The beauty of Black Mirror is the episode singularity. Sure, there are many great ideas about how technology is entrapping us and the future of human interaction is incredibly bleak. Because each episode is self-contained, a la The Twilight Zone, if one is particularly buzzy, anyone can see it without having to have seen any other episode.
The series third season being aired all at once on Netflix—the streaming service that gave the original Channel 4 mini-series a huge eyeball boost outside of the UK—has of course pitched the buzziness at a higher level. But it’s not just instant gratification that’s making episode 4, “San Junipero”, become a new obsession. The episode plays with nostalgia, particularly 1980 through 2002, in a story that takes more than half an episode to reveal how its narrative fits into the future. So, with “San Junipero” you spend half an episode with two truly appealing characters as they fumble about a new romance—before the mirror starts to crack and reveal what’s really going on.
We sat down with actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) and the show’s writer-creator (Charlie Brooker) to discuss “San Junipero” in a SPOILER INTERVIEW. So, there’s your last warning, please only continue reading if you’ve seen episode 4 and are likewise obsessed. Brooker talks about some of the logic intent in his creation of the (okay one last time, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) augmented-reality simulation world that Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meet and fall in love in. Though he’s careful to not explain everything, Brooker’s comments about an enthused video gamer, a “triumphant” death, a scrapped montage and his placement of “Blondie” the bartender seem to debunk a popular Reddit theory about the episode ending differently than presented.
Ooooh, baby, you know what that’s worth? A read.
COLLIDER: Like many fans of Black Mirror, I loved this episode that you guys worked on together. I actually watched it again last night, and it’s even more interesting watching it a second time, knowing the twists. I don’t know if you’re aware but there’s kind of a current obsession going on online, there’s so much depth in this episode, it could almost be an entire series.
CHARLIE BROOKER: You mean to really get in there?
Yeah, there are many doorways to open, such curiosities. For instance, I’m wondering if, 1980 is the earliest year in simulation, and if so is that because that’s as far back as nostalgia goes for the populace of that time?
BROOKER: I did have an idea of what I wanted to do at one point, but it was too complicated.There was a moment where I wanted the end to go through lots of different time periods: [we same them as] flapper girls and in the ‘60s—
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: As suffragettes! [laughs]
BROOKER: Yes, suffragettes and cavewomen! The renaissance! But the logic for me, in writing it is that the different areas or different years are almost like different rooms. I was thinking of things like Grand Theft Auto, and then there’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which was like an ‘80s re-skinned version of Grand Theft Auto—and how they all exist concurrently. But people gravitate towards their own era, nostalgia therapy is a real thing that’s being tinkered with. So for them, it’s an era that for them was very special.
Speaking about eras, when Yorkie saw Kelly in 2002, she was almost disgusted that she were there: “this is not your era.” What were the implications of that judgement?
MBATHA-RAW: We know that Kelly has a whole other life; I suppose it’s more just because we know just how old she really is. And so when people talk about their heyday, their prime, their youth, that something like 2002 would be too recent for Kelly and not intrinsic to Kelly. [Asks Brooker] Is that what you were thinking?
BROOKER: I was actually thinking that in reality, Kelly would have been older than the clientele in 2002. But I think that would be a thing people might do, revisit eras that they missed at the time because they were living but not immersed. But chiefly, she’s kind of just hiding there.
MBATHA-RAW: Being a little obtuse.
Obviously I didn’t know the twist when I was watching it the first time, but when I was watching it the second time, I thought, “why would someone be a bartender in this world?”
BROOKER: We had a lot of debates about that and you’ll notice that we don’t show the bartenders in any of the other eras because that was where we hit up against a logic problem. So if you go into Tucker’s in 1980 but then go into the future is “Blondie” behind the bar in 2006 or is he not?
MBATHA-RAW: Is he? I never thought of that.
BROOKER: Is he an NPC, a Non-Player Character? The logic that I settled on [is that] he could be a moderator, so he could be somebody controlling it and checking that things don’t get out of hand. On the other hand, it’s eternity. You might want to work behind a bar.
MBATHA-RAW: Why not? Like see if you can re-enact Cocktail or something.
If you’re an employee for the nostalgia company, maybe that’s why he’s there as well. There’s a lot of things you can play around with here. Stateside, there’s a lot of controversy about how many bisexual and lesbian characters have been killed off in television in the past year. In this one, although I suppose they do die –
BROOKER: They die a triumphant way!
But you do flip that tragic narrative on its head with “San Junipero”. What were you both exploring with the sexual fluidity of this story?
MBATHA-RAW: Go on, Charlie. [laughs]
BROOKER: When I was first thinking about the story, it was a heterosexual couple. And then I thought, okay, what if that isn’t the case? I was trying to change up how we do things, it was the first episode that I’d written for this new season. And it subverts quite a lot of the Black Mirror rules. In a way, it was a bit of a palate cleanser for me. Technology does ruin our two people. And as soon as you think, “well, what if they’re a same sex couple, what happens then?” And all sorts of resonances began to present themselves. Like a same sex couple getting married in 1987, which wasn’t possible then, you can gift them that in this world. And it felt like a nice thing to do for the characters apart from anything else and it chimed with the theme of going back and exploring facets of things that you hadn’t gotten to do at the time, really. Which is kind of what both of them were trying to do. Because Kelly was obviously married to a guy, and Yorkie had the physical side of her life snatched away from her. And then in terms of the writing of it, I tried not to think of that. It’s just two souls.
