Welcome to Black Mirror Friday: Black Mirror Striking Vipers Review! You can listen to our podcast by clicking the podcast player at the top of this post, or you can read on for our detailed analysis and show notes.
Season 5 of Black Mirror has arrived with less than stellar response from critics. Let’s dive in and see what Shannon and Fadra thought of the first episode, “Striking Vipers.”
Netflix dropped the three-episode season on June 5th. We try to stay away from reviews before we watch, but we did read a spoiler-free review that stated all three episodes “commendably keep technology on the fringes of their stories.” We’re not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The review goes on to say “Black Mirror Season 5 understands the show is at its best not when highlighting new technology, but when exploring how technology affects the human experience and the ways in which the addictive nature of certain tech could ultimately tear us apart.”
Fadra believes that is the heart of Black Mirror and has been for years, but Shannon is craving a little more futuristic technology.
Will “Striking Vipers” be the Best of Black Mirror Season 5?
Now that we’ve seen the first episode and read a couple reviews, some say “Striking Vipers” is the best of the three. That’s worrisome, since Shannon and Fadra didn’t love this episode. And many reviewers didn’t like any of the Season 5 episodes.
The other thing to remember is that these episodes often take a second watching and some time to sink in. Black Mirror really is a thinking show. When Fadra watched season four, she didn’t love any of the episodes. Now, there are some that she absolutely loves.
Synopsis and Overall Thoughts on Striking Vipers (4:30)
Synopsis: Two estranged college friends reunite in later life, triggering a series of events that could alter their lives forever.
In Black Mirror Striking Vipers, friends Danny and Karl have drifted apart, but reconnect at Danny’s 38th birthday party. Karl gives Danny the gift of a virtual reality video game and the two meet up later that evening to play.
But the Street Fighter-esque game quickly turns into repeated sexual encounters between Danny and Karl’s in-game characters.
What did we think of this episode?
Fadra: “By the time I got to the end, here was my feeling: Well, that was weird.”
Shannon: “My overall reaction was just very disappointed. My husband and I thought it kind of sucked.”
But it definitely gave us some food for thought, right?
Who Are the Actors in Black Mirror Striking Vipers? (6:50)
Danny: Anthony Mackie who plays Falcon in the Avengers series and will be in Season 2 of Altered Carbon as Takeshi Kovacs.
Karl: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, also plays Black Manta in Aquaman.
Theo: Nicole Beharie who plays Abby in the TV series Sleepy Hollow
Roxette: Pom Klementieff was also Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Lance: Ludi Lin, also Captain Murk in Aquaman, the black Power Ranger.
Striking Vipers Review (11:30)
The story moves pretty slowly in the beginning. Karl comes to Danny’s birthday party and gives him the Striking Vipers game as a gift, along with a virtual reality add-on. Danny seems pretty miserable in his suburban life. Karl also seems dissatisfied with the dating scene.
Note: The setting was not in any way futuristic, as we’ve come to expect from Black Mirror. It seemed like a current time period, except for the advances in virtual reality gaming.
Later that night, they both get into the game. Karl chooses a female character, Roxette (Roxy). Danny chooses a male character, Lance. Again, the scene moves slowly as Danny learns how to function in the game and they start to fight. Then, pretty quickly, Roxy/Karl kisses Danny/Lance in virtual reality.
OK, things just got interesting.
Danny freaks a bit and they both quickly exit the game. The next night, they play again. They start off by saying they were both drunk last night and now they can just have a good game. But almost immediately they start making out and having sex.
The first act of Striking Vipers was just odd. They spent a lot of time setting up the background and current situation of Danny and Karl, but not much time digging into their personal feelings. They did a good job of showing that Danny has this nice settled life, but he feels unsatisfied, maybe bored. He’s missing something. And Karl has the excitement that Danny probably thinks he’s missing, but it feels empty for him. We know how they feel about their current lot in life, but what about their relationship? How close had they been in the past? Did either ever have gay tendencies?
So that brings us to one of the primary themes of this episode. Is this about sex, or is this about a relationship when they go into the game? Is it about them being dissatisfied in real life, or is it about their relationship? Probably a bit of both.
The next question they explore is, “Am I gay?” Danny says, “This doesn’t feel like a gay thing.”
From Danny’s perspective, are you gay if you’re attracted to someone you know is a man, but looks like a woman? From Carl’s perspective, he’s having a woman’s sensations. He talks about how being a man is like playing an instrument, but being a woman is like the whole orchestra. He feels more alive in this game as a woman that he ever did in his whole life as a man. Was that the appeal for Karl? We never really get the answer, and maybe the characters never do either.
Striking Vipers is About Sexual Fluidity (20:15)
Why doesn’t Danny ever want to try being the woman?
Karl is a man with a woman’s body, having sex with a man. Is that gay sex?
