Friday, October 28, 2016

"Black Mirror" — The Complementary Visions of "San Junipero" and "Be Right Back"

Thoughts (with spoilers) on Black Mirror's "San Junipero" and "Be Right Back" after the jump:

Before I saw "San Junipero," my favorite episode of Black Mirror was season two's "Be Right Back." I think what draws me to these two episodes is something that, in one sense, is fairly straightforward—for my money, they're easily the two most soulful, character-rich installments of the show. There isn't a single drop of the sly, winking satire that plagues the likes of the insufferable "The Waldo Moment" or "Nosedive," and they're also devoid of the grim "man, humanity can be just awful a lot of the time" stumping of the likes of "White Bear" and "Men Against Fire." To be sure, those latter two are both amazing episodes in their own right, but they're amazing for different reasons, and they don't quite hit me in quite the same way. "Be Right Back" and "San Junipero" . . . well, they both just flat-out sing to me. They're as good as any episodes of TV I've ever seen, and masterful in the way they each use their futuristic technology to grapple—one tragically, the other triumphantly—with the state of being human and everything this entails.

"Be Right Back" is of course the tragedy—48 of the most devastating minutes of TV to emerge since Buffy's "The Body." It dangles the hopeful possibility before Martha that she might be able to be with her deceased lover Ash via a new technology that aims to artificially recreate him, only to show in wrenching detail how this replication of his consciousness is a pale imitation of the real one. The artificial Ash cannot think or feel things for himself; his only frame of reference is what's been fed into its computer program. He lacks the ability to adapt, to desire, to grieve . . . in short, all the things that most would say make us human. It's a sad truth that Martha eventually comes to realize. "You're a performance of stuff he performed without thinking, and it's not enough," she impassions with anguish toward the end of the episode, as she's trying to command the not-quite-Ash to suicide before eventually being unable to follow through. Has this seemingly helpful technology, in the end, stifled her ability to move on? Or is her ultimate solution—keeping the clone in the attic, out of sight and out of mind, as she raises her and Ash's daughter—simply a sort-of mirror of what Ash's own mother did with a series of family photographs following her tragedy? Is it simply Martha's humanity reasserting itself, albeit in a broken way?

It's really impossible to know, because after all it did happen this way. Martha is attempting to return to the life she lost, and the episode suggests that—technology or not—such a thing is not achievable if we are to retain that most human part of ourselves. Perhaps she could get her memories of him wiped if she lives in a universe with Eternal Sunshine-esque technology, but considering the fact that in several of its other episodes Black Mirror equates loss of memory with a horrifying loss of self, it's hard to imagine this being any sort of a happy ending for her, either. Living with this loss—and the profound unfairness of the circumstances—seems intolerable, but the alternative is to either deny or hollowly mimic her humanity, which will provide her no great satisfaction. There are no good answers here—hence the episode's impossible-to-shake emotional impact.

"San Junipero" is likewise about attempting to transcend such unfair circumstance, but the fundamental difference is that it seeks transcendence not through replication but rejuvenation. It's about a carrying forth of humanity rather than mimicry of it, and the distinction is reflected in how each episode is structured. "Be Right Back" ensures from the get-go that you're never less-than-struck by the fundamental weirdness of this situation. Everything is always somewhat askew, and even those few fleeting moments where Martha is able to forget she's not actually with the real Ash never last long before the truth returns; she drops her phone and starts to panic immediately, or she's weirded out by his attempts to simulate sleep. "San Junipero," by contrast, unfolds much more coyly and with winning naturalism. It's an episode that, the first time through, barely even seems like a Black Mirror episode for a good 20-minute chunk, during which time it takes the form of a breezily charming '80s-set romantic comedy about the endearingly awkward Yorkie and the far more self-confident Kelly. They chat, flirt, and eventually tumble into bed, and it's all just so sweet.

Buried in this effervescent set-up, though, is a wealth of character detail that only becomes fully apparent once the episode finally shows its cards and reveals that the two women are digital projections in a sort-of technological heaven. As it then digs into their "real-life" (in quotes because this episode, unlike "Be Right Back," deliberately blurs these distinctions) counterparts' stories, we find that there's been plenty of Martha-esque tragedy in both their lives. Kelly was married to her husband for almost 50 years, and they experienced the death of their adult daughter during that time period—before the technology to create places like San Junipero existed. As such, he elected to skip his chance at immortality in the hopes of joining her somewhere else, and she plans to follow suit. Yorkie, meanwhile, came out as a lesbian to her conservative parents at the age of 21; during the ensuing argument, she drove off and crashed her car. She's spent the rest of her adult life fully paralyzed.

This knowledge casts some of the earlier scenes in a new light—a richer one, to be sure, but also one that's weighted with sorrow. Despite this, the whole episode still radiates a sense of joy unlike any other episode of Black Mirror (and certainly unlike "Be Right Back"), because at heart it's about how San Junipero affords both these characters a newfound sense of possibility. It's about Yorkie—after years of self-denial followed by a cruel twist of fate just as she was starting to figure herself out—finally embracing her attraction to women. And it's about Kelly learning to feel again in spite of herself. It's an episode that, while it does contain some nods to the age-old science-fiction question of whether immortality is desirable (there are certainly hints that for some in San Junipero, it may not be all it's cracked up to be), mostly argues this is a question best left for another day. It's less concerned with the notion of forever than with the fact that these characters simply get to live, discovering (or rediscovering) passion and joy with each other.

"San Junipero" toys with this exhilarating sense of discovery at multiple points—having a lot of fun with it, for instance, in a scene where Yorkie attempts to pair various new looks with different '80s pop song selections. But the episode also uses it meaningfully to draw further distinctions between its reality and the bleaker reality of "Be Right Back." Ash is constrained by what his programming language taught him about his human counterpart; when he is presented with a situation beyond its grasp, he proves utterly baffled. He is also tethered to his human activator—Kelly and Yorkie are free to go anywhere (and any time) in San Junipero, and yet they end up returning to one another anyway. "I wasn't prepared for you," Kelly says at one point, and it's that potential for an authentic, organic spark between two people—and the changes it brings to both of them, such as Kelly abandoning her initial plans for death to stay with her new love—that most fully affirms San Junipero as a place where humanity can thrive.

It's pretty much all there in the lyrics to "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," a closing needle drop that is probably my favorite use of music on any TV series since the Six Feet Under finale. (Yes, I'm even including my beloved The Americans in this calculation.) The happy ending ushered in by the song stems entirely from its characters' emotional connection—a bond that allows them to make this heaven on earth a paradise for themselves. It hardly washes away the earthbound sorrows felt in the past; there is a moment when it seriously seems likely Kelly will follow through on her original plan, and it's hard to imagine that her new life with Yorkie will ever wholly erase the pain of her twin losses. It's simply (as she puts it) "the rest of it"—simultaneously a life she never got to experience and a logical continuation of the one she has been living all along. If "Be Right Back" ultimately demonstrates that you can't hope to recreate the past without losing yourself, "San Junipero" concurs while still moving blissfully forward into a new series of dawns. Building on the Black Mirror ethos in an uplifting way that it earns completely, it depicts a technological utopia that accentuates—rather than limits or denies—the best qualities in ourselves as people.

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