'Black Mirror' Contemplates Online Infidelity in 'Striking Vipers' (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 5 episode "Striking Vipers."]
Black Mirror is back for more hi-tech dystopian horror, and the series is kicking things off with an intimate story about marriage and friendship and what happens when virtual reality video games become too real. It's a much more straightforward premise than the elaborate choose-your-own-adventure epic "Bandersnatch," but in many ways, all the better for it.
"Striking Vipers" centers around married couple Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Theo (Nicole Beharie) and Danny's old best friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The three of them used to flatshare together back in their carefree younger days where they would hit up the clubs and then spend all night playing video games and smoking weed. Over a decade later and life has mellowed down, at least for Danny and Theo, who are now married with a kid and living the simple life in white picket fence suburbia; their days of kinky barside role-play replaced with kitchen chores and annual birthday barbecue parties.
Karl, meanwhile, is still chasing the highs of youth. He's made something of himself in the music industry; he has wealth and success and a string of girls on speed-dial. When he turns up to Danny's birthday bash, he brags about sleeping with a 28-year-old backing dancer and unashamedly admits to waxing his ballsack to keep up with the young men in the dating game. However, despite this freedom, and easy access to pretty much whatever he wants, Karl still lacks a certain spark in his life... a deeper connection to something.
Danny and Karl share a lot in common; they've both become bored with their respective lives. At the barbecue, Danny ogles one of his wife's friends and shows small signs of envy when Karl regales him with his various sex escapades. Yet behind the outward facade, Karl is equally dissatisfied with his life, if not more so. No matter how many 20-somethings he has sex with, he's still missing that emotional attachment. He can't even connect with his young date on pop culture as she has to Google his outdated Dennis Rodman reference. Karl has the sexual excitement in his life, which Danny longs for, but without the love and emotional bond, which Danny has with Theo.
There is a loneliness that pervades both men's lives. Karl spends his nights alone in his luxury apartment playing pinball. Danny's house is occupied — and let's get this straight, Theo does nothing wrong, she is a loving wife and mother, affectionate and kind, and yet still, her husband strays — but he stays up late on his own, stacking Tetris bricks. Both men are seeking a thrill, and they find that in Striking Vipers, the Mortal Kombat-style video game which Karl buys Danny for his birthday. It's a virtual reality fighter game where players can immerse themselves in its world and role-play as the characters on screen, feeling every physical sensation, both pain and pleasure.
First of all, anytime Black Mirror deals with video games, you know you're in good hands. Series creator Charlie Brooker is a massive video game nerd and started his media career as a games reviewer for PC Zone magazine in the UK. When the show involves computer games, Brooker's love for the genre and attention to detail shines through. This real-life reimagining of a Mortal Kombat-inspired fighter game is spot on, from the sets and the sound effects to the costumes and the music. All plot details aside, just from an aesthetic point of view, "Striking Vipers" is worthy of praise.
But what about the plot? Well, it's at this point when the episode adds the sci-fi touch to what is a relatively standard domestic drama. Danny and Karl's virtual fight leads to awkward sexual tension when Karl's character Roxette (Pom Klementieff) ends up straddling and then kissing Danny's fighter, Lance (Ludi Lin). The two friends panic and quickly exit the game, but the thrill proves irresistible, and soon Danny & Karl are involved in what is basically a virtual affair, using their on-screen avatars to indulge in sex romps across the game's various exotic locales.
It's an unexpected turn, and at first, it's unclear which direction the story is going to go in. I wondered whether this was going to be about the two men exploring their sexuality. Or, in Karl's case, his gender identity, given that he's role-playing as a female character, and at one point, he even talks about the different sensation of having sex as a woman. However, while those topics come up, it's mostly off-handed or in a joking manner. Ultimately, this is a drama about a 21st-century extramarital affair - it asks us to consider what constitutes cheating in the digital age, in a world where one can be virtually unfaithful, while also touching on issues such as porn addiction.
The game does become an addiction for Danny and Karl and a distraction from their everyday lives. Theo recognizes her husband becoming increasingly distant, and it all comes to a head on the night of their wedding anniversary (which Danny forgets). She calls him out on his behavior, how he shuts her out, how he doesn't even touch her anymore, let alone have sex with her. The thing is, Theo gets it; she understands that family life is boring. She wishes she could hook up with the young guy who flirted with her just so she could experience some passion in her life. But she shut the door on all that when she got married because she made a commitment and that's what you do when you have a family.
Theo is right, of course, and Danny realizes that, as much as he and Karl try convincing themselves that it's not cheating because it's "not real," he knows that's BS. They may be under the skin of different characters, but the feelings and sensations are still real. It's like a spouse or partner with a cybersex obsession — they might not be with someone else physically, but if that person has emotionally checked out of their relationship because of it, then what's the difference? So Danny cuts Karl off; no more late-night virtual rendezvous. And as the months pass by, Danny recommits himself to Theo; they're intimate again; they have another child. Life is back under his control, well, until Theo invites Karl over for a birthday dinner surprise.
While Danny has been living in marital bliss, Karl has been wallowing in his loneliness, still desperately searching for stimulation. He tells Danny that he's spent the past year trying to recreate what they had with Roxette and Lance. He's slept with the computer-controlled characters, but it doesn't feel real. He's slept with other players, but none of them could compare to Danny. "I even slept with Tundra... the polar bear character," Karl says in the funniest line of the episode. And so he tries seducing his best friend into returning to the game for one last time.
Against his better judgment, Danny loads up Striking Vipers for one final Roxette and Lance sexual adventure. But when Karl (as Roxette) tells Danny (as Lance) that he loves him, Danny flips out. He can't continue to do this unless he knows where it's going. And so he tells Karl to meet him at the back of the old nightclub they used to frequent as young men. Karl puts his fists up, expecting a confrontation, but instead, Danny wants them to kiss. He needs to know if there is a genuine romantic-sexual connection between them or if it's just in the game.
The kiss doesn't awaken anything. There is no sexual chemistry between the pair in the real world. Or at least that's what they tell each other. It's interesting because you certainly get the sense that Karl developed an emotional attachment to Danny within the game, whereas Danny was merely in it for the sexual excitement. But I guess that's what both men were looking for, the difference is Danny wants to stop, while Karl is eager to continue meeting up in the game. The argument leads to a real-life fight, and they both end up getting arrested — it's only then when Danny finally comes clean to Theo about what's been going on.
The ending is a little silly, but I guess it sort of works in an episode which is quite ridiculous when you actually break it down. Danny and Theo come to a special arrangement — once a year, on Danny's birthday, they essentially allow each other a one night hall pass. Danny is allowed to play Striking Vipers with Karl while Theo is able to leave her wedding ring at home and pick up a guy from the bar. It's a strange compromise that seems to work and keep everyone happy, though you do have to wonder what kind of emotional effect this will have on Karl in the long-term.
Is "Striking Vipers" the best episode of Black Mirror ever? No. It probably falls somewhere around the middle of the pack. There feels like some wasted potential in terms of avenues the episode could have explored with its premise. But it's an intriguing twist on a domestic drama nonetheless and perhaps a startling view into online infidelity and what extramarital affairs might look like in the near future.
Black Mirror, Season 5, Streaming Now, Netflix