Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the Black Mirror season 5 episode “Striking Vipers.”
Two men enter a videogame’s combat arena. But what happens next isn’t what you expect. In Netflix’s Black Mirror season 5 episode “Striking Vipers,” two estranged college friends (played by Avengers franchise actor Anthony Mackie and Aquaman’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — one now married, one single — become lovers while inhabiting avatars in a world of a wholly immersive Tekken-like videogame.
Below, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones answer some burning questions about the provocative episode in one entry in our three-part season 5 interview (also read our chats about “Smithereens” and “Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too”).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, Charlie, how proud were you when you wrote the line “I f—ed a polar bear and I still can’t get you out of my mind.”
CHARLIE BROOKER: At one point I was considering removing it!
ANNABEL JONES: No. No, it’s a great line.
BROOKER: In a way, it’s the best declaration of undying love. And it manages to top “The National Anthem,” where we had the prime minister with a pig. This is Yahya with a polar bear.… Sometimes a criticism we get — and I think sometimes it’s a fair criticism — is that the show takes itself too seriously. “Striking Vipers” is a poignant and bittersweet relationship drama, but there’s inherent humor to what’s going on there. It’s an awkward situation they’re in, and a fantastical one. So that line was kind of irresistible.
JONES: It’s a flashback as well to the camaraderie of these two guys. They have such an easy, fun relationship that’s spun out of control due to what the VR world gives them. They’re able to take it into something else.
So what was the inspiration for this tale? Were you playing Street Fighter and went, “You know, that ninja is actually pretty cute?”
BROOKER: You’re nearly right. Those games are incredibly hypersexualized. When you actually compare the actual physical characteristics of characters in those games to actual human beings, they’re insane. They’re like a sexualized Hulk. Once again, it came out of two thoughts. The first was, we wanted to do a story where two people went into a virtual environment and had a romance but didn’t know who the other one was. And then I remembered years ago in the ’90s I used to play Tekken on the PlayStation a lot. And my flatmates and I would play it all hours of the day and night. And I remember thinking the people below and above our flat must have thought we were operating some sort of S&M dungeon because of the constant noise of men [making shouting, grunting noises]. And I thought there is something homoerotic about this arena in which you’re physically grappling with your friends on the screen. There’s something weirdly primal about it.
Annabel talked in our previous interview that you were really happy with the two leads for taking on these roles. How did they respond when you pitched them?
JONES: Anthony is such a great actor, and because he’s such a physical guy he often gets puts into roles playing, like, a solider. He found it interesting to remove himself from that and play an older guy who didn’t have the same virility and physicality of his youth, but also going into a VR world where there’s such sexual fluidity and there are question marks over the gender. Is he having a relationship with a woman when ultimately the person is his friend and a man? So Anthony has a great sense of humor and was fascinated by it. He immediately took it based on the script.
And Yahya similarly. I think he plays very subtly. It’s brave for an actor when the state of their sexuality is undefined. What is their relationship? They’re not having a homosexual relationship — or are they? There’s such a heady mix of things going on there. There’s the camaraderie, the friendship and the longing for youthfulness, and also the sexuality. It’s all about fantasy fulfillment with your best friend. And one of the themes of the film is asking: When does porn become so sophisticated that it’s actually cheating and not just distraction? Both gave this a real delicacy that other actors might have struggled with.
At one point I thought: Why would anybody use an environment where you could do all this for fighting somebody, as the screen keeps urging the men to do? And then I thought: Wait, is that what you’re saying about life as well?
BROOKER: Well I’ll tell you what: The designers of that game really included some attributes they didn’t need to.
I sort of felt like the ending is meant to be a happy one, but their annual polyamory band-aid solution seems like one that might not work long term. Ultimately, is this marriage really a satisfying one?
BROOKER: I think it’s a pragmatically romantic ending. Once a year he gets a free pass to go into the game and she gets to indulge her fantasy — and hers arguably places more jeopardy on the relationship since it’s in the real world, or we assume it is. There’s a lot of trust there. They’re allowing themselves one day to indulge their selfish fantasies in exchange for 364 other days of union and fidelity and fatefulness and they’re raising a family. There’s a theme throughout where he’s not communicating directly with his wife and not sharing with her, and that’s perhaps why this whole situation has come about. So by the end, their relationship is a lot healthier because they’re discussing their wants and needs. It works for them in the time we see it because there’s an equality to it. That’s obviously not a one-size-fits-all solution. What if she falls in love with the guy she meets in the bar? And Yahya’s character’s existence is fairly lonely; he’s clearly waiting for this one day a year. So he’s sort of in limbo too.
UPDATE: All 23 Black Mirror episodes ranked (including season 5)
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- 11 Easter eggs in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch you may have missed