The fifth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on June 5th, 2019. We’re looking at each of the season’s three episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
Spoiler warning: This essay does not give away the ending of “Striking Vipers,” but it does reveal the episode’s first major plot twist since it’s difficult to address any of the episode’s themes otherwise.
At its most intense and celebrated, the bleak-futures series Black Mirror has extrapolated from common technologies and tech-related social structures and projected ways for them to go terribly wrong. Whether it’s reimagining Boston Dynamics’ dog robot as a hunter-killer security bot in “Metalhead” or turning online ratings systems into an oppressive society-wide status game in “Nosedive,” Charlie Brooker’s series has largely suggested that all of our better, faster, sleeker devices are going to give us new ways to oppress and humiliate each other and eventually to destroy ourselves.
But as cynical as the show has been, it’s also been consistent about not blaming technology itself. In Brooker’s views, humanity doesn’t have a technology problem; technology has a humanity problem. And as the show has gradually softened, with more episodes leading to gentler endings rather than devastating ones, the shift has consistently come from the characters making positive, caring choices instead of reaching for the most selfish ones. In romance-themed episodes like “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ,” the protagonists have chosen personal attachment and affection in mutually supportive ways and have navigated their way to reasonable endings. (Ironically, that wasn’t much of an option in Black Mirror’s celebrated interactive episode, Bandersnatch, where viewers complained that no route through the story gave them a purely positive result.)
The fifth-season episode “Striking Vipers” is compelling in part because it feels like the third installment in a loose Black Mirror romance-story trilogy. For regular Black Mirror viewers, that changes the dynamic. The stakes never feel very high in “Striking Vipers,” in part because director Owen Harris (who also directed “San Junipero” and the season 2 episode “Be Right Back”) keeps the episode’s tone so low key and even-keeled. But the story offers the same sense of connection, and longing for connection, and it’s likely to hit some viewers in the same way as those other two episodes, as they root for a possible ending that doesn’t burn down the protagonists’ worlds.
As the episode opens, Danny (Marvel Cinematic Universe featured player Anthony Mackie) and his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie) are sharing an apartment with Danny’s buddy Karl (Aquaman’s Black Manta, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The dynamic between them is pleasant enough, but it feels artificial. Danny always seems a little melancholy and distant from everyone around him, like he’s living in a private place in his head, and Karl’s attempts at a casually bro-tastic relationship full of playful shoving, video games, and trash talk seem slightly forced. But at least they can bond over Striking Vipers, a Street Fighter-esque head-to-head battle game they’re willing to play together all night.
Flash-forward 11 years, and Danny and Theo are married with a child and mechanically trying for another one. When Karl turns up at Danny’s 38th birthday party, the two men haven’t seen each other in a year, and Danny seems more abstracted and separate from the world than ever. Then Karl gives him a present — a virtual reality update of Striking Vipers — that puts both men in a startlingly convincing immersive version of their old 2D battle world. In the VR environment, they have full-sensation skins of their favorite fighters: Karl as scantily clad Roxette (Pom Klementieff, aka Mantis from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), and Danny as muscular, frequently shirtless Lance (Ludi Lin).
They try fighting and it rapidly turns into kissing instead. The rest of the story naturally falls out from there as they both try to decide who they are now (“So, guess that’s us gay now,” Karl casually says at one point) and what it means to their friendships and their identities.
There’s a lot to unpack in “Striking Vipers,” which complicates a familiar “friends uncomfortably attracted to each other” plot with different layers of fantasy, turning it into something admirably specific that isn’t just a clumsy metaphor for same-sex experimentation. In spite of Karl’s “gay” crack, the two men only meet in VR in their opposite-gender skins, and both are still involved with women at home. Danny seems committed to Theo and their son, at least as much as he’s committed to anything. Past the initial jarred reaction of “That was unexpected, and I don’t want to take any responsibility for it happening,” neither has a knee-jerk homophobic response to their connection. But they both have to contend with how this new kind of fantasy changes their friendship and their other relationships.
