The following contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 5 episode “Striking Vipers.”
Black Mirror Season 5 episode “Striking Vipers” understands something about the human condition even if we don’t ourselves. Technology isn’t there to pull humanity kicking and screaming into the future. Its purpose in art is simply to reveal what’s been there all along.
Like all ‘90s kids, I loved playing the N64 game Goldeneye with my friends. Ryan, Jeffrey, and I would choose the Facility map and then spend hours each day shooting at one another. Ryan would always play as Bond villain Alec Trevelyan (which bummed me out because he was one of the few pop culture figures with the same name as me). I would play as Russian Bond girl Natalya Simonova. Jeffrey would play as unnamed extra character “Helicopter Pilot.”
Despite the popular perception at the time that video games were just a passive, mind-rotting activity, Goldeneye often presented an opportunity for a game of technologically heightened make-believe. Soon we were essentially playing our version of “house” with 64-bit characters. Natalya and Helicopter Pilot were in a relationship we decided and they would team up to take down that devilish rake Alec Trevelyan. Every time Trevelyan shot at my Natalya, I would cry out for the assistance of my life-partner Helicopter Pilot to come whisk me away to safety in his helicopter.
With that in mind, guess what childhood memory I thought about partway through “Striking Vipers?” “Striking Vipers” is such an impressive piece of work for Black Mirror and treats ‘90s videogames the way they probably always should have been treated: as a safe, consequence-free simulation space for little boys and eventually little men to work though the complex feelings they’ve so often ignored.
Even before the “twist” kicks in partway through “Striking Vipers,” the show has something to say. The first 30 minutes of “Striking Vipers” has an elegiac feel to it as we see our main characters in their rapturously fun and irreverent youth, and then see them in their boring old adulthood. Danny (Anthony Mackie), Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and Theo (Nichole Beharie) have a classic and recognizable college student dynamic. Danny and Theo are star-crossed lovers destined to be together forever while Danny and Karl are star-crossed friends destined to barely ever speak to each other again because adulthood will get in the way of their preferred medium for socializing: videogames.
Sure enough, when the episode jumps a decade-plus forward, Danny and Theo live together with their child and Danny and Karl have barely seen each other in years. There’s a strange, mournful air that hangs over Danny’s birthday celebration, like something…or someone is missing. Then that someone arrives.
Karl is still single and living like a college kid. He fires up a hookup app each night to find the next young girl who is too young to know who Dennis Rodman is to sleep with. Still, each man seems to covet what the other has: whether it be freedom or security. Karl’s gift to Danny is Striking Vipers X, the latest installment in the Mortal Kombat-style fighting game. Only this one has a VR component.
Later on that night, Karl and Danny figure out the VR technology (featuring a “grain” similar to that featured in “The Entire History of You”). They choose their old favorite characters, Natalya and Helicopter Pilot….I mean Roxette (Pom Klementieff) and Lance (Ludi Lin). They have fun figuring out the physics of their new environment, throw a few punches, and then kiss. Like KISS kiss.
Danny and Karl via their Roxette and Lance avatars proceed to have sex…a lot of sex. The encounters, as remarkably depicted by Klementieff and Lin are surprisingly raw and powerful. Few things in visual art are harder to pull off than a believable, impactful sex scene and here is Black Mirror pulling it off in the strangest way imaginable. It’s hard to believe this is the same show whose first episode featured a sex act between a man and a pig.
Danny and Karl eventually admit to each other that they’re having the best sex they’ve ever had within the confines of Striking Vipers X and the evidence is right there onscreen to prove it to us. At first it’s unclear just what any of this means. Because none of us have had the experience of fucking our childhood friends in the bodies of Mortal Kombat characters.
So much of storytelling and life in general relies on precedent. Anyone who has ever worked in any kind of office can attest to that. “What do we do when X happens?” “Well, what did we do last time X happened? Do it again.” We rely on precedent to have a nice, smooth journey through life. What the best science fiction is able to do is find an unprecedented scenario and then rely on its understanding of humanity in general rather than a previous, specific event to work out what happens next.
“So I guess that’s us gay now,” Karl says after their second encounter, before adding “that’s a joke.”
“It don’t feel like a gay thing,” Danny concludes.
