Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
Season 5, Episode 1: “Striking Vipers”
Directed by Owen Harris
Written by Charlie Brooker
* For more Black Mirror recaps & reviews, click here.
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Smithereens” – click here
Out on the town at night, Danny (Anthony Mackie) hits a club. He’s at the bar waiting for a drink when he chats up a woman, Theo (Nicole Beharie). He uses “corny” lines that don’t impress her, but she takes a drink. He’s a little presumptuous about what she might like, otherwise it’s fine.
Because it’s all “role play.” They’re a couple. They meet up with their roommate, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and his lady Daisy. They’re all having a great time. Later, Danny and Theo have sex at home. A fine night, all around.
Danny gets up afterwards for pizza, winding up playing video games all night and into the morning with Karl, in spite of having to go to work. They wake Theo up, and she’s not overly happy. Things are okay. She takes a joint with her back to bed.
11 years later we find Danny on his 38th birthday, flipping burgers and cooking dogs on the BBQ. A vastly different life than the one in that apartment. He’s awkwardly introduced to another dude and they try to carry on a chat that’s just not interesting.
Theo’s in the kitchen cooking. She hears a knock at the door— it’s Karl. They haven’t seen each other in a year. He catches up with Danny outside while the birthday boy’s staring down a female friend’s ass crack. Karl brought a gift: Striking Vipers X, the Immersive VR Edition, along with “one of those VR add–ons.” A return to the good old days.
After the party, the married couple chat about Karl a bit. Theo thinks the buddies should hang together more. Danny sees them as living different lives now. Probably more so he feels weird around Karl, because he feels settled down, whereas he sees his friend living a more free existence. Yet Karl doesn’t love his life totally. Sure, he has money, he’s got a cute new, younger girlfriend (Fola Evans-Akingbola), but it’s a little empty, and the slight divide between generations means she’d rather flip out her phone post-sex than talk.
Danny and Karl end up at their respective TVs that night to play Striking Vipers. They get the VR stuff setup. Small nodes goe on the temple, taking both players into a virtual realm where they melt into the skin of their character. Again, Danny chooses trusty Lance (Ludi Lin), and Karl chooses Roxette (Pom Klementieff). Danny’s amazed at how real everything feels and looks and sounds. The cinematography makes it seem exactly like a video game, too— all “physical sensations” they feel with each punch and kick plays like the movement of a game. The viewer’s alongside them in a Mortal Kombat-style fight. Poor Danny / Lance gets his ass kicked for the most part.
They wind up in a sexual position. They kiss, both get freaked out by the experience.
When Danny goes to bed he’s aroused, leading to sex with his wife. Something’s stirred in the two men. A virtual encounter suddenly has them questioning themselves. They try to ignore it, but they’re back playing Striking Vipers soon. They pass it off as being “drunk from the party.” They’re going to have a “serious game” this time. It’s barely seconds before they’re in each other’s arms.
Danny’s woken out of the game— where he and Karl try to deny it’s a “gay thing” between them— by his son kicking him in the shin. Late in the night, Theo gets home drunk, barely able to get in bed clothed before passing out, and her husband stays quiet, wrestling with all those new, strange feelings.
The next time Danny and Karl play Striking Vipers, it’s more of the same. Things get more passionate. Out in the real world, the two best friends can’t stop thinking of it. Not when they’re alone, not when they’re with their significant others. And what they may have never entertained before has so quickly become a palpable, inescapable feeling that they indulge in every chance they get, every evening when they have time.
Danny forgets his wedding anniversary, pissing Theo off. Still, they meet at a nice restaurant, where she’s hit on before he arrives. “Sometimes you just sort of go away,” she tells him. And she’s right. He’s mentally not there with her, probably thinking of being on a virtual beach with Karl. Theo’s worried about not having had sex lately. He doesn’t have an excuse. All the intimacy’s disappeared from their marriage. Theo starts to blame her pregnancy and herself. Danny can’t tell her what’s truly happening.
Karl is’t doing well with his girlfriend, either. She has to cum with porn instead of him because he can’t finish. He wants to go back into that VR world with Danny. His friend decides he’s putting away the virtual reality, shoving the node back in its box and to the back of a junk cupboard. Danny eventually calls Karl, telling him he can’t do it anymore. Karl doesn’t want to stop, pleading with him: “It‘s like, porn or something.”
But that’s it. They’re done.
Seven months later.
Theo’s pregnant. At his place, Karl is wasting away. It’s Danny’s birthday again, and Theo’s invited the old friend around for a quiet dinner, just three of them. Awkward. They sit, reminiscing about their days as roommates. When the two buddies are alone, Danny makes clear the VR stuff is “too strange.” Karl can’t give it up. He can’t find anything as good as what he and Danny had during their romance.
Karl tells Danny to meet him at midnight on Striking Vipers. The reluctant husband goes back there to fuck Roxette / Karl, and they get off together. Karl utters the words “I love you,” which upsets Danny, who can’t see it all going anywhere, unsure of what they’re doing. He asks Karl to meet him in the real world.
The two men meet in a rainy lot. Danny thinks they need to kiss and figure out their real feelings. It’s a hilariously tender moment, as neither of them are sure how to approach it. They gradually work up to the act. “Just fucking kiss me, man,” Danny says, and Karl plants one on him. There’s nothing, on either of their part. They feel like things are settled. Only they start to argue. Things devolve and they fight, winding up arrested. Theo picks Danny up. She knew there was tension, she just doesn’t know it was sexual. She can’t get any answers out of her husband. Not initially.
Jump down the road again.
Danny and Theo have their new baby. On his birthday, they exchange little boxes. Danny gets to put on his VR node and play Striking Vipers a.k.a Best Friend Fuck City with Karl. Theo gets a box to put her wedding ring in while she goes out, on one night of the month while her husband’s online, to find herself a hot date.
Weird relationships can work. So long as you put the work in, and love each other hard.
There’s an amazingly intelligent idea in this episode about the concept of fidelity. We kid ourselves that watching pornography isn’t cheating. Father Gore’s inclined to say it is— and if it’s cool in your relationship, more power to you. But it’s foolish to try and act like watching other people fuck, whether two, solo, or a whole group, isn’t some form of infidelity when you’re with a partner. The sooner people admit it, the sooner they might make progress in their own relationships, one way or another.
Brooker brings this out by using the concept of Danny and Karl’s VR discovery, and it’s such a wonderful exploration of all the ways in which the postmodern world affects relationships, of all sorts. The ending’s hopeful, in that Danny and Theo love one another enough to trust themselves with a night of infidelity once a year, knowing they’ll come back to the other’s arms. A strange, touching, interesting episode.
“Smithereens” is next.