One of the series that has consistently explored the chilling ethical ramifications of consciousness uploads and the copy-pasted brain is Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s speculative anthology isn’t known for its optimism, or its generous interpretations of human nature: In the show’s universe, human souls can be copied to digital clones called cookies, and those copies (which have the same awareness and ability to feel emotions as the originals) are then converted into digital slaves (the episode “White Christmas”) or tortured (“Black Museum”), or turned into video-game characters by a tyrannical coder (“USS Callister”). But the third-season episode “San Junipero” surprised longtime fans of the show by offering up something unexpected: a technologically advanced happy ending.
The episode’s twist comes midway through, after Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet in a beach town called San Junipero and spend the night together: The town is a simulated reality that dead people can be uploaded into and living ones can visit, occupying bodies that look like their younger selves. In reality, Kelly is an elderly woman with a fatal illness and Yorkie, who was paralyzed in an accident in her 20s, wants to be euthanized and uploaded to San Junipero. Kelly wants to die naturally like her husband and daughter did. But in the show’s surprise conclusion, she joins Yorkie in San Junipero instead, and the pair dances to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
Read: ‘San Junipero’ is one of the standout episodes of ‘Black Mirror’
The episode floored critics who were waiting for the unsettling gut punch. Brooker, the show’s co-creator, said that he wanted to upend ideas about what Black Mirror could be—and indeed, the concept of technology enabling happiness rather than destroying human lives is at odds with virtually every other episode the show has offered up. But even in “San Junipero” there are hints that Yorkie and Kelly’s love affair might not be an enduring one. The town itself is designed for pure pleasure and nostalgic wish fulfillment; inhabitants and visitors can flit between 20th-century decades and aesthetics as easily as they hop bars. When Yorkie goes looking for Kelly one night, she stumbles upon the Quagmire, a club offering more extreme experiences to residents who are “trying anything to feel something,” jaded by the town’s perpetual sunshine and lack of pain. When Kelly smokes a cigarette on the beach, she observes that “it doesn’t even taste of anything.” Without real stakes, real experiences, the episode hints, the endless summer of San Junipero will one day lose its thrill.
The same quandary is apparent in Upload, where Lakeview residents can pay to have simulated colds. “When you’ve been here a bit, you’ll understand that having no fun can actually be fun,” a resident tells Nathan, before shelling out an extra $1.99 for a sneeze. The paradox of a boring heaven brings to mind the final episode of The Good Place, where the afterlife-set show’s four main characters eventually got tired of living forever in paradise and chose to become particles of energy instead. In the end, as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber wrote, “the show made a soothing, seductive, and (thankfully) shaky case for death.” Even in an unbranded, un-monetized, truly blissful afterlife, even surrounded by the people they loved, The Good Place’s characters couldn’t accept the idea of actual eternity. Which makes Upload’s man-made version of heaven, with its radical inequality, peskily perennial adbots, tiered social system, and glitchy digital assistants, seem even more fated to be hell.