The inside of a car is a very intimate space, especially when it’s raining.
A tired woman with a pale pink hijab entered my car, spent the half-hour ride staring out the window, meanwhile playing old news coverage of last night’s election results on her phone. It was the day after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and results declared Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States of America.
Heavy rain was drumming on my car roof, making everything inside echo, making the words the newscasters say sound like the brooding start to some science fiction movie, making me hear the short breaths the woman drew, the quiet in her voice when she made polite small talk, and the tremble in her laugh when she tried to forget about the news.
When I dropped her off, exchanging gentle farewells and best wishes with each other, I found myself unable to keep driving Uber for the day. There were these damned feelings weighing on me that I couldn’t quite shake, and I was in no mood to try and cheer up an Uber passenger whilst I was mentally torn myself. So what did I do as a mature and responsible adult? I decided to pull over on the side of the road and watch TV.
At that point, I was thinking: why not? Why not watch TV and get away from all the bad stuff? Why not escape, if only mentally? Why keep working so hard when the future is so tentative and everything we thought we had inalienable rights to as humans could actually be taken away? Why try when everything will fall apart and people will get hurt and die and cry anyways? Why do anything at all?
Basically, I fell into this downward spiral of uselessness and depression.
For someone trying to escape the real world, however, I find myself usually pulled back to it, unexpectedly. I sat back in my car, turned on Netflix on my phone, and what did I watch? Black Mirror. In my defense, I was in the middle of an episode.
Black Mirror is a British science fiction television anthology series created by satirist and broadcaster, Charlie Brooker. Every episode is a different storyline with biting social commentary on the way we live our lives today, under the guise of the beautiful sci-fi veil that promises comfort and safety whilst experimenting with the weirdest and darkest aspects of society and technology.
Brooker’s stories were not just the usual pretentious-hipster-commentary on society and how much the world is fucked, however. Each narrative possessed its own style, dramatic flair, and emotions within characters, plot, even setting. A politician was forced to fuck a pig, a woman attempts to find her late lover in an android replica, and a teenager’s brutally dark secret was exposed via hackers and social media. These were just some examples. Then, at the end of each episode, while we’re still in shock and awe of how rapidly things escalated or changed, or how immersive the story was, we’re confronted with a peculiar reality check—each of these scenario is a possibility, now. Really. Actually. Everything is possible, more possible than before, because now we have the science to really do anything we want. Which might be a problem.
That night, in the constant pattering of the rain, I re-watched the beginning of Black Mirror’s season 3 episode 4, “San Junipero.”
Illuminated in neon lights and drenched with hypnotic dance music, the episode immediately enveloped the viewer into a remarkably hip and genuine-looking 1987. This particular narrative focused on two young women meeting, flirting, dancing, and falling in love. It sounds all very sweet and lovey dovey, but Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” didn’t win the 2016 IGN Award’s Best TV Episode simply because it was a sweet love story.
These two women are, in fact, struggling with the wildly peculiar theme of immortality…or, at least a perceived immortality after death. The entirety of the episode forced the two characters, Kelly and Yorkie, to not just confront the start of something new—a relationship, a romance, an opportunity for happiness—it also acknowledged and dealt with past traumas—old relationships, expired love, things never last, and so on.
There are specific science fiction elements, like the devices and technology that could make them “immortal,” but these aspects were so seamlessly woven into the narrative, it was actually a secondary character compared to the emotions at play and explored, as well as the complexities of the situations our characters are in.
At the end of the episode, I was haunted, but I also felt happy, and pretty damn satisfied—the kind of satisfaction felt after an intensely good story. With “San Junipero,” Charlie Brooker strayed slightly from his usual Black Mirror bleakness to bring us a colorful world full of smiles and emotions, however filled with the very same nightmares that plague us all. Brooker helped me to see the contrast in beauty, the need to have the bad to know what good is, as well as the realization that there is always some way, or something to do, that can help alleviate any bad. It was a very optimistic and hopeful episode, which, on that night, I greatly appreciated. I even wished, if some of my passengers enjoyed sci-fi, that I could play this for them in the car to cheer them up. (Just a thought, don’t watch TV and drive!)
While I can see that “San Junipero” really has little to do with politics, the themes still translated. Yorkie and Kelly didn’t give up when things got hard—they bickered and yelled and argued, but they still tried to fix it, and make it work, because it was worth it. Simple as that. The love was worth it.
This episode made me think back to all the passengers in my car that day. I remembered the lady in the hijab, but also the father who made a phone call to his son (on speaker phone for some reason) and asked how ‘mom’ was doing. I remembered the school teacher from early that morning, expressing his concerns to me regarding Trump’s plan to cut off funding for ‘sanctuary cities’ like Philadelphia, to discourage us from supporting and housing immigrants. I made friends with a kind woman who was at first very quiet, until we started talking and she wound up inviting me to join her and her friends from a secret Philadelphia girls’ group to “come up and hang! We’re just smoking weed and trying to comfort or support each other, because of everything.”
Hell, to my surprise, I’d even got talking to a few Trump supporters who expressed hopes that he’ll keep his promises and work to help our country.
There were some heartbreaking moments and sights, but throughout that day, throughout my drive, there was support as well—endless support. Philadelphia felt like a funeral after the election results were announced, but amidst everything, people were still people. Some are assholes, but many are also kind, generous, caring, and so much more.
Like “San Junipero,” there was tragedy and a broken world, but the characters persevered, and they held onto powerful emotions that remind us we’re human, connecting us to one another, helping us through. Following Trump’s intensely divisive campaign and what could only be an equally frightening presidency, the sentiments expressed in “San Junipero” about love and trying felt more profound than just the takeaways of a simple love story.
Shows like Black Mirror are essential to our culture, where without the limitations of traditional news media, in TV shows we can release ourselves to these strange thought experiments, to feel all the feelings of the characters, and to remind us to step back and take a long, hard look at our own places in this world. We could very well be living in a dystopian. Black Mirror showed us what the darker reflections of our world; it allowed us a sort of practice in dealing with certain disaster. In this reality, however, with the anti-thesis of the Kool-Aid man and everything good in the world as U.S. president, we broke the goddamn mirror. This reality may be darker than the reflection, and like in Black Mirror, like its characters, we must keep trying. We complain and yell and cry, but after, we can act. We must keep going on, either because the show goes on, or because whatever it is we are after, it is worth it and we can’t forget that.