen Million Merits”) take place in a world that is more-or-less recognizable, but which have been infused with a technology just a bit beyond where we currently stand. The scenarios made possible by this technology are used to pose questions about things like the value of our ability to forget (“The Entire History of You”), our willingness to set aside empathy for the sake of comfort (“Men Against Fire”), or our capacity for hypocrisy and violence when it fits into a prescribed agenda (“White Bear”).

It’s by and large meaty work, entertaining and beautifully crafted–the series has amazing photography, production design, and visual effects throughout–and unabashedly philosophical without being overly didactic. I don’t feel like I was oversold on those two episodes either; both are high points for the show. The premise of “The National Anthem”–about which the less is said, the better–manages to be both deeply disturbing and terrifyingly plausible; this is the episode which is to the least degree science fiction and it manages to take a real, ripped-from-the-headlines joke and make it something truly shocking and revolting. As it does so, it pokes with a kind of devilish glee at the boundaries between public and private space, curiosity and exploitation, art and reality.

“The Waldo Moment” is even better. It’s the show at its most unabashedly political, beginning with a stuffy MP being roasted by a cartoon bear and ending in a kind of glorious, nihilistic crescendo. It’s, among other things, a timely message on populism run amok, personalized as the struggle of one insecure man to control his own creation. It’s stirring, terrifying even, and while that’s what gives it its impact, it’s also a weakness of much of the series.

It’s fair that a show about technology should trend toward skepticism, even cynicism. That’s in the DNA of science fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. But acid commentary doesn’t make for easy watching and it’s hard to find it emotionally satisfying.

The show’s other highlights are when it breaks away from the pervasive dourness. “Nosedive,” the screenplay of which was written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur by the way, takes a detour into understated comedy, climaxing with a hilariously disastrous wedding toast and ending on one of the series’ most charming moments. But even in this episode, the technological premise–here a social ranking app that has become embedded in the everyday world–is portrayed as an obstacle to emotional satisfaction; the heroine Lacie (a bubbly and exasperated Bryce Dallas Howard) only achieves completeness when she unplugs herself from the hive, so to speak.

This is what makes “San Junipero” different.

At its heart, it’s a love story between two damaged people: the sheltered, repressed Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose carefree attitude masks deep pain. These two women draw out one another through their weekend encounters in the eponymous city, a kind of techno-mystic paradise, the exact nature of which comes slowly into focus as the episode progresses. As each becomes more authentically herself, they come to represent different perspectives on the possibilities of the society in which they live and Yorkie’s enthusiasm is put into conflict with Kelly’s doubts.

But where all the other episodes draw their high emotions from portraying human weaknesses (and the devices we create which exacerbate them), no such gut punch comes here. It’s a hopeful story–which alone makes it noteworthy in this context–but it’s also hopeful in a very particular way. The technological backdrop of “San Junipero” is narratively nothing more or less than an arena in which the characters are able to cross improbable bounds of geography and circumstance to strengthen themselves and each other. Granted, the tool these women are confronted with is one imbued with a great deal of emotional, social, even spiritual significance, but it never becomes threatening as it does in the rest of the series. In this episode there is no loss of control.

Which is interesting, not just because it stands against the show’s often cynical outlook, but because it doesn’t portray technology as something to be overcome. The show’s (positively excellent) title makes it clear that our devices only reflect their users–what we see in the screen is just an aspect of ourselves–but this is the only episode to really land on the idea that there’s something positive in that reflective quality. Which is kind of an important consideration, considering one of the themes that keeps popping up in the series is that the technological bell can’t be wholly unrung; this computerized world is out there and must be dealt with. If we lose sight of the fact that we actually can deal with it in a positive way if we learn how to adapt to it, then we’re doomed to the same fate of many of the characters that populate the show. But Yorkie and Kelly’s fate is one to aspire to–it’s about overcoming pain and isolation and allowing ourselves to move forward; it’s about hope. And the presence of that hope goes a long way toward making the rest of the series work.

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