Black Mirror and the Therapies of Distraction

Bojan Srbinovski //

“San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of the techno-dystopian television series Black Mirror, opens with a series of distractions. It is the year 1987, and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is playing on the radio. Yorkie, one of the episode’s protagonists, walks out onto the street of the titular beach town wearing a striped pullover in muted pastels and mid-thigh khaki shorts. A queer couple out on the town crosses her path. Yorkie winces. Upset, she stops in front of a television store, where six copies of Max Headroom, the world’s first computerized TV host, greet her with a “No… Really?”. She hears two people arguing across the street. No, she hears Kelly.

“Could you please stop? I’m just trying to have some fun,” she says to the man pursuing her.

She is wearing a stunning purple fringe jacket with beaded epaulettes and walking away from the man, who is now running after her. Kelly doesn’t care; she’s here to have fun.

“I’m still walking, Wes,” she says with her back turned to him. She is on her way to Tucker’s, an arcade nightclub in downtown San Junipero.

“We only got a couple of hours,” he says, “so let’s use it.”

“I am using it,” she responds as she disappears into the club’s dark entryway.

What we don’t know yet is that these characters are visitors to a virtual simulation operated by the TCKR Systems corporation, and peopled by the dead and the dying. We don’t know yet that, in the outer world, they have been alive for decades. We don’t know that Kelly is dying of cancer and that Yorkie has been in a coma since she was twenty-one. We don’t know that they are visiting San Junipero, for now. By the time the episode comes to an end (one of the few happy endings in Black Mirror’s history) the two women will fall in love and, in the words of the show, “pass over” as permanent residents of the simulated Californian beach town.

We don’t know it yet, but they will make us yearn to pass over with them.

Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker has said that he had been reading about nostalgia therapy as a form of end-of-life care as he was writing this episode. That much is evident; the true feat of “San Junipero” is its textured, if occasionally overwrought, account of the late 80s in America. But it is also in its close attention to the strange truth that a certain memory need not be your own to elicit a nostalgic response from you. Kelly and Yorkie might not have been as young as they are in the 80s–in fact, their youthful virtual avatars will chase each other across the waning decades of the 20th century and re-encounter each other in 2002–and yet, for reasons that escape the viewer’s scrutiny, they keep returning to a neon-lit, sequins-wearing, Smiths-loving 1987 to re-discover each other.

“I’m regarding you,” says Kelly to Yorkie in an early moment of the story. Regarding, it would seem, is at the heart of the episode’s erotics. The desire to see, which the camera knows so well, quickly reveals itself in this episode to be the desire to see that which feels familiar, even if it is not.

A person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera

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A few weeks later, in the bathroom at Tucker’s, Kelly is washing her hands. Yorkie approaches her.

“Just help me,” she pleads quietly, “can you just… just make this easy for me?”

Kelly reaches out her hand to caress Yorkie’s face. The bathroom lights flicker on the sequins of her jacket. On the surface of the screen, the contact feels real. Behind the two women, the separated mirrors tell a different story. The gap between the mirrors instantiates a paradox. Ostensibly placed there to hide the camera and enable the filming of this caress, it also destabilizes the connection–between the women, and between the desiring viewer and the foreign story that is the object of his yearning.

“The system’s there for therapeutic reasons,” says the real-world Kelly to Greg, the man who has promised to marry Yorkie so she can pass over into the San Junipero system, “immersive nostalgia therapy.” It is at this point that I start to remember that something more complicated has been going on in my obsessive rewatching of this episode.  

It is not a coincidence that the first account of nostalgia–by the Swiss medical student Johanne Hofer in his 1688 “Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, oder Heimwehe”–seeks recourse to the literary to explain this psychic phenomenon. Hofer discovers a different kind of pain that he calls nostalgia. A corollary of the German Heimweh, “nostalgia” derives from the Greek words nostos (return to the native land) and algos (pain or grief). Unlike the authentic Greek compound nouns that name a pain located in a bodily part, Hofer finds a pain located outside of the body. In a recent overview of the contemporary scholarship on nostalgia, the very same that Charlie Brooker appears to have read in his writing of “San Junipero,” another literary example appears. “Approximately 3 millennia ago,” write Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues, “Homer composed his epic poem The Odyssey and with it created one of the most gripping literary accounts of nostalgia.” They give as their example Book V, when Odysseus rejects Calypso and declares his love of Penelope. A fitting example for the authors of the psychological study–this nostalgic yearning for his wife and his home will let Odysseus travel onward and eventually return to Ithaka. Later in the same paper, the authors will wonder if “[t]he psychological significance of nostalgia may reside in its capacity to counteract distress and restore psychological equanimity.” They will ultimately conclude that “[n]ostalgia boosted perceptions of life as meaningful and assuaged existential threat.”

The empirical sciences’ renewed attention to nostalgia as an affective state with the capacity to allay suffering is certainly commendable, but it is, as the example I have just cited confirms, indebted to and embedded in a long (and distinctly literary) tradition. It also reports nothing new to those of us whose emotional lives have long been imbricated with those of fictional characters. “I do not care about most things in real life the way I care about Willow and Tara,” writes Andrea Long Chu in a moving essay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “neither I nor my therapist can quite figure out why.” The reaction that I am met with whenever I bring up “San Junipero” among fellow queers feels similarly intense. It is like the coincidental meeting of compatriots while traveling abroad. Perhaps more accurately, it is like the scar on the thigh by which Euryclea recognizes Odysseus when he returns to Ithaka. Distraction is the method by which one recognizes the way into the past, which is to say, into the future.

At the episode’s end, Kelly and Yorkie are driving down the highway toward an impossible Californian sunset. Cross-cut with the credits, this shot is replaced by one of a robot at TCKR Systems operating the two women’s consciousnesses, which are now uploaded onto the system after their bodies’ deaths. “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is playing again. (Black Mirror has many virtues; subtlety is not one of them.) And here the show’s self-reflexive and structuring figure–that of a “cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone”–reveals itself once more. The act of (re-)watching an episode like “San Junipero” might be understood as precisely the kind of procedure that immersive nostalgia therapy might include, with all of its pro- and retrospective logics of affective entanglement. And if we, in the medical humanities, can finally see the form of television itself as the home of immersive nostalgia therapy par excellence, then we might begin to ask how and why people have come to integrate this self-designed treatment into their lives.

Bibliography

Illbruck, Helmut. Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease. Northwestern University Press, 2012.

Hofer, Johannes. “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia.” Trans. Carolyn Kiser Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, vol. 2, no. 6, Aug. 1934, pp. 376–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44437799.

Sedikides, Constantine, et al. “Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 5, Oct. 2008, pp. 304–307, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00595.x.

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