“Striking Vipers” posits itself as the signature episode of Black Mirror‘s fifth season, reuniting Charlie Brooker with director Owen Ellis for the third time. Their previous entries, season two’s “Be Right Back” and season three’s “San Junipero,” are often considered pinnacles of the series – and “Striking Vipers” lines up neatly with its spiritual predecessors, offering the prerequisite distinct color palettes and striking lead performances.
“Striking Vipers” takes a bold premise to an unimpressive, meek conclusion, turning a wonderfully nuanced performances from Mackie and Beharie into a rather hollow thought exercise.
However, unlike the first two entries in Black Mirror‘s Cyber Love Trilogy, “Striking Vipers” feels strangely disengaged from the many questions it posits about queer identity, love in virtual spaces, and masculinity, slowly devolving into superficial observations about sexuality, happiness, and male friendship, withering away the massive potential of the first act as it limps to its conclusion.
Like many mediocre Black Mirror episodes, “Striking Vipers” is too enamored with the complexity of its own premise: Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star as Danny and Karl, who are the embodiment of traditional masculinity in the opening moments. They go to the club, they fuck hot women, and they talk shit and slap fight each other while playing video games; look no further than Karl air humping Danny after beating him at a fighting game for the show’s subtle exploration of the undercurrents of male companionship.
Quickly, “Striking Vipers” cuts to 11 years in the future, observing Domesticated Danny and Karl the Aging Bachelor as they reunite at Danny’s birthday party. Again, “Striking Vipers” doesn’t aim to be subtle with their friendship: their conversations range from looking at Instagram photos of Karl’s girlfriend (Danny shies away from those, since him and his married wife are having sex on a fertility schedule) to talking about getting their ball sacks waxed – this is all we get of Danny and Karl’s relationship before “Striking Vipers” launches into the core of its story, which immediately undercuts the signature twist of the episode.
Karl’s birthday gift for Danny is a VR headset that connects to the neural network; in it, the two of them are set to play Striking Vipers X, the latest version of the fighting game they air humped to so many years ago. After Karl demonstrates how the VR set “recreates all the physical sensations” of humans, the two immediately begin making out, which opens the door on any number of wildly engaging ideas about gender, sexuality, and identity – but then refuses to engage with them on any kind of deep level.
For about forty minutes of its run time, “Striking Vipers” is fascinating in how it contrasts the lives of Karl and Danny, with their experiences in the game world, the contrast in color schemes between the two locations denoting just how much dangerous potential lies in the world of virtual reality, designed from the ground up to be a more enhanced, hyper real version of reality itself. Black Mirror often views technology like a cyber psychedelic of sorts – mind opening, transcendent, and utterly dangerous – and that comes through in the visuals of “Striking Vipers,” the only facet of the hour that’s able to mirror any of the other episodes its attempting to emulate.
The biggest issue with “Striking Vipers” is it never tries to move beyond the most basic question it posits, which is essentially “are two dudes fucking in VR gay?” There are moments that offer a much more tantalizing, textured exploration of sexuality in virtual spaces; after Danny cuts off their nightly fuck sessions, Karl desperately pleads with him, talking about how he’s tried to find the same passion they felt in any number of different virtual settings. But “Striking Vipers” ultimately is too afraid to engage with these topics on a deeper level; as it laboriously crawls towards its uninspired conclusion, “Striking Vipers” feels increasingly unequipped to engage with the ideas it raises.
Instead, it hyper focuses its attention on the emotional fallout of their hot online sex; they become withdrawn from the women in their lives, the world around them growing grayer and more nondescript as they silently try to figure out what made all the cyber cumming so great. The scene where Karl, as his in-game avatar Roxy, tells Danny about the physical sensation of experiencing sex as a woman, is the clearest moment of “Striking Vipers” edging (pun very much intended) towards much more interesting conversations: his eyes light up trying to find words to convey the description, settling on a laughable trite simile about guitars and orchestra solos before inelegantly exiting the scene.
“Striking Vipers” thinks it is quite, well, striking: but a sanitized conclusion renders much of what came before it pointless. After Danny and Karl meet in person to kiss (they end up fighting, after small hints Danny enjoyed the moment more than Karl, the one who desperately clings to their online relationship), “Striking Vipers” immediately jumps seven months forward, past any meaningful conflict for a disturbingly thin conclusion. In it, everybody gets the momentary satisfaction they want: Danny and Karl have sex online once a year, and Danny’s wife Theo (Nicole Beharie, who I wish was given more breadth to work here) gets to go pick up a stranger, so she knows girl still got it.
“Striking Vipers,” in its attempt to recapture the pure bliss of “San Junipero” and its darkly satisfying ending, completely undercuts what makes the show’s signature episode so strong. Where “San Junipero” confronted regressive views on sexuality and love, “Striking Vipers” is content to compromise, the role of technology only serving to further compartmentalize the emotions of its characters. Without insight into how this resolution was reached, “Striking Vipers” simply exits the many conversations it seems willing to engage with: “Striking Vipers” neither shows nor tells, and simply asks the audience to accept the way things are; that dudes just want bangable versions of their best friends, and once women serve their biological role, they’re free to seek the validation they inherently now seek?
It’s such a strange ending, and not in the fucked up, illuminating way the best Black Mirror endings are; it simply just is, refusing to ever engage with any of the complicated ideas it engages with, about marriage, affairs, sexuality… just about everything is washed away once the episode’s climatic, real-life kiss (and proceeding fist fight) takes place, rendering the entire endeavor inert. A misguided attempt to engage with the presumptive pillars of masculinity, marriage, and happiness, “Striking Vipers” takes a bold premise to an unimpressive, meek conclusion, turning a wonderfully nuanced performances from Mackie and Beharie (when she’s given room to express it, at least) into a rather hollow thought exercise.
- Black Mirror‘s observation that the future of video games is just everyone fucking in VR might be one of its strongest ever, and I wish the episode explored this idea on a broader scale. It would have alleviated some of the pressure to make this piece say something about its characters, which it deeply struggles to do in the third act.
- Pom Klementieff (Guardian of the Galaxy) and Ludi Lin (Power Rangers) star as the in-game avatars, and they’re both terrific.