Black Mirror is not a show we turn to for optimism, victory, or sex positivity, but Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” somehow has all three. An episode that could have been stigmatizing or even homophobic instead leaves us to unpack a rich friendship and open our minds to new relationships and how to make them work.
“Striking Vipers” starts with college sweethearts Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Theo (Nicole Beharie), and their roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Years later, Danny and Theo are married, and Karl makes a sporadic reappearance in their lives to gift his old bestie the video game Striking Vipers for his birthday.
That night, the old friends enter into Vipers’ simulated reality together (still unclear what the controllers are for), intending to beat the shit out of each other’s avatars – Roxette and Lance (Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin) – but instead find themselves sharing a passionate kiss within the game.
They play it off as a fluke, which is easy to do since they themselves did nothing. But when they re-enter the game, there’s no time wasted: Their avatars smash faces immediately and have wild, passionate sex. And so begins a virtual affair in which neither man is physically cheating on his significant other, but his mind wanders off to what turns out to be the best sex he’s ever had.
This is where “Vipers” deconstructs and challenges the very language we have to describe what’s going on with Danny and Karl. Is it an affair if you haven’t physically touched anyone? They are quite literally friends with benefits, and have achieved the impossible goal of keeping those benefits entirely separate from their “real” lives. None of the messages they exchange in the real world are sexual; they read exactly like two buddies scheduling video game night, and what happens in the game stays in the game.
And of course, the ultimate question, which Black Mirror gladly turns on its head: “Fellas, is it gay if…” Is it gay if you have crazy intense sex in a simulated reality video game with your bro’s avatar? Is it gay if the avatars have heterosexual sex? Is the whole thing just next-level phone sex – creating physical sensations with virtual scenarios?
Danny and Karl ask themselves these questions and communicate up front. They quickly dismiss any qualms about their sexuality, but doubts resurface as game nights continue, as they grow distracted and pull away from their real-life partners, thinking about nights in the game with Roxette and Lance. This is the most Black Mirror aspect of the entire episode, the notion of technology creating distance between relationships in the physical world, even if Danny and Karl’s friendship grows stronger.
In its greatest twist of all, “Striking Vipers” does not end in devastation.
Danny ceases all physical intimacy with Theo, and only over their heartbreaking anniversary dinner does he realize how precarious his situation has become. There is no one else, he tells her, but he cannot bring himself to say that he still wants her physically. The hidden world of Vipers, which he thought he had compartmentalized, is proving to be his detriment.
The men finally conclude, in a display of surprising emotional maturity (and after an impulsive “I love you” from Karl via Roxette), that they should kiss in real life to see if their chemistry exists outside of Vipers. If they do feel an emotional connection, they’ll reassess their sexualities and relationship. If not, they have to face these unusual circumstances head-on.
The kiss builds up with believable confusion and nerves from both men, and in the end it yields nothing. It’s not, as Danny suggests, “an us thing,” at least not an “us” that doesn’t also include Lance and Roxette. While Danny is ready and willing to reset their friendship, Karl can’t let go of the game. “It’s burrowed right in here,” he says, jabbing at his temple, and then his best friend decides to beat that burrowed thought right out of him.
The brief fight is difficult to watch, harkening to the bullying and physical fights we’ve seen fictional characters and real people suffer due to sexualities that society doesn’t accept or understand. Even the poster for “Striking Vipers” directly recalls Moonlight, in which a young black man hides and ignores his sexuality before quietly accepting it.
In its greatest twist of all, “Striking Vipers” does not end in the devastation of two relationships, but in their successful integration. Once a year, Danny gets to join Karl in Striking Vipers, and Theo gets a night off from married life to explore the desires she admitted to cutting herself off from in order to prioritize their family. The arrangement carries shades of polyamory and open relationships, but with rules and time limits that work – at least for now.
In a generally toothless season, “Vipers” at least provides comfort in its ending. It’s one of Black Mirror‘s most hopeful episodes, placing faith in our capacity as humans to adapt to technology mutating relationships. We may already live in a world where the best, most “transcendent” sex a person experiences is alone or involves a screen of some sort, and “Vipers” suggests that this can coexist with established practices like monogamy and marriage. It’s a wild ride that gives us plenty to think about, and a new reference point for unique relationships the world might finally be ready to accept.
from Mashable! http://bit.ly/2WnUxV6