Welcome to heaven on Earth
Credit: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

San Junipero is a beachside town with theaters, arcades, and bars. San Junipero is not what it seems. San Junipero is a no-frills, timeless paradise. San Junipero is a twisty, endless puzzle. San Junipero is heaven on Earth.

And “San Junipero,” the Black Mirror episode, is the salve to every “White Bear” — or “Playtest”-inflicted wound. It’s the antidote to the poison the technology of Black Mirror appears to promise for our future. It teaches us that sometimes, the virtual can be vital, can even be helpful.

Or maybe not. It depends on your point of view. But we’ll get to that.

Let’s instead begin with Yorkie — yes, like the dog breed — a bespectacled, wide-eyed tourist played by Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis, plucked from one fictional ’80s reality into Black Mirror‘s. She wanders through a neon-drenched street before spotting a fellow tourist, the purple-clad Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), trying to escape a man named Wes. Yorkie follows, slipping past Rick Astley clones and revelers before reaching the arcade for a round of Bubble Bobble. A man tries to chat her up, but Yorkie floats away to a booth, where Kelly crashes her reverie and asks her to play along with a plot to avoid Wes. It’s an adorable (and somewhat dark) meet-cute: Kelly spins a cover story that casts Yorkie as an old friend who’s dying in six — oh wait, five! — months. Wes buys it, and Yorkie can’t get enough of Kelly. She grabs a drink with her, and lets her take the lead on both choosing drinks and questioning. “Why glasses?” Kelly wonders, because most people don’t look authentically like themselves — they base their appearance on stuff they’ve seen in movies. But for Yorkie, the glasses are comforting; she had them when she was in school. (It’s our first hint to what else San Junipero is! Let’s see… it’s a place where anyone can aspire to be anything.)

Kelly and Yorkie are doing that, at first. As the duo dance, Kelly starts seeing things in slow motion and noticing everyone watching them, so she runs away. Naturally, Kelly follows her outside, into the rain. “Everyone was looking,” Yorkie says, saying she wasn’t sure whether two girls dancing would come off the wrong way before revealing that she also has a fiancé named Greg. She’s new to all of this. Kelly reassures her that it’s okay — and then says they only have two more hours until midnight. (Another hint! Now we know San Junipero is a place with a time limit, a Cinderella-like fairy tale.)

Yorkie refuses this week’s offer, but one week later, she looks much more eager. She’s enthusiastically trying on not just new outfits, but new personas, complete with different soundtracks. It’s as if entering San Junipero is like stepping onto a stage production. This time, Yorkie’s paid attention to her script: She finds Kelly in a glittering green outfit leaving Wes, then drifts through the crowd until she makes eye contact with Kelly, who’s dancing away like a Paula Abdul in the making. When Kelly doesn’t go to her, Yorkie follows her into the bathroom and admits she doesn’t know how to “do this,” so she takes her away from the bar, telling her to just enjoy San Junipero.

RELATED: Breaking Down Season 3 of Black Mirror

They drive away to Kelly’s beach house — nearly veering off the road at one point — and Yorkie gets more glimpses into Kelly’s life. She finds a photo of a girl named Alison celebrating her birthday, but Kelly goes in for a kiss and takes Yorkie to bed. Later, Yorkie explains she’s never slept with a woman or a man before, and that the whole fiancé thing is, well, complicated. Kelly, in turn, reveals she had a husband who chose not to stick around, and now it’s just her “passing through” San Junipero. It’s 11:59 p.m. The clock ticks. Fade to black.

NEXT: Don’t you forget about me…

One week later, Yorkie begins again. She meanders her way to the bartender while looking for Kelly, but when she asks about her, the bartender suggests trying the Quagmire, another watering hole, more appropriate for the grungy set and far less… innocent, compared to the exuberant Tucker’s, so Yorkie looks even more out of place. There, she runs into Wes, who recognizes her and immediately understands what’s going on. He advises her to try other times in the ’80s, the ’90s, and maybe even 2002 to find Kelly. (A third hint! The town must be adrift in time, available to transform into the era you choose.)

Yorkie tries and tries again. One week later (look, a new font!), she walks past an ad for the 1980 Chrysler Cordova, heads back to Tucker’s, plays Pac Man, and doesn’t get anywhere with finding Kelly. Another week later, she heads to 1996, with Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” on full blast and Scream playing at the theaters. She even tries the beach house, but no one answers. Has Kelly just vanished from San Junipero without saying goodbye?

Finally, in 2002, Yorkie finds Kelly playing Dance Dance Revolution against the man she’d encountered at the arcade in past visits. Yorkie can’t wait to talk to Kelly, but Kelly refuses. In fact, she gets defensive, saying their night together was just for fun. Yorkie, distraught, leaves, and Kelly gets angry at herself. She punches the bathroom mirror, but it repairs itself, and she’s left without a scratch. Even weirder? When Kelly tracks Yorkie to the roof of the building, they talk about pain sliders (“Please tell me you got your pain slider set to zero,” Kelly says to Yorkie) and how many people around them are dead (about 80 to 85 percent, Kelly guesses). (A final hint! Looks like it’s all a virtual reality-slash-purgatory where nothing can physically harm the dead or the living playing along.) Whatever San Junipero really is, Kelly admits that she doesn’t want to “do” feelings there, but Yorkie convinces her to spend another night at the beach house. In a week, she’ll be married to Greg, so they don’t have much time left.

