Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers. If you have not yet watched the episode (or the entire show), please go watch it already.
‘But tell me really’, he paused, ‘why are you still listening to vinyl records? It’s not even your era.’ Nostalgia is something hardwired into us homo sapiens. We are programmed to become a collective entity of memories. We strive to belong to this tremendous body of past. We find comfort in knowing that we are not just creating but also sustaining, or romantically defending, this community of the bygone.
I am susceptible to the pure aesthetics of 1960s design. I used to think my blind allegiance to this era was purely because of its colour palette, the neatness of the geometrical shapes, which are all simply pleasing to the eye. Until that ‘simply’ had become too simple for me to evince such ardent passion towards everything remotely related to that era, then I realised I would have to dig deeper.
When I could finally pinpoint the source of my enthusiasm towards this era, it took me a while to recognise that source was the sentiment, the overall aura of that time defined by a post-cold-war apocalyptic frenzy. The next thing you knew you had a profound sorrow and impossible regret towards the very fact that you didn’t even exist in that era. You were not present — not then, and you begin to doubt your presence in the now. The dichotomy of being here and not here invites constant disorientation and demands tremendous patience, but also a fluidity for moving onward.
Allow me to boldly assume that Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), now permanent residents of San Junipero (Black Mirror, Season 3, Episode 4), would understand what it’s like. Consciousnesses in their world can be stored and uploaded to a virtual reality, another space, another universe — namely San Junipero. Temporary visitors or ‘tourists’ of San Junipero can only spend five hours each week in this virtual world. One can only become a permanent resident of San Junipero when one is physically dead in the real world and officially ‘passes over’ to this eternal city.
We are first introduced to Yorkie and Kelly in the 70s inside a night-club in San Junipero where they reveal mutual affection. Yorkie later sets on a quest to find Kelly, through travelling across the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Kelly is presented to us as an authentic, casual, joyous and most of all, confident character. She is so sure of herself and in adamant pursuit of fun. Meanwhile, Yorkie is quiet, furtive, insecure and yet curious and trying really hard to force herself to explore everything. We later discover the ‘real’ Kelly and the ‘real’ Yorkie are both in old age. Kelly is dying from cancer, while Yorkie has been in a vegetative state since the age of 21. Both of them defy the promise of Black Mirror, which generally trades in deeply unsettling and sometimes sadistic endings, and they also challenge the troubling tendency of contemporary primetime network TV dramas to kill off LGBT characters. Kelly and Yorkie get married and live happily ever after in San Junipero.
One finds oneself marvelling at the thematic depth of the hour-long episode. The ground it covers is arguably ambitious in terms of execution; the topics simultaneously allude to one another, interwoven with the two characters and plot progression. Without you ever knowing it, you are catching glimpses of the discussions of nostalgia, sexuality/physicality and existere.
With the inherent pursuit of aesthetics and excessiveness of visual elements, you may easily find yourself almost a visual native, especially in the digital era where the construct of reality is built on ‘simulations’. Sight predominates over other senses and becomes an overwhelming force for our experience. It is arguably the most honest sense or the one that evokes the most immediate reaction to everything except the ‘eyes’ and ‘I’. The neon colour palette in every scene is so blatant, so aggressive as if it is the ‘everything except’ which waves fanatically in the dark in order to grab our attention. When Yorkie and Kelly are in that night-club they are surrounded not by other people but lights, colours, images, and representations—all it takes to create the outlook of an era. Such visual pleasure or seduction is the first step or prerequisite of nostalgia. The yearning and desire for the past rooted in our affection towards the way an era looks—the way it fulfils our aesthetic needs.
Another reason for the nostalgia is the demonstration of an ability to choose and to escape. It is in a way showing off the luxury of possessing alternatives. You can choose whatever era you like. You can prefer whatever era to your own and convince yourself you belong to it. It is also a concept you stubbornly choose to display—an affirmation that your current era is definitely less in every imaginable way than the era you truly desire. Everything will be better in the past. You don’t have to prove it, least of all, to yourself. You just know it. There is no rationale but a feverish loyalty you can’t even begin to explain. And that firm belief is the foundation of your nostalgia. We are always ready to leave—a centrifugal motion—fleeing from the era that you think you are there—and not there.
The freedom to choose is demonstrated not just in terms of nostalgia but also in the strong undertone of the discussion on sexuality. The two characters are often placed in the centre of the frame. The two young women taking their place in the centre of their own world, fumbling and trying bravely—to look unafraid. They take up the centre as equals. What Yorkie sees in Kelly and takes a liking to is her confidence and dexterity in navigating a world driven by pleasure—mostly sexual. She is fluent in both sexes, in bisexuality. What Kelly sees in Yorkie is not just her innocence but the authenticity of truly being oneself without being self-conscious. Yorkie’s authenticity may not be the result of innocence or ignorance but a choice. She knows how to stand out from the crowd (from her trying on various outfits with a wide range of daring, progressive styles). She is comfortable with who she is and she is certain about her sexuality. What unnerves her is her incomprehension of why people around her are so lost and try their very best to look just like everybody else. Kelly sees through Yorkie and appreciates her staying true to herself.
There is a connection between the two women but it is not simply physical pleasure. If sex is all about physical sensation, what is sex when the bodies are absent? The Quagmire, San Junipero’s other more libertine nightclub, is the epitome of the pointlessness of relationships built on physicality and materiality. People have always been confused and confined by materiality in the ‘real’ world. When they continue to seek only for materialistic pleasure even in San Junipero, the virtual reality, they could only plunge in an ever deeper and darker void as they are now utterly exposed—a form solely erected through the tatters of their desires.
The absence of physicality thus further challenges the notion of existence, which sounds ever so familiar—the perpetual and rhythmic knocking on your existential door—echoing across the Black Mirror multiverses. Existere means ‘to step out’ and ‘emerge’ in Latin. Existence, after all, is a departure. When the screen all of a sudden turns to black after the clock on Kelly’s bedside hits 00:00, the show demands you not only see it in visuals, but as a series of questions. What is time if time is switched off at 00:00? What is time beyond 00:00? What is the meaning of the 00:00? What is the blackness but the void? What do you mean by emptiness and nothingness then? What is life beyond time? What is eternity? What do we mean by forever? What do we think our ‘forever’ is? Do we own an ‘era’? Can you explain the propriety of ‘your era’? Is there an end to ‘your era’? Is my end your end? Does one exist in another existence? If I exist through you, your memory of me, shall I consider myself at least partially dead when you are dead? What is life if it is a cyclical set of questions? What is life without death? What is death if we can ‘pass over’? Does death mean life if we can ‘pass over’ and our consciousness is somehow programmed to accept the concept of eternity? Why do we call life Life but not death if death also means life? How about life without the unexpected pain and sorrow and anguish and despair? What is life when you can adjust your ‘pain slider’ to eliminate, mellow or maximise your pain whenever or however you want? What is life without the mundane and trivial annoyance like a mild flu from which you can’t ever quite recover or the very fact of finding yourself awake day after day in a suspicious world? What is life if it is not little. What is life if you ever lose sight of the little. What is life if I stop asking questions altogether? What is? What if? Wh—01110111 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01101001 01100110
Suzanne Lai is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2014). [Click here to read all entries by Suzanne.]