They certainly have a point as they are both currently occupying the bodies of a man and woman. The whole having-sex-with-each-other thing suggests that there is at least some homosexual energy behind their encounters. But as they come to find out later when Danny insists they kiss in real life, Roxette and Lance’s bodies are an essential part of the equation. It’s up to Black Mirror to figure out the significance of what they’re doing.
In early May, Harper’s Bazaar ran an article that went modestly viral titled “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden.” The article, from Melanie Hamlett, broke down statistically and anecdotally how adult men are frequently become more and more isolated from other adult men. That’s what makes the little tragedy of “Striking Viper’s” beginning so acute. Danny and Karl have become like so many other lost friends throughout the country. When other obligations kicked in and the time to spend the night playing Striking Vipers went away, they let their relationship float away with it.
When they reconnect in Striking Vipers X it’s almost like they were so happy to see each other that they could kiss each other. And they just so happened to have the appropriate bodies to do so once they did. “Striking Vipers” doesn’t have all the answers for what is happening to Danny and Karl because there aren’t any curt answers. Are they gay? Maybe. Maybe not. Are they in love? Maybe. Maybe not. Do they love each other? Definitely. And ultimately that’s what the episode is about. At its best, sex is a reclaiming of intimacy. And that’s exactly what Karl and Danny have done. They needed each other in ways they didn’t fully understand because they didn’t have the language for it. Striking Viper X is their relationship Rosetta Stone.
Thus far, I’ve not mentioned Theo much. But make no mistake, this is the story of three people, not just two men. While Danny and Karl delve into a deep well of self-discovery, Theo is left out in the real world, wondering where her marriage went so wrong. At that’s where “Striking Vipers” really pulls off a miracle.
Danny, Karl, and Theo can’t control the position they’ve been placed into by sudden access to this VR technology. But they can control their reaction to it. Danny, Karl, and Theo do something that’s rarely done in science fiction: they communication with one another as human beings. Granted, the majority of that communication comes off screen but the episode’s final moments shows us the fruit of their emotional labor.
Every year on Danny’s birthday now, he is allowed to enter Striking Vipers X and fool around with Karl. At the same time, Theo gets to get dressed up and have a date night with whichever lucky and appealing gentleman bold enough to buy her a drink at the bar. It harkens back to the first time we see Danny and Theo onscreen and she is incredibly turned on by Danny treating her as a mysterious stranger.
Is this the objectively correct answer for how to do with an unprecedented Striking Vipers scenario? Absolutely not. But the episode argues, and convincingly so, that this is the arrangement that works for thesepeople. Ultimately, when confronted with new, life-changing technology, the important thing to ask isn’t “what does this mean?” but rather “what do we do with this?”
It’s reminiscent of the conclusion of one of my favorite films, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. In Chasing Amy, Holden (Ben Affleck) realizes there are two factors imperiling his relationship with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). One is his own jealousy at Alyssa’s previous life of sexual autonomy and experimentation. The other is his friend, Banky’s (Jason Lee) inability to recognize that he is gay and in love with Holden. So Holden proposes something radical: they will all have a threesome together. That will help Banky come to terms with his sexuality and it will help Holden feel more experienced and on Alyssa’s level.
But Holden, in true Holden fashion, has forgotten something crucial. There’s nothing in this for Alyssa. This won’t help her, in fact it might hurt her. All she wants is Holden. And instead of simply growing up and accepting that, Holden has concocted a ridiculous, emotionally heightened sexual gambit so that he can accept that.
The “solution” in “Striking Vipers” is like if Holden, Alyssa, and Banky all came together for complex United Nations style negotiations instead of Holden unilaterally requesting something ridiculous. And it works. It works because each character gets something that they need….and something that the audience can successfully accept that they need based on previous actions. The ending of “Striking Vipers” is almost heroic in its pragmatism. As I’m fond of saying around here in Black Mirror reviews: technology changes, people don’t. “Striking Vipers” presents a stunning example of reckoning with technology and one’s own wants and desires in a mature, adult fashion.
Danny, Theo, and Karl have come a long way from those kids in college, hitting up the club and entire nights spent gaming. All it took was the unexpected services of Roxette and Lance.