Black Mirror: “San Junipero” Season 3 Episode 4 Review

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For much of “San Junipero” runtime, there’s barely any science fiction. We find ourselves in the titular fictional beach town in 1987, where awkward newcomer Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meets an electric weekly regular, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), at the most ’80s bar you can imagine. The guests wear bedazzled blazers and stone-washed jeans. Next to the retro arcade there’s a dance floor with a DJ playing all the radio hits. This episode is a time warp heavy on the cliches, which is both fun and ends up serving a larger story purpose.

But initially, “San Junipero” is an extended, gorgeously shot spark of romance between two women in glam and paradise. Director Owen Harris, returning to Black Mirror after directing season two’s masterful “Be Right Back,” lights the town in soft neon, which gorgeously glows off the rain to create a messy, retro vibe as Yorkie and Kelly first touch. Yorkie is more sexually repressed, making her uncomfortable when Kelly’s more open tendencies first manifest in the form of a hand on her knee. Naturally, this moment isn’t enough for Yorkie and she comes back for more. What develops is a lovely romance, thanks to Davis and Mbatha-Raw’s undeniable chemistry, that only starts to seem unrealistic once we realize there’s more going on.

For a while, the “One Week Later” time jumps seem like nothing. We assume Yorkie lives in San Junipero and that every Friday or Saturday night, she’s checking out Kelly in this arcade bar. There are hints to the true nature of things, a few throwaway lines that don’t quite make sense at the moment, but things really start to click when we jump a week and the bar is suddenly exhibiting ’90s cliches. Then another week and we’re in the early 2000s. After Kelly has gone missing, Yorkie is searching for her seemingly through time. Personally, I was not excited for Black Mirror to do a time travel episode. Luckily the truth ended up far more interesting.

As one of the lovestruck lovers’ honeymoon phase conversations goes on, reality starts to become much more vague. Suddenly there’s talk of them really seeing each other. The truth is revealed when we swiftly cut to an elderly Kelly, seemingly not in San Junipero, as she goes to visit Yorkie in the hospital. The typical Black Mirror complexities come in when we learn that San Junipero is program intended to be heaven on earth. The dying can upload their consciousness to this alternate reality and live in whatever form they choose to for as long as they want. Yorkie and Kelly’s real love was based in a fake world. But that doesn’t change anything.

At this point, “San Junipero” falls into the typical trap this series finds itself in when not know when or how to end an episode. Will Yorkie and Kelly spend an eternity together in a manufactured paradise? Or will one of them choose to die when their body naturally stops allowing them to live. The resolution to this question feels too easy, with the drive behind their decisions underdeveloped. This is the rare case of a Black Mirror episode that’s too short, but still one that doesn’t stick the landing. It’s disappointing here especially because most of “San Junipero” is masterpiece-ready, if the complete package can keep that up. But a shallow and cheap ending can do a lot of damage. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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