San Junipero: On Seeing Yourself, Loving Someone Else, and Letting Go

An exhale. 

That is what the inexplicable fourth episode of Black Mirror’s third season starts with, released dreamily as the heady rush of an ocean at night cascades into view. In its waves, there are reflections of a coastal town, drenched in neon and darkness. The concentration of lights almost looks like colored stars from far away, and up close, it certainly feels like one is floating through space, down crowded streets of stellar cars and clustered bodies. San Junipero seems like a time capsule of 1987, with neon lights and loud nostalgia mingling with the sounds of new wave music in the background. A sort of looseness sits with the residents that we see, safe in their skins and acting without acknowledging repercussion. Through a rose-colored lens, the town does not stray far from romanticizing in the slightest. In fact, it welcomes the stereotypes with open arms, almost invasive with its bodacious apparel and blasted Belinda Carlisle from speakers. These should be small comforts, things that nurse a smooth smile on the face. You could have been like me the first time I watched this episode, messily mouthing the words to Heaven Is a Place on Earth and eagerly anticipating what is to come of this story that only needs an hour to tell itself.

Then, Yorkie walks into frame, and my curiosity calms itself as I watch on.

Three years ago, love to me was something to let go of. After an adolescent chase to catch up to someone and a confession that left us both unsure of how to continue our friendship, I was ready to give up the ghost. As much as I missed this person, there wasn’t a lot left to go back to. Hellos across halls were all we had and, sad as that sounds, we had resigned to that routine willingly. It was better than being strangers, anyway. Sophomore year still saw me stilted in walk, freshman year barely putting up a fight to get me out of my shell. It was time for change. It was time for catharsis. English classes tended to be just the place for that. As if my teacher could read my mind, she prompted us with writing about anything, so long as it was personal. That was all it had to be. Personal. It was like heaven to get an assignment like that. I could churn out something to get the feeling on paper and turn it into a grade so that it wouldn’t go to waste. While I would move on without this person, I would move on with myself.

Three years ago, and just a week before all this was to happen, love to some of the world was something to hold on to. San Junipero graced Netflix with its presence on October 21, 2016, and it was like a flare I couldn’t catch sight of, my eyes sadly closed. Everyone around me raved about Yorkie (criminally underrated Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (comparably magnetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and their absolute defiance of not only the laws of space and time, but also love. Meanwhile, I was convincing myself that I was over my crush and that I would be alright. And I was alright. We were never classmates, our schedules having diverged completely, so I compensated with the classmates I did have. We sat on opposite ends of the cafeteria and enjoyed the company we had ended up surrounding ourselves with. It wasn’t that I was falling out of love with this person, though; it was that I was falling in love with everyone else. When we were in the same room together, I’d still search for that familiar face. It’d be across students, lunch tables, or parked cars that I’d always find it somewhere, and I’d also find peace.

I thought I was over this person. I really thought I was.

Yorkie never gets over her love, for what it is worth. Because of her, I fall fast for San Junipero. She doesn’t abandon her drink and stumble home in defeat when she can’t find Kelly that third time at Tucker’s. Rather than recede into herself, Yorkie dares herself to go as far as the Quagmire for her first and last time. Still, scared as she is, she doesn’t see her there. The person she does see is Wes, when she slams into his shoulder and receives his reluctantly sympathetic advice. “She’s worth a shot, right?” he slurs out at the end of their short-lived conversation, and her answer is clear. Against indecision, obvious on Kelly’s end, and the times, current or otherwise, Yorkie races after Kelly, one week later after one week later. She flies through 1980 and 1996, different colors of a stationary town, and lands in 2002 as if it is just another year. I like to think she would’ve swept through the entirety of the late twentieth century for the woman she loves. She says as much without having to do so explicitly: “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know what this means.” Despite the fact that we aren’t presented with her past until it is truly necessary, Yorkie’s careful words convey her sincerity. What she has with Kelly, it means everything to her.

I see so much of myself in Yorkie, but I also see so much of who I want to be in her, too. We start with her shy and unaware of what Kelly stirs in her, a love so tender and true that it makes me tear up every time. She runs away from that feeling at first, regrettably standing alone in the rain at the end of her first night in San Junipero. Where did I go wrong? Her face practically asks and answers that question as she stares out into a simulated sky. Self-sabotage is a language she and I know well. It comes and goes, easy conversation turned into stuttered speech. Second time’s the charm, though. The difference between us is that Yorkie acts on her emotions, albeit cautiously. She doesn’t hide behind the pretty thing called coincidence or the terrifying thing called consequence. Instead, she confronts what she’s feeling and flips the script on us. She fights for the happy ending that satisfies all, after what has felt like a lifetime of sapphic sadness in media. The thing is, Yorkie means everything to Kelly, too. What stops scaring her about the idea of a serious relationship is that it isn’t a rash decision like one would think. Loving someone looks reckless until their hand is in your hand, soft and solid to the touch.

One specific scene of Yorkie’s that is shown towards the end of the episode is so aesthetically cleansing that I’ll never watch it without crying. After she passes over, a sheet is spread over her lifeless self and she is greeted by gulls on the other side. They are perfect, pure white flecks for this fictitious Californian town. A shock of cold hits her ankles as surf climbs shore, a subtle crash. She still stands on the stretch of beach near Kelly’s place, left there after her lover impulsively went and knelt on one knee. So, she sits, sliding off the glasses she never really needed in the first place and setting them aside in the sand. She is the spitting image of calm: outstretched arms and legs, back slouched and relaxed, hair blown and brown. Summer couldn’t compliment her enough. Out of her body and out of her coma, this is the first time that Yorkie has ever truly felt alive since her crash. It is then that the past stops accumulating. It is then that the future starts to look a lot more pleasing. It is then that she lets go.

An exhale. That is what Yorkie’s permanent life in San Junipero starts with.

The 2016 release of San Junipero feels like it was meant to be fate, yet it was too late to reach the girl that lost to a well-meaning lie. I only just now watched the episode at the start of July. Not then, when I could have stopped fooling myself into thinking I was over this person sooner. It is a love story set in decades I cannot access; still, it is the one that has hit closest to my heart. The same person I fell out of love with, I fell for again, all while staring at the back of their head for the better half of senior year. Anybody who knows me knows who it is. Everybody except the person who should know. What would have happened, had I watched San Junipero sooner? Would I have done anything differently? Would I have written a new paper? Would I have won with myself? These are tough questions to give a girl. I am not over this person, though I do not think there is regret in what I went through. I liked them unconsciously, and I was okay when it wasn’t just us. Kelly and Yorkie have changed my perspective on love completely, overtly optimistic as it already is. They remind me of what I have ruminated on since going through the motions of having a crush again, and that is another confession. Friends tell me to get it off my chest while I still have the chance. Is it really letting go if you grab onto something else in the same instance?

We all have something we would watch a thousand times over if we could. San Junipero has started to become that for me. If you haven’t watched it yet, don’t make the same mistake I did. If you have, rewatch it if you can. This masterpiece might just change you when you relive it.

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