Striking Vipers

Photo: Netflix

Photo: Netflix

On June 5th, 2019, Netflix dropped the fifth season of its dark anthology series, Black Mirror, to eager audiences, myself included. Due to a new job and other extraneous forces, though, I couldn’t devour the three-episode season in one sitting like I would with previous ones. However, the episode titled “Striking Vipers” kept popping up in many of my remaining social media feeds, provoking in-depth discussion among those who had seen it. When I did finally get to the episode, I was left with metaphorical blue balls at what had just transpired on my screen.

For those who have yet to see it, I don’t think I have to tell you that this is a spoiler-filled commentary., starting now:

When the trailer for “Striking Vipers” dropped, I knew that Anthony Mackie’s character would be involved in infidelity via technology gone awry, a creepy theme that has permeated throughout Black Mirror’s thematic history. Like traditional Black Mirror trailers, you may think you know what you’re getting yourself into by digesting the teasers alone to only find out just how far off the nose you were once you experience how insanely wild the actual episode’s twist may be. Striking Vipers is a prime example of this.

Starring a trio of black excellence in Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole “Nikki” Beharie, “Striking Vipers” does involve infidelity via tech, but this time around said tech is a video game sharing the eponymous name of the episode. Mackie’s Danny does engage in an affair with a video game character that was introduced to him via Abdul-Mateen’s II’s Karl. Beharie’s Theo (Danny’s wife) does know something is going on with Danny but is oblivious to the identity of the other woman. So that much I got right. But as stated above, it’s the twist that turns a basic Black Mirror narrative into one that requires a therapeutic discussion on what the viewer has just seen. In this case, while Danny is having an affair with a video game character introduced to him by Karl, it’s actually Karl who is said video game character, via a female avatar.

And, just like that, the narrative becomes a commentary on black gay love and, to some extent (despite my complete irksome feelings for the phrase), DL culture. All my fave topics to breakdown and discuss, preferably with a glass of wine...or three.

The “oh my Lord!” twist of Danny and Karl’s “relationship” was highly welcomed for this black gay blogger, especially since the episode drops right at the beginning of World Pride Month. But, like a good looking guy who shows promise in the bedroom but proves otherwise, the episode ended up becoming a colossal dick tease on an intellectual level.

Avenues that could’ve been explored ended up being firmly shut by the abrupt ending, betraying the performances given by the “real life” characters of Danny, Theo, and Karl. Seeds were planted in the first three or four scenes that alluded to a deeper than old roommates type connection between Danny and Karl, one coming to fruition when Karl - out of nowhere - via his Roxette avatar (Pom Klementieff) passionately kisses Danny’s Lance avatar (Ludi Lin). The avatars themselves are not sentient, so it’s not Roxette’s desire to kiss Lance, but actually Karl’s. And, the fact that it took Danny (via Lance) more than a second to realize what was going on culminates the muted affection the two may have had for each other all these years but never acted on it.

Photo: Netflix

Photo: Netflix

So with all the not even trying to hide homosexual subtext throughout the episode, we come to what should’ve been the climax between Danny and Karl: the kiss in the alleyway to prove that there’s nothing physically attractive between them outside the game. Despite initially declaring that neither guy felt anything during the kiss, Karl gets emotional about ending what they have in the game and the two spar in the rain only to end up being arrested. Then we jump to Theo picking Danny up from the police station and nonchalantly asking him what lead to the fight with Karl. After Danny finally gets the strength to confide with his wife, we jump forwards to what looked like a “happy ending,” but was really a makeshift “hall pass” for both Danny and Theo to live out their sexual fantasies for one day out of the year. All that sexual tension that peaked in the alleyway deflated like a hookup that left both parties frustrated as hell. I could’ve had a V8.

But, that doesn’t mean that the episode as a whole failed. It just flunked the final exam, yet still passes the class overall.

Creator Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror executive producer Annabel Jones discussed the homoeroticism of the episode in an Entertainment Weekly interview, but it felt as if they were scared to make it a definite situation, unlike the season three episode San Junipero, which was clearly a lesbian love story. This is what adds to the frustration of “Striking Vipers”: the inability, or complete denial, to address the elephant in the room that was invited in by Brooker himself. Saying that the VR World is sexually fluid where the notion of the ambiguity of the person behind the VR avatars is intriguing, again, betrays the fact that Danny and Karl knew each other before jumping into their VR avatars. There was chemistry there from jump, not a random situation where two avatars fall for each other and then realize that they were both men. Actually, Ready Player One touches on the former notion several times within that two hour movie.

In the end, despite its shortcomings, “Striking Vipers” is a welcomed entry into the black gay sci-fi/horror canon, where at least we got some semblance of visibility in a genre where we as black people are still validating and staking our desires to explore the cosmos, a fantasy world, and the darkness surrounding us.

Mark O. Estes