Black Mirror has always tried to push boundaries and shock audiences, but the season 5 premier, "Striking Vipers", seems to have moved a little bit beyond that formula. Sure, head writer/creator Charlie Brooker still has some boundaries to explore, but "Striking Vipers" feels very much like it's more comfortable making that journey on calmer seas than previous installments had.
Anthony Mackey (The Avengers) stars in this installment of Black Mirror as Danny, who has, for all intents, a pretty good life. He's married to Theo (Sleepy Hollow's Nicole Beharie), and they have a lovely little family that they hope to expand upon.
But Danny has been growing listless. He's just turned 38, and finds himself bored by the day to day routine. Enter Karl (Us and Aquaman's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), his very best friend in the world. Karl has that type rock-and-roll lifestyle that Danny can't imagine, with his pick of sexual partners and a whole ton of money.
Karl brings Danny a present, the latest copy of "Striking Vipers". This is the game they played together when they were younger, but the latest edition has a purely immersive VR experience built in.
Danny and Karl match up online, where they assume the characters that they played when they were younger. Karl chooses Roxette (Guardians of the Galaxy's Pom Klementieff), while Danny logs in as Lance (Power Rangers' Ludi Lin).
The two trade blows, with Karl taking the upper hand. They have a lot of fun playing a match, and the game itself looks like it would be a blast to play. The characters appear to be live action, as do the settings, but everything else is pure side-scrolling video game mayhem.
The performances are great all around, with Mackie playing bored and conflicted against Beharie's concerned and exhausted. The couple clearly love each other, but there's something missing for both of them.
Black Mirror Asks an Age Old Question (Mild Spoilers Follow)
After that first round, though, Black Mirror decides to ask that old, immortal question: Is it still gay if you have virtual sex with your best buddy if he's playing a hot anime-style girl?
Danny and Karl set off on an affair of sorts, with ramifications that cascade down around their real world lives. Theo finds Danny distant, while Karl realizes that he can't perform in bed with his hot young girlfriend.
Danny ends up in a dissociative state, since his time in the waking, real world is nowhere near as satisfying as his late nights with Karl have been. He's drifting from Theo, and she begins to suspect that he's having an affair.
Here's where the Big Thinky Bits come into play with this episode of Black Mirror, and it goes way beyond the sexual identities of the players involved. We could explore whether Karl and Danny are indeed gay, or if fidelity and gender will become antiquated constructs as we progress into the uncharted waters of the digital age. There are those among us who will feel outrage from some of the choices Danny, Karl, and Theo make. There are some that will feel that "Striking Vipers" doesn't go far enough in exploring same-sex attraction or repression. And there are some that will think that Black Mirror showed too much restraint with the subject.
These are issues that have already been seen in the real world. When World of Warcraft came out, I knew a guy who had been happily married for close to a decade. He met another player through his Warcraft guild, and the two started an online relationship, never once meeting in person. When his wife found out, she was furious. He was still present in their marriage, but he was constantly yearning for time to play Warcraft and spend time with the "other woman".
He claimed that since the relationship was only online, it wasn't real, and he wasn't cheating. That was his stance all the way through the divorce, too.
So, with Black Mirror, we see reflections of the same situation. Danny clearly longs for escape, and even enjoys a little role-playing when he's introduced in the episode. Is he just longing for escape from the mundanity of his life? Karl is disconnected from his posh life, and only seems to come alive when he and Danny spend time together in game. Is Danny cheating? Are Danny and Karl gay? Is this the future of romance in the world?
Does monogamy have a future when we evolve past physical constraints in romance? Is gender even going to exist when we spend more and more time in a digital sphere of influence?
There isn't a real clear resolution to these questions, either. While "Striking Vipers" ends on a somewhat happy note for all the parties involved, there is still a sense of questions unasked, and answers just out of reach. It's still an interesting episode of Black Mirror, though, and could open some interesting dialogue about sexual identity, fidelity, and longing as we enter this strange new chapter of humanity. Ultimately, we could easily spend another week's worth of running time to even scratch the surface of these concepts, and that's not something any television show has the budget to run.