Back at the beach house, the two talk their pasts. Kelly reveals she has a terminal illness, and that her husband had passed without taking the invitation to San Junipero, leaving her on the fence about how much she wants to stay. Yorkie explains that San Junipero gave her a chance not just to experience life but to meet Kelly. Touched, Kelly talks about where she really is — Carson City, Nevada, while Yorkie is in Santa Rosa, California — and they agree to meet in real life. So that’s the secret to San Junipero: It is a virtual space for avatars of real people, alive and dead.

With that, we finally leave San Junipero… for Sienna Trust Assisted Living, where an elderly black woman is brought on board a truck and driven away. She’s Kelly — real-life, living, breathing Kelly. A doctor greets her at her destination and takes her to Yorkie, where she discovers that Yorkie is in fact an old woman breathing through a tube, unable to respond but able to hear what people say to her. “Hello, stupid,” Kelly tenderly says to Yorkie. “It’s good to see you.” (Cue the tears!)

As Kelly steps away, a man introduces himself as Greg, Yorkie’s fiancé, who turns out to be an altruistic nurse. He fills in the blanks on Yorkie’s life for Kelly: When Yorkie was 21, she came out to her conservative family. They told her they didn’t want a gay daughter, so after a fight, she accidentally ran her car off the road and for the 40 years since then, she’s been a quadriplegic, unable to “pass over” because her family won’t allow it. Instead, she can only sample the trial version of San Junipero — or “immersive nostalgia therapy” — that includes a five-hour weekly limit. (A limit that would’ve been useful to prevent the dystopia of other virtual-reality-embedded worlds like the ones in, say, Ready Player One.) It’s a preventative measure: If you were alive and remained in San Junipero for extended periods of time, you’d lose your sense of reality. Oh, and as for the impending marriage? Yorkie’s spouse can override her family’s wishes, and Greg is up to the task.

That sparks something in Kelly, who asks to enter San Junipero for five minutes with Yorkie. Doctors attach a device to the right temple of their heads — it’s similar to the ones used in the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas,” for people extracting memories to build Cookies — and both of them enter town. It’s daylight this time, and Kelly explains her idea: She’ll marry Yorkie instead to help her “pass over” the next day. After all, it’s pretty clear they’re soul mates — or rather, San Junipero mates. (Cue more tears!)

NEXT: The story of Yorkie and Kelly

And so, Yorkie passes over. She looks joyful, even ditching her glasses by the water. She’s been uploaded into the cloud, her consciousness and soul sent to San Junipero, and she’s happy about spending eternity there — something Kelly doesn’t agree with when she arrives to celebrate their marriage. Yorkie believes it’s all real; Kelly says it’s just a whole city for the dead. Yorkie loves living there; Kelly doesn’t want to stay. And when Yorkie takes it too far — she wonders if Kelly’s refusing San Junipero because she feels abandoned by her husband, who was too selfish to leave his soul behind and wait for Kelly — Kelly slaps Yorkie. She tearfully confesses that they had been married for 49 years and had a daughter, Alison, who died too early to experience San Junipero, so they decided they wouldn’t either. At that, Yorkie tries to apologize, but Kelly drives away, angry that she had been tempted to stay. She crashes and gets flung through the windshield — but gets up, unhurt. Yorkie finds her on the road and helps her up, but midnight arrives and Kelly disappears.

Back in reality, Kelly continues living out the rest of her days, now attached to a respirator. We see her get worse and worse, until she’s wheezing while sitting. She contemplates. “Okay, then,” she finally says. “All things considered, I guess I’m ready… for the rest of it.”

And then, as if in a dream, we see Yorkie again, walking up the beach to her car with a personalized license plate. We see Kelly “pass on,” and as her coffin lowers into the ground, her digital soul arrives at the beach house. She and Yorkie drive off together as we leave San Junipero one last time to see robot arms filing away disks into massive, glowing servers. The flashing lights indicate the thousands, maybe millions of minds populating places that serve as heavens on Earth. On one labeled San Junipero, we see an arm insert Kelly’s drive. And that’s that.

“San Junipero” is an episode that tenderly peels back its layers little by little, and unlike most Black Mirror stories, isn’t trying to startle you with its vision of technology’s future. It’s difficult to describe, because the emotional stakes are high but introspective. It’s intimate, all about loving looks and longing glances and little moments. (In a way, it’s this season’s “Be Right Back,” which was also directed by Owen Harris.)

Better yet, the hour doesn’t forget to take a wider look at the world it inhabits. The visuals of San Junipero’s street corner look juuuust off-center enough to mimic, not mirror, reality, and there’s a strong sense of world-building, especially when the secret of San Junipero comes to stark, technicolor clarity. Uploading your consciousness is an idea that’s been explored before — think Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, for one — but this episode explores it just enough to hint at what else is happening in reality. “San Junipero” is a beautifully crafted puzzle box that opens doors to bigger questions. What are other San Junipero-like destinations available in this system? How do people choose? How long is eternity? What else is there to do? What times can you explore? If it’s a storage of memories, are they your memories combined with everyone else’s? Can you reach an era you never lived in? If you can change your appearance at will, what else can you change?

This episode’s twist isn’t what San Junipero is; instead, it’s that San Junipero represents an optimistic outlook on technology. Though there are flaws to the system — Wes proves that eternity can give way to obsession very quickly — the story never loses focus of the characters caught between the real and the virtual. There’s hope beating at the heart of “San Junipero” — hope that anchors Black Mirror‘s third season in something more than thrills and chills.

Episode grade: A

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