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For the first ten minutes of “Striking Vipers,’ I assumed I knew where this was headed. It all seemed so obvious, didn’t it? Part of the fun of watching a new episode of Black Mirror (or any twisty anthology series) is trying to guess the premise before it arrives. Sometimes it’s clear from the start, but “Vipers” plays its cards close to the vest for a while. Still, there were hints that bordered on ominous. You’ve got two male leads, Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the former settling into a comfortable suburban life, the latter a free-wheeling fun-loving bachelor type. You’ve got the female lead Theo (Nicole Beharie), who used to share an apartment with both guys and is now married to Danny. Karl shows up for Danny’s birthday party and everyone is all smiles, but there are undercurrents. Danny seems a bit jealous of Karl’s playboy lifestyle. Theo seems a little too interested in what Karl’s been up to. And Karl, well, he’s got a special present for Danny—the latest iteration of a fighting video game the two used to play when they were all living together. Only this version works in virtual reality.

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If it were at all possible, I’d love to run a survey of people before and after they got to the episode’s twist, just to see if anyone saw what was coming. I definitely didn’t. While Black Mirror has softened in its later seasons, the show’s reputation for techno-pessimism is well-earned, so I naturally assumed something bad was going to happen. These assumptions appeared to be confirmed when Danny and Karl loaded up a round of Striking Vipers X and Danny discovered that the game simulated actual physical pain when he got hit. Putting aside the fact that this seems ill-advised from a design standpoint, it suggested an obvious direction. Something brutal was going to go down between the former friends. Competition was going to go from sporting to brutal. Maybe Theo would get looped in for the third act.

Then the two video game game characters kissed. And things got interesting.

“Vipers” is a fascinating hour of television, funny and uncomfortable and sexy and heartfelt, and a fair amount of its power comes from going in a direction I never even considered possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if the premise (sexy player avatars fuck instead of fight) started as a joke. It certainly sounds absurd enough, and it’s not hard at all to see this played for laughs. But the episode never goes in that direction, and while there’s humor to be found, it’s never designed to undercut the emotional development of the characters. What makes this so effective is how it takes a ridiculous idea and follows it through to a logical, deeply sympathetic conclusion. There are no cheap shots and no smirks at the camera, and no acknowledgement at any point that any of this might be ridiculous. And while that seriousness might put some viewers off, it’s essential to the episode working at all.

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There is, as always, a fair amount of buy-in required on the part of the viewer. The “science fiction” aspect of Black Mirror has always been a little suspect, and “Vipers” has no interest whatsoever in trying to explain why a fighting game would allow its player controlled characters to have full on intercourse; whether that’s intended as part of the experience (because there would definitely be a market for it) or just an unexpected by-product of the systems is never explained. Nor does it need to be, really. There are inevitable questions about just how “real” this all is, just what’s happening in Danny and Karl’s brains to make any of it viable, but the episode mostly dodges those too. The closest we get is a late episode confrontation where the two men meet in person after a brief estrangement to see if their attraction in virtual space translates into real life. It doesn’t appear to, and the story’s conclusion, which has Danny, Karl, and Theo negotiating an arrangement where everyone gets to have a bit of what they want without imploding all of their lives, is positive without actually committing to anything more definitive.

It’s lovely, really, although it’s certainly possible to criticize the episode for stopping short of actually committing to any specific metaphor. This is a broad parable more than it is an analogy; you can read Karl as a potentially closeted trans woman (his virtual avatar is a female fighter named Roxette, and at one point he talks with Danny about how much more he enjoys experiencing orgasms in a woman’s body), but the text stops short of suggesting he’s going to make any steps towards transitioning or understanding himself better. The story is entirely focused on Karl and Danny’s specific relationship, and how their discovery of this particular sexual experience affects their lives. It’s not really interested in getting into the potential ramifications beyond the immediacy of the affair itself, and how neither men has the language to understand what’s happening to them.

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If that doesn’t work for you, I respect that. To me, it was successful because even if it doesn’t go as deep as it could, it still treats the subject matter with gratifying respect. The protagonists are discovering a new form of sexuality made possible by new technology, and while that sexuality certainly has real-world parallels, there’s also something valid in refusing to let it be pinned to something more readily identifiable. It allows Karl and Danny to struggle with the impossible in a way that I’m sure is familiar to a lot of people, and in letting the impossible stand without trying to pin it down, it arguably expresses something with a larger sense of inclusion and compassion. The moral is ultimately that a meaningful sexual experience can fundamentally change your life, and to ignore that, to deny it or pretend you can go on living in the same way you always have, is to cut off a part of yourself.

That’s beautiful—and if I find myself hesitant to use that word, that’s reflection on my experience with the episode as a whole. I won’t lie: I was deeply uncomfortable after Danny and Karl’s avatars start fucking in virtual space. I didn’t find it offensive or gross, but something about the way the story moved forward seemed so desperately vulnerable (and incredibly easy to screw up) that I could hardly bear to watch it. I’ll be interested to see what people make of it in the weeks ahead; given the internet, I’m sure we’ll get our share of Hot Takes, but I’d love to see what people of different sexual, racial, and gender perspectives than my own cisgendered straight white ass thought. For me, Brooker’s script raises the bar startlingly high and then manages to stick the landing with aplomb. I felt like each of the three main characters was allowed a measure of dignity and compassion they might not have found on other shows, and which I appreciated immensely.

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The performances are solid throughout. Mackie arguably has the least to do; one of the script’s minor flaws is that it never quite gets under the surface of any of the characters, and since Danny is such a cipher, it leaves him mostly reacting in expected ways to uncomfortable situations. Abdul-Mateen II is terrific as Karl, selling the character’s charm and enthusiasm and just absolutely landing the heartbreak when things start to go sour. Beharie is strong as well in a part that could’ve been under-served. Klementieff (who plays Roxette, and is, like Mackie, an Avengers alum) and Ludi Lin are great as Karl and Danny’s in-game characters. And the direction is very sharp. I especially like how often the episode manages to frame Danny and Karl in the real world in what look like traditional fighting game poses; it pays off when they’re estranged, and you see them standing isolated in a tableaux that should’ve had a pair.

So yeah, this is good stuff. It raises interesting questions, and it takes the time to make sure those questions aren’t handled cheaply. Black Mirror has a reputation as a show about the evils of technology, but while that’s never been entirely accurate (I said this in my first real review for the series, but it’s a show that uses tech to exploit pre-existing cracks in human nature, which is sort of what genre fiction is designed for), episodes like this are a reminder of just how generous the series can often be. Whoever would’ve imagined you could find something beautiful in a Street Fighter clone?

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Stray observations

  • Didn’t really talk about the game itself, but that’s okay because I don’t think the episode was that interested in it as anything more than a means to an end. At one point Danny plays Tetris Effect, but I assume that’s more because it’s pretty and easy to understand visually than anything particularly meaningful.
  • Definite Brokeback Mountain vibes here, albeit with a much more upbeat conclusion.
  • Early in the episode, Theo says, “Mental note to self, my baby’s into role play.” Yuuuuup.
  • “I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.” The episode does make it a point to stress that Danny and Karl’s in-game relationship is something that neither of them can replicate with other partners. That fits in with the script being less interested in questions of sexual identity than it is in how this affects this one friendship, but it also works to ensure that they can’t quite let go of one another.

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