If you haven’t seen Black Mirror, well, I’m not sure why you’re here. If you have, you know it is arguably one of the most important and thought provoking shows of our era. 25YL is proud to feature analyses of each and every episode. Here, Caemeron Crain digs into Black Mirror S3E4, “San Junipero.”
Being-towards-death is the anticipation of a potentiality-for-Being of that entity whose kind of Being is anticipation itself. In the anticipatory revealing of this potentiality-for-Being, Dasein discloses itself to itself as regards its uttermost possibility. But to project itself on its ownmost potentiality-for-Being means to be able to understand itself in the Being of the entity so revealed—namely, to exist. Anticipation turns out to be the possibility of understanding one’s ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-Being—that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence. – Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)
“San Junipero” is widely regarded as the most optimistic episode of Black Mirror, and it may well be. But what makes it so? The core of the episode is a love story. Two dying women, Kelly and Yorkie, meet in a virtual world that has been constructed (San Junipero) to provide people with the possibility of a digital afterlife. Their encounter provides Yorkie with her first real relationship, as she was in a terrible accident at a young age. At this level, the episode certainly provides moments of joy, and perhaps hope, but what about its central technological premise?
In Being and Time, Heidegger contends that it is confronting the inevitability of one’s death that opens the possibility of an authentic existence. We tend to live inauthentically; determined by “the they”—we are concerned with what They think, what They think we should think, and so on. (How many people have liked this on social media?) Insofar as I am living my life in that way, I do not even truly exist; I am just a “self” composed from the vagaries of common sense and the opinions of others. The inauthentic life is essentially meaningless.
On Heidegger’s view, it is facing one’s own being-towards-death that opens the possibility of escaping such inauthenticity and determining oneself freely. In other words, it is our very finitude that gives our lives meaning. We live in anticipation of the future, but tend to want to avoid thinking about death. It is not a pleasant thought that this life will end, and thus we distract ourselves with reality TV shows, for example, as if it matters what happens on them. Confronting death provokes anxiety, but to be resolute in the face of it is to ask oneself who oneself is—if anything at all. As Simon Critchley notes, this is not a morbid thought, but rather the suggestion that “it is only in being-towards-death that one can become the person who one truly is.”
In light of this, the central technological premise of “San Junipero”—the creation of a digital afterlife in which we might live indefinitely—is questionable. Indeed, the episode is smart enough to explore some of this Heideggerian territory, both in its portrayal of the Quagmire (a bar where everyone seems a bit creepily nihilistic) and in Kelly’s rant to Yorkie after the latter asks her change her mind about passing over to the San Junipero reality after death. Why spend forever somewhere where nothing matters?
But, this is not just a story about death, it is a story about love, and it is particularly poignant in regard to Yorkie’s experience. We learn that her parents refused to accept her when she came out to them at the age of 21, and when she proceeded to drive off in distraught anger, she got into an accident that has left her paralyzed ever since. When we meet her in real life, as Kelly comes to visit, she is not even able to talk.
We learn that her fiance, Greg, is a nurse at the hospital, who has agreed to marry her to override her parents’ refusal to sign off on euthanasia. Kelly offers to be the one to marry her instead, and it is very touching.
San Junipero has thus allowed Yorkie the opportunity to live in a meaningful way for virtually the first time. It is clear that her intention was always to “pass over” and spend “eternity” there—but when she meets Kelly she is just trying it out. She thus has the opportunity to have her first relationship with a woman (and her first sexual relationship of any kind). And this occurs while both are alive in the real world, and keyed into the virtual one through a device placed on the temple (though apparently access to the virtual world is limited for those who are still biologically alive, with each weekly visit ending at midnight).
To what extent does this matter? Is the Yorkie that lives in San Junipero the same Yorkie that died in a hospital bed? Once again, Black Mirror poses a question about personal identity. What constitutes the self? It may well be a perfect and complete copy of Yorkie’s consciousness in the virtual world, but is there a continuity to that consciousness?
This is a theme we have seen explored previously in episodes such as “White Christmas.” There, we were presented with a copy of Joe trapped in what we may as well call an eternal hell, but that “cookie” Joe was clearly distinct from the real Joe, who was to be convicted on the basis of what his copy had confessed. If “San Junipero” presents the inverse—making heaven on Earth as opposed to hell—one nonetheless has to ask to what extent this is a heaven for Yorkie, e.g., or for a mere copy of Yorkie.
Kelly has initially decided that she is not going to spend eternity in this virtual afterlife, but is merely there to have some fun before she dies. They get to be younger versions of themselves, after all. Her husband died, and he didn’t crossover, or even try it out. We ultimately learn this is because their daughter died before the system was created. Does this make sense? And, back to the previous question: is it even truly Kelly who arrives to greet Yorkie as the credits roll? Or is this a copy continuing a love affair with another copy? Does it matter?
The love story in “San Junipero” is inspiring, and it seems that Yorkie is opened to being her true self in a way she has never gotten the chance to be before. Perhaps it is not just being-towards-death, but love, that opens the space for an authentic existence.
But love tends to end, one way or another. Yorkie and Kelly’s love is young; even if they are old, or dead. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that “happily-ever-after” is for fairy tales, and in real life you get to the point where you are mad at your partner for leaving a cupboard door open. As Kelly notes: can we even imagine forever? Is it perhaps important that love, like life, is finite?
Apparently it is possible for the residents of San Junipero to opt out at any time, but this possibility for virtual suicide does little to mitigate the worry. Heidegger’s point is not that one can die at any time—although that is true—it is that ultimately, one must.
And, equally, one could argue, love must end. How many years before you get sick of your beloved’s foibles? Ten? Twenty? A thousand? A million? As much as we might like the notion of a love that never dies, it is hardly plausible. Particularly in a world where, as Kelly notes, nothing really matters, but one still has to go on with the day to day. Arguably it is important to know that one has a limited amount of time with one’s beloved, even if that may approach a lifetime. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to imagine the indefinite point in the future where Kelly and Yorkie’s love falls apart, and each either decides to depart from San Junipero, or becomes another inauthentic member of the They we see at the bars the episodes presents. Unless we can truly believe in an endless love (bearing in mind that by the end of the episode, the two have had about three dates). As such, even though the end of the episode strikes a hopeful note, as Belinda Carisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays (because of course it does), and Kelly joins Yorkie in San Junipero, one would have to project that in the long run, this will be more of a digital hell, or, at least purgatory.
Also, why doesn’t Kelly’s cigarette taste like anything? That’s enough to make it seem like hell right there.