This story contains spoilers for the episode “Striking Vipers” of Black Mirror’s fifth season. Read the rest of our show coverage here.
Romance is an underrated element of the Black Mirror multiverse. The way technology intersects with dating and love is at the center of some of my favorite episodes of the show, including Season 2’s “Be Right Back,” Season 3’s “San Junipero,” and Season 4’s “Hang the DJ.” Compared with its predecessors, Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” is a nervier, less swooning chapter, with neither the tragic tinge of the former two nor the rebellious fun of the latter. It’s a story of sublimated emotions that spill out in the strangest possible context, and a rather intriguing consideration of how online worlds can change people’s self-image, for better and for worse.
“Striking Vipers” was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Owen Harris (who also made “Be Right Back” and “San Junipero”). At 61 minutes, it’s the shortest of Black Mirror’s offerings this year, and it’s easily the least action-packed of Season 5’s three episodes, even though it revolves around a high-tech fighting game. The very, very slow-burning plot intentionally withholds answers for most of the questions it poses about how sexuality on the internet is continuing to evolve. Still, I came to appreciate the episode’s weird, uncomfortable intimacy.
“Striking Vipers” centers on Danny (played by Anthony Mackie), who first appears as a confident 20-something man hitting on Theo (Nicole Beharie) in a club. At first, Danny acts like he’s never met Theo before and has somehow psychically guessed her drink order. But quickly, it’s revealed that they’re already dating and just pretending to be strangers to spice things up. This innocuous moment sets the stage for Danny’s overall characterization—he’s someone who feels awkward as himself. Soon afterward, viewers are introduced to Danny’s roommate, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a confident, hard-partying loudmouth who seems exceptionally secure in his identity. They bond over a Street Fighter–style video game called Striking Vipers, in which they each have a favorite character: Karl always plays as Roxette, and Danny chooses Lance.
The action then cuts ahead. Eleven years later, Danny and Theo have settled down into a relaxed suburban life. Karl reappears, gives Danny a gift of a new virtual-reality console, and the two do battle as Roxette and Lance again. This time, though, they’re rendered in far greater detail. The futuristic reimagining of the Striking Vipers game is the episode’s biggest technical achievement, a Scott Pilgrim–esque blend of cartoonish physics and reality. Roxette’s cyberavatar, a peroxide-blond ninja, is played by Pom Klementieff; Lance is an athletic karate expert played by Ludi Lin. The episode initially blends these actors’ voices with Abdul-Mateen’s and Mackie’s, to give viewers a sense of who’s playing as who while also underlining the extent to which the characters are bleeding into their online personas.
I just loved the way these scenes were shot. The virtual showdowns take place in a lavish 3-D arena with cherry blossoms, a Japanese garden, and a giant dragon statue in the background, poking fun at the lazily stereotypical designs of martial-arts games like Street Fighter. At first, Danny and Karl can only move horizontally right and left on a two-dimensional axis, mimicking the visual approach of old-fashioned arcade cabinets. But as they realize the extent to which they can control their characters, they start having sex with each other, and their gaming sessions evolve into a full-on cyberaffair that quickly drives an emotional wedge between Theo and Danny.
As a simmering tale of a destructive romance and early mid-life crisis, “Striking Vipers” is pretty well done. An online relationship between Danny and Karl could have played out in any number of technological mediums—message boards, online chat rooms, videoconferencing. But the video-game setting adds another layer of complexity: Brooker is wrestling specifically with how the characters’ personalities merge with and diverge from their cartoonish gaming personas. The dynamic between their avatars doesn’t “feel like a gay thing,” Danny/Lance says offhandedly at one point. And while it initially seems as if he’s repressing his true feelings for Karl, the two men don’t experience the same attraction when they attempt intimacy in real life. To Danny, that means whatever’s driving their affair can be brushed aside simply by turning the game off. Karl, however, argues that what’s drawing them together is unusual, but meaningful, and shouldn’t be ignored.
Eventually, the two try to split the difference. Though the episode ends with Danny returning to his suburban life and Karl moving to a new apartment in the city, the pair still have an arrangement to meet online every once in a while. Theo also goes back out on the town to have unspecified adventures of her own, aware of her husband’s cyberproclivities. It’s an odd, slightly melancholy conclusion to Black Mirror’s most inscrutable romance to date, one with a thoughtfully ambiguous outlook on how love and relationships can take on new dimensions in the online world.