Queering Everlasting: Belated Thoughts on ‘San Junipero’

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - 4:46pm

Every winter break, I try to catch up on all the reading, writing and music I haven’t had time for all semester. Inevitably, over the past few years, this has extended to include catching up on all of the films and T.V. shows — or at least episodes — that I’ve missed out on. So, I finally watched “San Junipero,” the Emmy award-winning episode of “Black Mirror,” (which, as of a few days ago, I am now over a year late to) especially because it’s still making its way onto all of the year-in-review listicles about bisexuality in media in 2017.

In this episode’s world, certain people are alloted weekly hours in a simulation that transports them to San Junipero, a paradise on Earth where they can live in the bodies of their youth, chasing whatever party-town adventures they desire. Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis, “The Martian”) a reserved, bespectacled young woman who walks as if constantly expecting verbal attack, steps cautiously into a club after watching Kelly, a charismatic and compelling woman, enter it. Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle”) slides into Yorkie’s booth to enlist her help in fending off a guy. They’re successful; they dance; their chemistry intensifies. Yorkie pulls back abruptly, despite her obvious attraction — she has a fiancé. It’s complicated.

After eventually getting to know each other biblically (which both thoroughly enjoy), Kelly starts avoiding Yorkie, who doggedly looks for her week after week. Eventually, they decide to stop ignoring their attraction and decide to meet in real life. This is when we find out that Kelly is an elderly woman who needs help getting up and down stairs, and Yorkie has been comatose for decades. Both are getting ready to “pass over.” Yorkie’s fiancé is an amiable man who has agreed to marry her solely so she can have the afterlife she desires; on a whim, Kelly decides to propose to her instead, and the two get married in real life before Yorkie passes over.

The next time they see each other in the simulation, Yorkie tries to convince her to stay in San Junipero forever. Kelly, in an impassioned speech, rebukes Yorkie for her naive self-centeredness; Kelly had family who died the natural way, without uploading their consciousness. Though this rupture is not insignificant, the ending of the episode is hopeful — a rarity for “Black Mirror.” It hints that Kelly chooses to live in San Junipero with Yorkie, rather than pass over completely.

Staring at the credits roll on my screen, I was more nonplussed than anything else, at first. Most stories like this that I know end the opposite way: The person who decides that the Great Unknown would be the better, more noble choice — and gives the kind of speech about it that Kelly does — generally veers in that direction, like “Tuck Everlasting.” And often, stories that do have a character choose a kind of immortality — the White Witch in “Narnia,” Voldemort in “Harry Potter” — live a kind of tarnished, sometimes cursed, life. I think we’ve been conditioned to expect those elements in any stories that include some degree of immortality.

So it took me some time to figure out how I felt about “San Junipero.” I had originally decided to watch it because I had heard so much praise for the sensitive and touching portrayal of the queer storyline. While I think the exploration of the trajectory of their relationship was, for the most part, well-written and directed, I don’t think that it in and of itself is what sets this episode apart as especially outstanding.

What I think makes “San Junipero” stand out is that the subversion of the usual choice protagonists make when confronted with any kind of immortality becomes radical, in this case, precisely because of the queer element. While Kelly had a happy and full life with her husband — a relationship that is given the space and respect it deserves, another rarity in portrayals of bisexuality on TV — she is allowed another shot at a different kind of happiness in this simulation; a kind of happiness that would have been much more difficult to pursue while she was growing up, being a bisexual woman of color.

What makes San Junipero radical in its ending is the fact that the possibility of a happy forever for Kelly and Yorkie would have been unthinkable while they were growing up, a reality hinted at throughout the episode. The reclamation of a happiness that wouldn’t have been conceivable, in the past, in real life, in real time, for this queer couple is what earns “San Junipero” its ending. A heterosexual storyline just wouldn’t have felt so feverishly urgent.

Finding spaces like San Junipero — spaces of at least partial escape, happiness to be found on unwatched street corners, on timeless dance floors — is still a radical enough feeling for queer people. Perhaps that’s why the main song in the episode also struck a chord with the show’s young queer audience (despite being slightly before their time) for its impractical hope, its hint of possibility: “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”