Does it really matter at all?
Maybe not. While it’s easy to get hung up on the details, what this story really comes down to is sexual fluidity. Man, woman, gay, trans. It doesn’t matter one bit. Striking Vipers is telling us that everyone should be able to experience sexuality in any way that works for them.
But eventually, their virtual relationship affects their real world. Danny is more and more emotionally and romantically removed from his wife. Karl can’t find the same satisfaction in any real-world relationship.
Theo confronts Danny during their anniversary dinner and he denies any cheating. She tells him they’re in a partnership, a commitment. And other things might seem more exciting – she even says part of her wanted to go with the guy at the bar that was hitting on her, just so she could feel some passion – but it’s not just about satisfying your desires in whatever way, shape or form they come. It’s about Danny wanting to honor his commitment, even though he has other feelings.
Danny later tells Karl it’s over.
The story then jumps ahead 7 months. Theo is pregnant. It’s Danny’s birthday again and Theo invites Karl over for dinner. Danny is freaked out, but handles it. While Theo’s in the other room, Karl explains to Danny how he’s tried everything in the game – sex with the computer characters, sex with other players, even sex with animals.
“I fucked a polar bear!” One of our favorite lines.
Is It Really an Affair if it’s Virtual? (25:00)
This brings us to the next big question of the episode: Is it really an affair if it’s virtual?
Shannon’s take is that you’re not actually doing anything. It’s like porn. It’s like having a fantasy. It’s not an affair. But if it’s something that’s affecting your psyche enough that you don’t want to be with the person you’re in a committed relationship with, then that’s a problem. It’s wrong, but it’s not officially categorized as infidelity.
Fadra feels that it is cheating. If it were some computer-generated character, then it would be more like “interactive pornography.” It changes the dynamic when it’s a real person on the other end.
Is It an “Us” Thing? (28:45)
Danny meets Karl “one last time” in the Striking Vipers game. Then he tells him to meet him in real life. Danny wants to find out if it’s an “us” thing or just the game. So they kiss. This is a good scene in its awkwardness.
Karl declares he felt nothing, and Danny agrees, but we see a slight hesitation in his eyes. Maybe there was something there for Danny?
Danny tells Karl he needs to forget about the sex that’s “burned into his brain” and they end up fist-fighting in the street. The police show up and next we see Theo picking up Danny at the station.
(Shannon would have liked the fight scene to turn sexual – that might have made a better ending.)
Driving home, Theo insists Danny tell her what’s going on. He opens his mouth to tell her, and the camera cuts away. Shannon was wanting to see the emotion of that scene, but Fadra didn’t want to see the awkwardness of it.
Perhaps the reason we didn’t see the discussion is because the writers didn’t want to put that in our heads. They didn’t want Danny to put the label on it because Charlie Brooker wanted us to play it out in our own minds.
Next we see another birthday celebration for Danny. They have two kids now, and still the same suburban life. At the end of the party, Theo and Danny exchange boxes.
We first thought the boxes were both the virtual reality nodes, and that Theo might be playing the game with Danny. But then we see Theo taking off her wedding ring and going out to a bar while Danny meets Karl in-game. So in the end, they decide to stay in their settled life, but allow each other a once-a-year (or who knows, maybe more?) fling.
Shannon hated this ending, especially the fact that Theo is going out in real life to have an affair. But we see that each character is somewhat satisfied with the arrangement. Karl counts the days on his calendar, while spending his real-world time with his cat. Danny and Theo have their normal, though probably not too exciting, life and look forward to their yearly transgressions.
Does “Striking Vipers” remind you of another Black Mirror episode, “San Junipero?” The two are similar, though “Striking Vipers” lacks the relationship development and emotion of “San Junipero.”
A Look in the Mirror (40:15)
How far off is this technology? There are tons of companies working on virtual reality. Major players currently include HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. In terms of sight and sound, virtual reality is already available and in use in video games (Shannon has tried it!).
Touch VR is also becoming more widely available. French company Go Touch VR created a device called VRtouch that straps onto the fingertips. The device applies varying pressure to the fingertips that correlates to what the user is seeing, touching and lifting in the virtual world. There is also Sense Glove, which does the same.
The touch VR companies are marketing mainly to business right now. It’s being used in aviation, medicine/surgical, assembly-lines and the military for training purposes where live training with expensive equipment, dangerous situations, or sensitive technology would be costly. It’s also being used in real estate to allow consumers to “feel” elements in a prospective property.
The world of Black Mirror‘s Striking Vipers and Ready Player One can’t be far off.
We’re rating every episode to help you decide which are must-sees, good to watch, or could be skipped.
Shannon: Could skip it
Fadra: Could skip it
We’d love to hear your feedback on any Black Mirror episode! Chat with us online @StingerPodcast everywhere.