This post contains major spoilers from the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror.
Tired tropes are the bane of storytelling for a reason, and if the backlash from fans over the recent deaths of LGBTQ characters on shows like The 100 and The Walking Dead are any indication, viewers are exceedingly fatigued by this lazy and harmful narrative device. Months after it entered the broad public discourse, the debate over “bury your gays” has inspired a de facto revolution among viewers and critics. (For the uninitiated, “burying your gays” refers to casually killing off LGBTQ characters, often as sacrificial lambs to keep the plot rolling for their straight counterparts.) But what happens to this trope when writers alter the terms of what life and death represent within the world the onscreen characters inhabit?
“San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of the British anthology series Black Mirror, which came to Netflix on Oct. 21, has taken this thought experiment and applied it, with mixed results.
The first Black Mirror episode to feature two queer women as main characters, “San Junipero” has been hailed by many critics as the season’s best. In the episode, two women, played by Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, meet in the titular town in 1987. At first glance, San Junipero appears to be a Californian party hub teeming with young and seemingly carefree locals and tourists. As Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Davis) begin to fall in love, it is gradually revealed that San Junipero isn’t a memory from the past, but rather a creation of the future—a digital afterlife in which some terminally ill patients join the dead on strictly timed visits. Yorkie and Kelly are both there on trial runs, and both have an opportunity to become permanent residents once they “pass on.”
Their deaths are imminent, and Kelly must decide whether to remain in San Junipero with Yorkie or honor her former life with her deceased husband, who chose not to spend eternity there, and their daughter, who died before the program was created.
Whether or not Black Mirror’s creative team was aware of the bury your gays debate, the episode twists the trope we’ve come to know and loathe in a fascinating way. By placing its protagonists in a virtual heaven, “San Junipero” undeniably kills its queer characters, but it also gives them a new lease on life in a place where they can flirt, kiss, and have “fucking awesome” sex.
But does Black Mirror’s subversion of the trope fail, succeed, or somehow manage to do both? Does it reify the traditional notion, found in pre-Stonewall narratives, that queerness, when it arises, must be eradicated? Or does it instill a sense of hope in viewers—most notably, LGBTQ viewers—that happy endings are possible after all?
“San Junipero” balances well-intentioned missteps and triumphs, which simultaneously inspire euphoria, anxiety, and relief. On the positive side, the plot doesn’t revolve around torment about sexual identity (see: the first season of The L Word and pretty much any queer movie from the early aughts). Kelly isn’t relegated to a biphobic stereotype; rather, she’s a proudly bisexual woman of color who wields a benthic understanding of how love and relationships help define our past and future choices. And instead of a boilerplate coming-out story, Yorkie gets a tale of first love that is relatively free of the familiar, angst-ridden pitfalls.
At one point, Kelly playfully teases Yorkie about her name (“like the dog breed?”) and asks her if she has to “tug on her leash” to drag her onto the dance floor—a subtle flirtation that quickly reveals a powerful sexual and emotional attraction between the two of them. The episode’s segue into queer maintext, in large part thanks to Mbatha-Raw’s and Davis’ stellar performances, is a delight to witness. “What are you doing?” asks Yorkie when Kelly seems to fully, truly look at her for the first time. “I’m regarding you,” she replies, and the chemistry between the two is intoxicating. When they kiss only minutes later, it’s a sharp reminder of how such narratives used to work—in “San Junipero,” a kiss between two women isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning.
Despite the implied universality of Yorkie and Kelly’s love story, the trope tweaking in “San Junipero” is complicated by the suffering Yorkie endures before she gets to this magical town. We learn that in the “real world,” Yorkie is a quadriplegic (a turn that evokes the equally harmful “bury your disabled” motif) in an essentially nonresponsive state, only able to communicate via a “comm box” with Greg, a nurse who agrees to marry her to enable the death she so fervently desires. After coming out to her religious and unaccepting parents more than 40 years earlier, she wrecked her car and rendered herself physically immobile. Yorkie didn’t die immediately after her accident, but she has been “punished” all the same—indeed, her conservative family has maintained its sway over her, keeping her alive against her will. San Junipero offers Yorkie the life she was meant to have, but it’s also a freedom that’s offered only after she’s served her time for the “crime” of queerness. With penance, it seems, comes reward.
Technology is usually demonized in Black Mirror, but in “San Junipero” it grants our heroines a happy ending when they are reunited in a digital dreamscape. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” is the (rather obvious) soundtrack to a montage of Kelly and Yorkie’s reunion, alongside images of a massive network of something like downloaded souls—Yorkie’s and Kelly’s included—the near future’s answer to the spiritual cosmos.
In the end, Black Mirror’s choice to bury its gays might fill us with hope for the future, but it doesn’t reflect the present. Maybe the takeaway would be different if San Junipero was a level playing field—the only afterlife available—but it’s not. As Kelly’s backstory illustrates, there are other places of eternal rest. Creating multiple planes means that one might exist where the “bury your gays” trope holds sway.
Viewers come away from the episode knowing that Kelly and Yorkie will spend eternity together while remaining forever young. Then again, their eternity occupies a very different space from the one viewers inhabit in the here and now—a world where queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, homosexuality is outlawed in 74 countries, and members of the trans community are denied basic rights on an unforgivably frequent basis. Kelly and Yorkie might have San Junipero, but for those of us in the real world, there is no second life after we are buried, and heaven is far from a place on Earth.