Before we start, I'll say what I always say about Black Mirror, which is that each episode is best watched knowing nothing about it. Going in blind is part of the fun of watching the series, which thrives on hammering viewers with the unexpected. This review is meant for those who have already seen the episode. You can also read reviews of the other two Season 5 episodes, "Smithereens" and "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too."
Season 5 of Black Mirror, consisting of three episodes (four if you want to include the interactive film "Bandersnatch" that came out in December, but let's not do that), is a bit of a mixed bag, but "Striking Vipers" is easily the most thought-provoking and complete of the three. While we're at it, it's also the episode most likely to make you spit out your drink when THAT happens for the first time. You know what I'm talking about.
As we continue to move toward digitizing our lives, what counts as real? That's the question that "Striking Vipers" asks us through one of the most unexpected turns of the show's ever-twisting run. The episode stars Anthony Mackie as Danny, a husband and father, who has resigned himself to a boring life in the boring 'burbs with his not-boring wife (Nicole Beharie). We actually first meet Danny in the past, before he's married, before he has kids, before the fun was sucked out of his life. In his 20s, he unwound like all man-children do: by playing video games with his friend.
The game is called Striking Vipers, a clone of the Tekken or Street Fighter fighting game franchises, with each player controlling a character where the object is to beat the snot out of the other. Flash-forward almost a decade to present day (well, the episode's present day, which appears to be in the near future) and Mackie's friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) shows up with a birthday gift: the latest version of Striking Vipers, which uses virtual reality. He's also living the life of a bachelor, albeit an aging one who dates women 10 years his junior, who he's more than happy to show off to Danny.
At the same time, Danny and his wife are trying to have a second child, pitting his wife in competition with Karl for Danny's attention — a tale as old (and somewhat stale) as time, right? Women or video games? Except then. Things. Get. Weird. Like, really weird. But the twist, which occurs early in the episode, is a risky wrinkle — even by Black Mirror standards — that's sure to get the internet talking, and I honestly have no idea how it'll react. Mixed is what I'm guessing. But for my money, it's a twist that knocked me flat on the floor in the best way possible.
Danny and Karl — Danny playing as a hunky Asian male with an open gi showing a chiseled chest and Karl choosing a female character modeled to keep teenage boys interested — start their sessions off by mashing buttons and kicking each other's virtual asses. Visually, it's a wonderful break from Danny's life and a treat for the viewer, but soon the gloves aren't the only things that come off and the fisticuffs between their characters turns into... passionate love-making (twist!!!). At first it's awkward for Danny, Karl convinces him to join him for nightly sessions of hardcore VR f---ing — the best sex they've had, apparently — and even some post-coital cuddling. Jarring at first, the sex actually becomes romantic and poignant the more we see of it, their avatars pushing each other up against walls while Danny and Karl lay motionless on their couches, their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads. It's one of the most insane things Black Mirror has done... and one of the most thought-provoking.
Is Danny cheating on his wife? Are Danny and Karl gay? Why do they feel comfortable having sex with each other in the game, but are reluctant to think about it in real life? (The moment when Danny proposes they kiss in real life and the subsequent attempt is GREAT television). Where does virtual reality end and reality begin? What in the f--- is going on here?
After a lot of struggle, Danny eventually tells his wife what's going on, and in the mid-credits ending scenes, we see their resolution: Danny and Karl can play with each other's joysticks all they want, but Danny's wife is also allowed to get hers... in real life, by trolling bars as an available woman. To say it's a weird look at the future of open marriages — or marriage in general — is a bit of an understatement. (And while there is an issue with the episode's outdated portrayal of males loving video games so much that they would make love to each other in a video game rather than get the real thing from their S.O. who is right there, and that women aren't into gaming — in reality, females are into gaming more than ever and make up a substantial part of the market — I don't think the episode set out to say either of those things.) It's not the WOW ending you hope for, but it's an adult compromise that's reflective of how our standards are changing as well as a tongue-in-cheek extreme take on how we handle the similar situation now.
What "Striking Vipers" accomplishes is a next-level debate on how technology influences friendships and fidelity, and in the end, like most good Black Mirror episodes, it presents a frightening look at where we're headed as social norms are eroding under our obsessions with our digital presence. But "Striking Vipers" is actually at its best when it explores concepts with no link to technology: masculinity and sexuality. It's a topic just outside of the sphere of what Black Mirror normally makes you think about, but it's incredibly effective in getting the viewer thinking. It's also easily the best of the three Season 5 episodes, and one of the 10 best episodes of the series.
Season 5 of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.