Warning: This story contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.”
Black Mirror fans already know to expect the unexpected from Charlie Brooker’s cult anthology series. But even by the show’s previously established standards, Season 3’s fourth episode, “San Junipero,” is something new: a full-fledged love story between two women who initially couldn’t seem more different. Catching a glimpse of vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) one night in a crowded ’80s-themed club, wallflower Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) initiates a relationship that steadily evolves from friendship to romance.
Because this is Black Mirror, though, things aren’t what they seem. As viewers learn midway through the episode, this picture-perfect recitation of Reagan-era America is actually a computer-generated construct housed on a hard drive. It’s here that the elderly versions of Kelly (Denise Burse) and Yorkie (Annabel Davis) that exist in the real world upload their consciousness, allowing their spirits to indulge in the fun that their bodies can no longer enjoy.
And, if they so choose, their spirits can live there permanently, since this technology has made heaven real for people nearing the end of their lives. While Yorkie is all too eager to enjoy a happily ever after with her new love, Kelly has deeply personal reasons for being suspicious of an endless existence in an artificial afterlife. Speaking with the cast and director Owen Harris at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Yahoo TV asked how they feel about their characters’ ultimate choice to ride off together into a digital sunset and about the fun of reliving the 1980s.
Part of the fun of any Black Mirror episode is trying to figure out the plot twist. What did you think about the twist at the heart of “San Junipero” when you read the script for the first time?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I was like, “No way!” I was reading the script on my phone and just kept scrolling back. It’s unexpected and really refreshing. The very concept is one of the most unique television episodes I’ve ever read.
Mackenzie Davis: It almost felt Shakespearean. It’s paced in a very specific way and doesn’t feel manufactured. Everything came out completely naturally, because Charlie [Booker] writes dialogue beautifully. And I do feel like this episode has the least despair. You won’t have nightmares after watching it! I had the worst dreams after I watched the Christmas episode last year.
The conceit of the episode means that there are essentially two versions of your characters: the young avatars, who exist in this digital world, and their older physical bodies outside in the real world. Did you think of them as separate individuals?
Mbatha-Raw: I thought a lot about the layers to my character, and what’s really refreshing about the story is that there are depths you can play or not play. We talked about those choices; they weren’t things we felt we had to push.
Owen Harris: We did something quite simple during the read-through. Gugu met Denise and they read through the script together. They might have even changed parts. What’s important to remember is that when you’re inside this world, it’s a projection of yourself. But there’s also the real-life self, who is much more three-dimensional. So there are elements that cross over between the two worlds — natural rhythms and ways of being.
The first night Kelly and Yorkie spend together on a moonlit beach in this digital realm is probably one of the most purely romantic scenes in any Black Mirror episode to date.
Mbatha-Raw: The setting really helped. We shot the interior scenes in London, and the exterior scenes — like that one — in Capetown, and it was great to be in such a beautiful, breathtaking natural space. I had just finished shooting a movie entirely on a sound stage, so when you get to be in a real place, there’s something so invigorating about that. You’re surrounded by natural beauty, and so you open your heart to it.
Davis: We needed somewhere that was so beautiful, it almost didn’t feel real. And that was Capetown. I remember looking out at that beach, and it looked like green screen. It was overwhelming to be there and invoked this unrealness.
“San Junipero” recreates the 1980s right down to the neon lights, synth music, and crazy fashions. Did it inspire any personal flashbacks for you?
Mbatha-Raw: Well, I was born in the ’80s, so I was pretty young then. It’s funny: Some of the music is so iconic that I’m still familiar with it. I’ve done several period dramas set in eras that were much further away from ours, so it was nice to do one that’s a more recent period. You see how different it really is, and how quickly culture is evolving, especially in terms of technology. It’s funny when moments of your life become a historic period. Even when you’re talking about something that happened 10 years ago, it’s a distinct period from now. The ’80s were a vibrant time, and I feel like we captured it here.
Harris: I love ’80s movies. The John Hughes films in particular always felt optimistic, even if the messages were slightly wrong — like, it was a good thing to be a rich kid and popular. But there was such a great feeling about those movies that you get swept away by the whole idea. It was nice to play around with that in this episode.
It’s true: This is perhaps the first episode of Black Mirror where I could see the argument being made that technology isn’t something to be feared. There’s something appealing about where the characters end up in this digital afterlife.
Davis: Everyone loves technology, but they also love to talk about how it’s corrupting our minds and souls. It’s nice that “San Junipero” is not this blanket cynical statement — it’s also showing how it can be meaningful. There’s a soul inside this [machine]. It looks cold from the outside, but inside you’re feeling things and you’re connected to people. It may look like a blinking light, but it’s really this whole world.
Harris: I don’t know. You could be seduced by the idea, but think about the reality of that. Who wouldn’t want to live forever? Except when you really want to think about what that means.
Mbatha-Raw: I guess there are people who already live half of their lives on Facebook. But what’s that doing to your subconscious? So even though the episode seems optimistic, there’s this bittersweet tug going on.
So I guess that begs the question: Do you agree with your characters’ decisions to live on inside an artificial heaven?
Davis: I do.
Mbatha-Raw: I don’t know. For me, I really enjoy my character’s attitude and her lust for life. I understand [her choice], but I don’t know if I would make the same choices in the same situation.
The use of the song “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” in the last sequence is a great final gag.
Harris: That was in the script from the very beginning. We had four or five signature songs from that era, one of which felt too on the nose and that we were going to give the whole game away. But those songs were very important. We wanted to play with the things people remembered from that era, from the music to video games like Pac-Man. And it’s a nice way to end the episode in this unashamedly ’80s way with a classic pop song. They’re joining each other in this one life.
Black Mirror is currently streaming on Netflix.