There are a lot of ways this story could have gone wrong, by demonizing Theo as the needy wife standing in the way of true love or, alternatively, by demonizing Karl and Danny’s relationship as something unreal and unworthy. Instead, Brooker carefully threads the needle of trying to make sure all perspectives are equally represented and balanced. In the process, he gets into some surprisingly grown-up themes about desire versus responsibility, and reality versus fantasy. The sheer gravity of “Striking Vipers” is surprising, given the lunatic video game playfulness of the Striking Vipers world itself and the potential to play all of this with a heightened sense of revved-up drama. So many Black Mirror episodes ramp up the speed and intensity to manic heights, until, say, the wrong person showing up at a wedding in “Nosedive” feels like a cataclysm. “Striking Vipers” operates more like a calm conversation in a therapist’s office.
But Brooker does miss the chance to make this story more plausible by expanding its world even a little. The episode doesn’t take place in a particularly futuristic environment. Apart from the ubiquitous thin folding phones and dishwashers that warn users if they put knives into the silverware caddy blade-side-up, “Striking Vipers” could be taking place today from what we see of the world. That certainly raises the question of why a simple VR head-to-head fight game doubles as a sex sim, which certainly would have been easy to address in a variety of telling ways. (It wouldn’t be too implausible for every VR game in this world to have a sex option.) Karl’s late-episode speech about the game raises a lot of fascinating questions about this world that the episode isn’t invested in exploring.
The biggest problem, though, is Mackie’s drifting, melancholy performance, which is compelling and appropriate to the emotions being explored, but it winds up unvaried enough that it’s hard to read what’s really going on with him. A different version of this story would have him simply closeted and learning something new about himself and drifting through life unhappily because he’s missing something he can’t name. But even when he starts to engage with his own life and problems, he still seems checked out and unengaged. He spends so much of the story either in denial or concealing his feelings from Karl, Theo, and himself that it’s hard to recognize what’s going on with him at all. He becomes a kind of mystery box at the heart of the episode, ramping up the “What’s going to happen?” question by pushing “What does he want to happen?” to the forefront.
That makes it harder to engage with any of the connection that’s ostensibly happening here, whether it’s purely physical or has a deeper emotional element. Abdul-Mateen gets more diverse material to work with, but he also puts more passion into it. His struggles to find an argument that will persuade Danny to cooperate are simultaneously repulsive because they’re so needy and manipulative and extremely relatable to anyone who’s ever been in an imbalanced relationship. The way he leaps from defending their virtual trysts as meaningless fun (hence, safe to continue) to claiming they mean everything and are worth any risk (hence, necessary to continue) is a beautiful micro-portrait of a desperate lover trying to persuade a reluctant partner without utterly alienating them.
“Striking Vipers” does get at the deep fantasy underlying so may virtual worlds, the way a layer of plausible remove can keep wish-fulfillment fantasies from being too embarrassingly naked. Everyone who’s gotten a little emotionally invested in what their on-screen character is doing, whether it’s punching bad guys in a fighting game or navigating more complicated emotional waters, has gotten a taste of what’s going on here — the appeal of an imaginary world where it’s safe to play out a fantasy. The episode just contends, more than most video gamer stories do, with the potential real-world cost of living in a fantasy and the potential dreariness of living solely in a world of responsibility and work, without any fantasy to liven it up.
“Striking vipers” ratings
Relevance: “Striking Vipers” keeps the action pretty narrow. Unlike episodes like “Nosedive” or “Fifteen Million Merits,” it doesn’t change society in any big ways; it just looks at how a few interrelated people are dealing with a new sexual possibility. In that sense, it seems widely relevant to the many ways people live virtual lives online, and how those lives entangle with their real-world feelings and possibilities. This specific technology is nowhere close to available, but the dynamics of people donning personas to feed specific sexual needs feel relatable in terms of everything from catfishing to sexting to various forms of online roleplaying.
Aesthetics: The whole episode mirrors Danny’s seemingly depressed state of mind: stately music, desaturated visuals, intimate close-in shots of bodies and faces, an overall sense of detachment — at least in the real world. The VR Striking Vipers world is vivid and hot, full of eye-searing colors and familiar fight-game effects, obviously mirroring the way emotions there seem to be simpler and more intense. It’s a slightly odd dynamic, though, since only Karl really addresses how the game world makes him feel and why it’s such a draw.
Squirm factor: Surprisingly low. Because the presentation is so measured and quiet, “Striking Vipers” never feels like it’s going for sensationalism or tension. There’s a high “What could come next?” curiosity factor to the episode but not much feeling of threat hanging over anyone. It’s one of the gentler Black Mirror episodes, largely with the feeling that everyone is probably just going to be a reasonable adult about solving the problems in front of them.