By Nick Richards
2016, the year that took David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael among others, has indisputably changed the way we talk about music, the 1980’s, and the art in dying.
*Total plot spoilers for Black Mirror to follow. Like, for sure…
Season three of British Sci-Fi anthology Black Mirror, described as “The Twilight Zone for the digital age,” premiered on October 21st of last year. However, the extreme emotional heft I had come to expect from each of its previous seven episodes, I didn’t dive into the most recent season until the final days of winter break. By the time I queued up the show’s fourth episode, “San Junipero”, on December 30th, October felt like a distant memory from several lifetimes ago.
There’s no doubt that those final months of 2016 landed an unnatural number of gut punches on an unsuspecting public, and that’s left many music lovers still reeling from the rapid-fire death notices of musical giants Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, and George Michael. It’s always been hard when any seemingly larger than life musician joins that never-ending jam session in the sky, but to lose any of those three distinctly unique voices so quickly after David Bowie, Prince, his protégé Vanity, Juan Gabriel, Glenn Frye, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Leon Russell and Phife Dawg… like any death, it begins to feel almost beyond human comprehension after a while. Each of those losses pulled at me, pervading my thoughts and elevating my emotions at strange times for reasons that frequently escaped me.
So it was as the jubilant overtones of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, with melodies as flashy as the neon marquees and fashions quickly illuminating the TV in my mom’s living room, established before me the titular beach-side town of San Junipero in the year 1987. The song moved me with a cocktail of bizarre emotions— heady melancholy, with underlying notes of ceremonious joy. I’d never felt this, or indeed any connection to the song, despite having heard it countless times over my relatively short lifetime. I chalked my odd reaction up to some combination of the vague link to the 1980’s, the recently deceased Wham! frontman, and the passage of time always being most apparent closer to the end of the calendar year— or, as I’d recognize it later, nostalgia. Which of course begs the question: why does our generation often feel nostalgic for periods of time that most of us weren’t even alive for? While “San Junipero” writer Charlie Brooker’s song choices initially appear to merely ground the episode’s setting in the familiar, they function on a secondary level to subtly escalate his plot as it twists from outdated short-hands from the Reagan years to sentimental and profound statements on how we’ve come to define death three decades later. That the audience’s first musical introductions to carefree Kelly and bookish Yorkie are “C’est La Vie” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” aren’t pure happenstance. In fact, through these and other feats of storytelling that would not work on any other program, Black Mirror imbues songs like Carlisle’s with an urgency they’ve long lacked or by weaving them through this sense of falsely imagined nostalgia to create both the central theme of the episode and the framework for its entire narrative.
As a show that routinely hinges on the twists presented late in the third act, that everything is exactly as it appears and not as it seems within San Junipero is par for Black Mirror’s course. But to pull the curtain abruptly back on the episode’s breathtaking final sequence, which is for my money among the best footage ever put on television, would be a disservice to both that last scene itself and each layer of “San Junipero” that builds up to it. Not even the most succinct plot summary I can write suffices it: the episode begins with and quickly focuses on two young women, the club hopping Kelly and fresh-faced, bookish Yorkie, who hit it off after they meet in a dance club called Tucker’s one weekend in 1987. It ends some forty-odd years later, as “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays while Kelly’s coffin is lowered into the ground next to her deceased husband and daughter. The song continues as a robotic assembly arm permanently archives Kelly’s consciousness alongside her newly wedded wife Yorkie’s into an immense server farm. The outside bears the name “San Junipero”, an online virtual reality service specializing in “immersive nostalgia therapy” that also preserves memories of the dead in a digital afterlife. Inside the system, avatars of the two of them drive alongside the ocean in the light of day for the first time together.
In an earlier scene, the real, elderly and frail Kelly remarks, “Uploaded to the cloud, sounds like heaven.”
“I guess”, replies Greg, Yorkie’s caretaker and ex fiancée.
But the episode is not about this or any other neat future or endless fantasy supplied by binary code. It is about Charlie Brooker, an individual who made Black Mirror a success by applying Murphy’s Law to each new bit of technology we’ve come up with, instead realizing the potential for beauty that tech might have without ever sacrificing the details that might also completely break our hearts. It’s about someone rethinking what death means if Heaven really is just a place on Earth. It isn’t about two girls in a relationship during an idealized version of the 1980’s. Even some of the earliest dialogue between them acknowledges the virtual paradise’s revisionist nature with a tongue firmly in cheek, like when Kelly says that most of the dancers in Tucker’s dress the way they do because they “saw it in a movie or something”. No, San Junipero is about the boundaries between pop music and politics that queer artists smashed thirty-plus years ago. Kelly’s unshakable sexual confidence, presented in conjunction with her purple-gold paisley jacket, easily calls to mind Prince’s androgynous revolution circa Purple Rain. The episode’s soundtrack is coded with dual meanings, a technique similarly employed by George Michael in writing songs like “Freedom! ’90”, both a dance hit and a comment on the prejudice he encountered as a gay man. If David Bowie’s every posture and gesture wasn’t enough indication, his final album ★ was an expression of how he literally lived and died so that a place like San Junipero, not just accommodating but encouraging people of all creeds and colors to get together and dance, might come to pass. And “San Junipero” isn’t even all that concerned with pondering what happens after we die and someone chucks us in the ground. It’s a meditation on what the point of living is. And as much as the episode doesn’t definitively come right out and say it, the point in Kelly and Yorkie spending eternity cruising that endless highway seems to be to love one another. And maybe that all starts with learning how to dance.
C’est La Vie.
Featured image via imdb.com.