Black Mirror is fundamentally about holding the dark parts of ourselves, as they are exacerbated by technology, up to us for us to look at. This has been its consistent theme: the black mirror is at once the dark screen looking back at you and the thing that makes you reflect on the darkness in your own soul.
And I, personally, found this lacking in “Striking Vipers.”
Perhaps this is due to my own views about sexuality and infidelity. In fact, it almost certainly is. I can imagine someone being bothered by events in this episode. I can read people talking about it on the internet who were. But I’m just not. I basically think everything is fine.
But that’s boring, so let’s engage with what might bother people.
First of all, there is the sexuality question. Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gifts Danny (Anthony Mackie) with the Striking Vipers game, along with the tech needed to play it (which is reminiscent of the tech in “USS Callister,” e.g.), and off they go. The game is pretty much a version of something like Street Fighter, but they are apparently totally free within it, insofar as instead of fighting as the game tells them to, they start fucking.
Is this gay? It is a sexual interaction between two men, but one that is mediated through a virtual environment where one of them has taken the role of a woman. It would seem to me that this is precisely that which is appropriately described as queer, insofar as the term has been reappropriated.
Queer theory has for decades worked to deconstruct binaries related to gender and sexuality. It abjures any essentialism: there is no essence of being a man, or a woman, or even of yourself.
You are—each of us is—but a series of performances of self. I may be a man, but if I am a man, it is because I perform myself as one. I may be heterosexual, but equally there, I am not essentially determined to be such. It’s a social construct.
And this is not at all to suggest that LGBTQ individuals have some kind of “choice” in the matter—it is to suggest that at the end of the day, perhaps none of us are really “straight.”
Karl chooses Roxette (Pom Klementieff) in the game. Danny chooses Lance (Ludi Lin), and they fuck—over and over again. It both is them, and it isn’t.
If we want to ask whether this is gay, we have to take it from both sides.
Insofar as Danny is (virtually) having sex with a woman, the door is well open to saying that the answer is no. He may know, after all, that the person behind Roxette is his buddy Karl, but suspension of disbelief and all of that.
The question is more interesting from the other side, as Karl inhabits the body of a woman and, it would seem, has the sexual experience of one.
When they talked about this, I half-expected Danny to say he wanted to try it the other way around. Frankly, I would have.
But, then, what do we make of Karl, and this relationship in general? It would seem to be a heterosexual relationship between two men, one of whom undertakes a becoming-woman. Gender and sexuality binaries simply do not fit neatly here.
When they meet in real life, and Danny insists that they kiss to see if there is some kind of spark there, there isn’t. It would seem that it is only in this virtual realm that there is some sort of connection. But it is there, nonetheless. Karl cannot get anything like what he gets from Danny (as Lance) from others or polar bears.
Karl and Danny can only connect—and maybe love each other?—through this game.
And as much as others may have found it to be perverse, I, frankly, found it to be sort of beautiful.
Of course, then, there is the infidelity to deal with. Danny cheats on his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie)—or does he?
This is where we find Black Mirror playing with that old theme again about whether the virtual is real. If I plug in and fuck a polar bear, am I cheating, or is this like watching porn? Or is watching porn itself a kind of cheating?
Perhaps such questions risk missing the point, insofar as Danny grows distant from Theo when he is meeting Karl in the game every night. He doesn’t want to have sex with her, even though they are supposed to be trying to have another child. And, she says he had stopped doing the little things like touching her on the back in the kitchen.
It isn’t the sex that makes Danny unfaithful—and perhaps there is a point here that applies more generally that is worth thinking about—so much as it is the distance the affair creates from his wife in his heart that is the problem, and the reason he has to cut things off. Whether the sex is “real” is more or less irrelevant; it is in the relationship with Karl that he builds that he is cheating on his wife.
I kind of expected “Striking Vipers” to take a dark turn where Theo found out about what Danny had been doing with Karl and murdered him or something, but this is not what happens. His confession occurs off screen, and it seems like at the end of the day, she was OK with it. This is not what I expected.
Was she angry at first, or accepting? The episode cuts to a year later, depriving us of an answer to that question. It is an interesting inversion of “The Entire History of You” and the way it revolves around Liam’s jealousy. If Theo is upset at first, we don’t see it, because it would seem that is not the point here; the point is her ultimate forgiveness.
In the end, Danny and Karl can meet up and fuck as Striking Vipers characters once a year on Danny’s birthday, and Theo herself gets the day off from her commitment. It is a one day carnival.
This may bother some, but it is not clear why it should. In the arrangement we are shown at the end of the episode, everyone is deciding freely, and everyone gets what they want. Even Theo is happy to be “unmarried” for a day.
And thus, in place of its usual move to reflect the blackness in the human soul, with “Striking Vipers” Black Mirror seems to instead suggest an acceptance of the ways in which human beings can be strange, or weird, or queer.
Whether this ending is earned is another question. There really isn’t enough from Theo’s perspective for it to land properly. Sure, there is the scene at the restaurant where she mentions almost wanting to let a guy hit on her, but that is a bit thin. And cutting forward a year—eliding how she reacted to learning of Danny’s affair with Karl—makes it seem almost as though she didn’t have a problem with what her husband had been doing, or suggested this bargain immediately.
We’re left to fill in the missing part of the story, and one has to wonder whether they perhaps didn’t show it because they couldn’t make it feel plausible.
If the message of the episode is supposed to be that we ought to be accepting of people’s sexual quirks no matter how bizarre they may seem, so long as there is consent and no one is being harmed, then it is maybe the most upbeat installment of Black Mirror that there is.
But it risks downplaying the infidelity, or, if the intention is to ask whether virtual sex like that which Danny and Karl engage in is really cheating, or something along those lines, then this question is not sufficiently brought into view. Which is a shame, because it is potentially an interesting question in terms of the difference between there being a person on the other end and having sex with a computer, etc.
The strength of the episode lies in its exploration of the sexual and gender dynamics at play in Danny and Karl’s relationship. It gets at why there is a ‘Q’ in LGBTQ. So I suppose it is fitting that it was released during Pride.