Charlie Brooker was quite right when he said that now really isn’t the time for new episodes of Black Mirror. But the fact that so many of us are self-isolating at home in the midst of a pandemic that’s made it so we can’t physically touch one another makes now a particularly excellent time to go back and (re)watch “Striking Vipers,” the first episode in Black Mirror’s fifth series.
Like all of Black Mirror’s more directly carnal episodes, “Striking Vipers” uses the concept of near-future tech in order to explore the aspects of humanity that make us so desperately cling to our various devices. Danny Parker’s (Anthony Mackie) estranged friend Karl Houghton (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) suddenly turns up at a barbecue after 11 years of the pair not really speaking. The two briefly reconnect before Karl gives Danny a copy of Striking Vipers X, the latest instalment in a long-running fighting game franchise that they used to play together when they were younger.
Unlike the original Striking Vipers Danny and Karl enjoyed, Striking Vipers X either pulls players’ consciousnesses into the game or projects it into their minds via a pair of neural nodes worn on the sides of their head. The key thing to understand is that when Danny and Karl play the game, it’s a deeply immersive experience. The tech allows them to feel every single punch, kick, or special move they inflict on one another while “wearing” the full-body likeness of their chosen fighters.
The Black Mirror “twist” has less to do with Karl and Danny’s virtual gaming experience itself and more to do with how they use their time in Striking Vipers X to act on sexual desires that neither of them felt comfortable indulging in before in meatspace. In the midst of their first Striking Vipers X fight, Danny and Karl – still buzzed from physical feedback they’re experiencing – end up kissing, and both men are quick to exit the game for somewhat different reasons.
Part of what makes the kiss such an unexpected shock for Danny, in particular, is that in addition to his presumably believing Karl to be straight, Karl’s fighter of choice is Roxette, a female fighter portrayed by Pom Klementieff. On some level, what Danny’s dealing with is the sort of mindfuck that comes along with learning that his once best friend has been essentially roleplaying as a female character with the intention of becoming sexually involved with him (as a male fighter named Lance played by Ludi Lin) in the game. The entire situation is made that much more complicated by the reality that, despite initially running away from each other, both of them liked what happened, and it isn’t long before Danny’s sneaking away from and neglecting his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) to log back on with Karl in order for the two of them to take things to the next level.
Just so we’re on the same page, the next level is passionate sex.
Though the two of them never quite get around to expressing what it is that continuously pulls them together, though the episode makes it obvious that Karl and Danny want one another in a profound way. To put it more clearly: they’re horny as hell and find one another so sexually appealing that they’re willing to commit hours to a so-so fighting game that allows them to not quite physically touch, something that’s being mirrored in our current reality in a sense.
Much as teleconferencing companies may not want to admit it, one of the tech’s big appeals during the novel coronavirus pandemic is that it helps people engage with one another while having their bits out. Sexual appetites aren’t something to be ashamed of, but “Striking Vipers” is quite clear in the way that it makes the two men at the story’s centre out to be people who are simply being people. Danny and Karl’s story is not wholly dissimilar from the situation that a lot of people have currently found themselves in. Everyone (or at least, those of us who are sexually driven) is suddenly stuck at home unable to physically interact with people that we like.
Much has been said about “Striking Vipers” having a “sad” ending because Karl and Danny don’t really end up being with one another. Instead, Danny and his wife make an agreement that while they’re still together, he’s allowed one day in which he can jump back into the game and do whatever it is that he wants to do with Karl-as-Roxette. Theo, Danny, and Karl’s (by extension) agreement is one that’s borne out of an understanding that each one of them has emotional and physical needs that they provide one another with in different situations. The tragic element of their arrangement only exists if one sees a sustained compromise as a failure.
What Danny, Karl, and Theo have is the sort of deal that we would all be so lucky to have in the times of quarantining. We’re horny and frustrated, and a game that could let us work those feelings out would be a gift whose impact could not be quantified. Sure, we’re still more than a bit far out from video games being able to create the kind of sensory experience that “Striking Vipers” presents, but the episode does lead with an important message that should be taken to heart in these trying-ass times. The urges people feel, both real and necessary, are elements of humanity’s existence and they shouldn’t be ignored just because we’re all stuck inside for the most part. Hooking up physically would be irresponsible right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t call up that Special Someone, whip your junk out, and have a good fuckin’ time.