By Christian Holub
June 05, 2019 at 01:26 PM EDT
Pedro Saad/Netflix
S5 E1
B+
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The new season of Black Mirror certainly starts off with a bang. Quite a few of them, actually.

“Striking Vipers” is not the show’s first video game-centric episode. In fact, it quite explicitly builds on its predecessors, using a VR technology that works very similar to the one in “U.S.S. Callister”: You plug a little headset into your temple, your eyes go white as you enter the game with a virtual avatar, and you can exit any time by saying “exit game.” And like Jesse Plemons in “U.S.S. Callister,” the main characters of “Striking Vipers” are drawn to their game because it provides things they can’t quite find in real life.

First though, the episode opens in the past. We see a young Danny (Anthony Mackie) pick up a girl at a bar, and then play a few rounds of the fighting game Striking Vipers with his roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Flash forward 11 years, and now Danny is celebrating his 38th birthday alongside his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and their young son. They’re having a bunch of people over to the house for the backyard birthday party, and soon even Karl shows up even though he and Danny haven’t seen each other much in recent years. He brought a gift: Striking Vipers X, the latest installment of the fighting game they used to play together. But this one is different from their old console game: It requires the aforementioned VR headset, which Karl helpfully bought for his friend as well.    

Netflix

Later that night, after everyone’s gone home, Danny boots up the game for the first time and connects with Karl, who’s also online. They each pick a character: Danny becomes the muscular Lance (Ludi Lin), while Karl chooses the female fighter Roxette (Pom Klementieff). At a glance, I’d say these character designs are an homage to classic fighting games like Street Fighter. Lance’s martial-outs outfit strongly resembles the one worn by Ryu in that franchise, while Roxette delivers speedy kicks like Chun-Li. Their first fight makes for a fun sequence, even if Danny’s years away from the game means that Lance mostly just stands there while Roxette rains down blows. There are some fun combos, and it’s also nice to see Klementieff perform without her Guardians of the Galaxy Mantis make-up.

But then, something unexpected happens. After a tussle, Lance ends up on the ground with Roxette kneeling on top of him. Overflowing with physical excitement from the fight, Roxette and Lance suddenly start making out…at least until Danny catches himself and quickly exits the game. As Karl explained beforehand, the VR version of Striking Vipers allows players to feel every physical sensation their avatars experience. So Danny felt every single punch Lance took from Roxette, and also apparently felt their passionate kiss. But was he really making out with Karl, or just a female cartoon?

Either way, it’s not a one-time thing. Danny and Karl try to downplay what happened by saying they were drunk, and their next game starts with Roxette declaring, “I’m gonna kick your ass, motherf—er” Nevertheless, they soon end up kissing again. These sessions become regular, and soon move beyond kissing. One night, when Theo’s out drinking with friends, we see Lance and Roxi putting their clothes back on after virtual sex. Danny is only pulled out of the game by his young son, who’s up past his bedtime and declares “I’m thirsty.” You’re not the only one, kid!

The central conceit of this episode seems like a riff on two basic ideas about video gaming. One is the act of playing as a character with a different gender/sexuality than you, as Karl does with Roxette. Does that change you as a person in some way. The answer for Karl is “not really,” but it does open him up to new experiences. He remains a high-flying bachelor, but freely admits that having sex as Roxi (with his best friend on the other end) is the most transcendent sex he’s ever had. The other central idea here is that we have fighting games, so why not sex games? Violence and sex are, after all, the two primal ways of resolving conflict between humans. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been revisiting Alan Moore’s legendary superhero comic Miracleman lately, in the wake of both Shazam! and Brightburn, but this episode reminds me of a sequence towards the end of that series when Miracleman and Miraclewoman learn that their superpowers are derived from an alien race that happens to be locked in cosmic cold-war stalemate with another highly advanced alien race. Miraclewoman’s solution: “Excuse me, but couldn’t you have sex instead?” The two alien cultures begin to bond as a result, and find a new solution to their long-running war. I love that this episode is basically what would happen if you posed that same question to Ryu and Chun-Li.         

As you might expect, Karl and Danny start getting bored with their real lives. Karl’s eyes start glazing over on dates, while Danny loses all inclination to have sex with his wife. The latter becomes a big deal, because before Striking Vipers X entered the picture, Theo was trying to get pregnant again. As she finally tells her husband through frustrated tears at their wedding anniversary dinner, “I won’t get pregnant if you don’t f— me, Danny.” She complains that he doesn’t even touch her in small ways anymore, and demands to know what’s going on. Danny doesn’t tell her the truth, but he does realize that things have to change. He tells Karl their VR trysts have to stop. Karl tries to negotiate for a once-a-month thing, but Danny wants a clean break.

We pick up seven months later, when Theo is clearly pregnant again. Danny hasn’t talked to Karl in months, but then Theo surprises him by inviting his friend to this year’s more mellow birthday party, since she remembered Danny talking last year about how little he says Karl. When she leaves the dining room to get dessert, Danny confronts Karl: What are you doing here? Karl says he’s tried everything (sex with other Striking Vipers players, sex with computer-controlled characters, even sex with the polar bear character Tundra) but none of them match his Roxette-Lance sex with Danny. Karl begs to do it one more time, and Danny eventually agrees.   

The sex is hot, so Danny decides they need to resolve the underlying tension. He tells Karl to meet him at an old hang-out spot, and then demands they kiss. They have to know if the video game sex is good because of a real-life attraction between them, or because of the magic of technology. It turns out to be more of the latter, because Karl and Danny don’t feel much from their in-person kiss. In fact, they soon come to blows, and get picked up by police. When they tried to fight in the video game they ended up having sex instead, and when they tried to have sex in real life they ended up fighting instead.

When Theo picks up Danny from the police station, he finally tells her the truth, although we don’t see that conversation. Instead, we see the compromise. Once a year, on his birthday, Danny gets to connect with Karl for a Striking Vipers hook-up session, while Theo takes that night to leave her wedding ring at home and enjoy an affair of her own. Everybody wins! Nobody ends up trapped in the game like “U.S.S. Callister,” nor do they brutally cut the VR device out of their own head like the poor sucker in “The Entire History of You.” The relatively happy ending is an interesting break from Black Mirror’s typical template. If we work at it, maybe we can learn to live with technology!

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