MBATHA-RAW: And that’s sort of the beautiful thing about the characters—in relation to their sexuality—is it’s really not about that, it’s not an issue, it’s not a problem. Obviously they all have their own relationships, how they’ve come to be in San Junipero and their own histories, but I think it’s about human beings and love and souls. And it’s not about it being a problem. That wasn’t the focus of the story and I think that’s actually really refreshing.
And for Kelly it’s also about learning to carry on with her own tragedy. They both have tragedies, but we learn about Kelly’s much later.
MBATHA-RAW: It actually is really deep. This episode is somewhat shiny on the surface, but the more you think about the implications, it gets really emotional and difficult. Charlie has made something with many facets.
I was talking with a coworker who loved the ending and saw it as happy, and I just thought it was so much more sad, her speech of 49 years and how difficult it is for Kelly to make a decision—to not have her husband in an eternity setting would be more bizarre than just starting fresh with no attachments.
MBATHA-RAW: And I think the idea of loss is so universal regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, race. I think so many people can relate to that. I remember even reading that speech and it really touched me, but it was something you said you just wrote it.
BROOKER: It kind of came through me, naturally.
MBATHA-RAW: It sort of transcends.
First time watching it, I spent the first half asking myself, “how does this fit into Black Mirror?” Because it seems so separate from what we’re used to from this series. And I’m loving the look but anticipating the tech. But in re-watching it, that bar scene—where you’re both talking about wardrobe—is done so well, because you are talking about it naturally in a way that sounds normal to people who don’t know the twist but has extra texture when you do know the twist. And it still sounds natural! When you’re writing and performing, how do you juggle withholding something big but still making it feel natural if the audience watches again?
BROOKER: It’s an interesting puzzle. It’s a constantly interesting puzzle to write the lines. Because they have to converse, but they can’t sit there and say what you might well say, which is “where are you from?” And everything has to play out. There’s clues that hopefully rewards a rewatch. Like Davis, who’s the arcade player, when says to Yorkie’s character, “this was kind of the first videogame to offer a two-player role at the end,” he says it in the past tense which is slightly odd –
MBATHA-RAW: And you say, “okay, nerd alert.”
BROOKER: So hopefully you don’t notice it. It’s interesting, it sort of helps, weirdly, in a way to have something you’re withholding, because it defines what you kind of can and can’t write.
MBATHA-RAW: And also credit to our director, Owen Harris, because we did talk about that we didn’t have to play the ending. And that’s how beautifully it’s written it’s structured in such an organic way. In terms of working with Denise Burse [the older Kelly] and having the ability to gauge that you are actually playing somebody else. Someone who the audience sees but I’m playing her hidden depth. And for me, I was personally choosing lines that come from a deep place and accentuating the times where she’s being deliberately superficial, flippant and playful. It was really fun to kind of not feel like you had to play both people all the time, but be really specific about that placement of her true self and her tourist self.
What era would you most want to go back to in a “drawn from the movies” type of setting?
MBATHA-RAW: Go back to as in an era we’ve lived through or go back to anytime?
BROOKER: Like an idealized version in the way that San Junipero is?
Well, since you said you’d envisioned rooms forever, let’s say forever.
MBATHA-RAW: I’d be fascinated to go to Ancient Egypt.
BROOKER: But where would you plug your iPhone in? Ancient Egypt with iPhones would be fun. [laughs] Really? Ancient Egypt?
MBATHA-RAW: I’m just intrigued, the whole building of the pyramids thing, Cleopatra… I’m sure there was a ton of slavery and it was horrendous for people, but I would be fascinated. An era that was really so ahead of its time.
BROOKER: I was 6 years old in 1977. I’d like to see punk happening. That’d be funny. I wrote a sitcom once about a punk band in 1977, it didn’t happen. Maybe that’d help me.
I would love to be in ‘79 Britain for post punk, myself. At least for a few weekends.
BROOKER: I do vaguely remember ‘79, it was horrible. [laughs] Ancient Egypt sounds too hot.
MBATHA-RAW: No air conditioning, OMG.
If there’s a pain setting (in the simulation), then I’m sure there’s a temperature setting.
BROOKER: True. All the comforts.
Gugu, what was your favorite episode of Black Mirror prior to this?
BROOKER: [laughs] Come on, answer this one.
MBATHA-RAW: Er, well, Charlie knows, I actually hadn’t seen Black Mirror before I got this script. And I’d heard about it and knew that it had this aura of coolness, but I just wasn’t cool enough to have watched it. I wasn’t enlightened. But then I went back and watched it. I really, really love Owen [Harris]’ other episode, “Be Right Back”.
With Hayley Atwell.
MBATHA-RAW: Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson. That one reminded me a Roald Dahl; it had a Tales of the Unexpected vibe to it. And I loved it because it was emotional.
Yeah, the love stories of Black Mirror are my favorites. They cut deep.
MBATHA-RAW: And the acting was really good. And the idea was just, ugh. Yeah. I really love that one.
BROOKER [to me]: Did this one make you cry?
MBATHA-RAW: [laughs] He’s asking everyone that.
It did. But the second time. After I’d processed it and then seen it again.
MBATHA-RAW: Interesting. I get that.
Black Mirror Season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix.