There are a lot of reasons why “San Junipero” is a lot of people’s favorite Black Mirror episode. First and foremost, it has a happy, triumphant ending, as opposed to oppressively bleak conclusions of its predecessors. Second, it’s a love story, and who doesn’t like those? Third, despite the fact that those first two points make it an anomaly in the Black Mirror catalog, it still features one of show’s signature slow-burn, sci-fi plot twists. In a recent oral history of the episode, show creator Charlie Brooker explains how difficult it was to appropriately tease out the reveal that the two young lovers dancing their way through an 1980s pastiche were actually 70-year-old women taking part in a simulation.
“Writing a script like that is like being forced to come up with dialogue that rhymes,” Brooker tells Vulture. “It’s got to do two different things at once.” What Brooker means is that everything Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) say to each other has to make sense both in the context of two young people in 1987 and two aging women who are aware they’re plugged into a simulation. What’s more, for the first half of the episode the audience isn’t aware the 1980s setting is a facade, so Brooker had to be careful not to give too much away too early.
Still, there were some clues hidden in the episode if you knew where to look. There’s a moment early on when Yorkie is watching someone play a arcade game and she has an immediate, visceral reaction to the sight of a car crash. “I thought people would immediately go, ‘Oh, she’s been in a car crash in real life,’” Brooker says. “But no one ever picks up on it, until maybe the third viewing.”
More subtle clues include the song “Girlfriend In A Coma” by The Smiths playing over a shot of Yorkie, who, it’s later revealed, is literally in a coma outside the simulation. Brooker also included a few visual jokes in Tucker’s arcade when Yorkie travels to a simulation of 1996 to look for Kelly. The games Time Crisis and House Of The Dead can be seen in the background, both of which are tongue-in-cheek references to the episode’s setting.
Charlie Brooker and his team clearly work hard to strike a balance between giving too much away and keeping it all under wraps, but they know finding that balance is the key to a great reveal. “It’s good to give the audience a chance to get it,” Brooker says. “Because otherwise it might feel like a complete cheat.”
You can read the full oral history here.