– By Joe Campbell –
Spoilers below for the Black Mirror episode ‘Striking Vipers’.
Black Mirror has been heralded as the new Twilight Zone, so much so that when CBS debuted a modern version of The Twilight Zone, many people wondered what the point was in a world where Black Mirror already existed. Created by British writer Charlie Brooker and named for the black reflective surface of smartphones, Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series featuring near-future technology in twisted morality tales. The show is known for being bitingly cynical, often ending on an ironically dark note. Sometimes Brooker just wants to make something darkly entertaining, but his stories often have a little more to say, especially about social politics and how our relationship with technology fundamentally changes our lives.
In most cases Brooker hits the nail on the head while also hitting close to home. The infamous inaugural episode The National Anthem was all about the dangers of mixing our innate morbid curiosity with instant access to shocking material in the digital age, and Nosedive delved into how social media makes it easier for people to become obsessed with their public image to the point that it impacts their personal identity. But every once in a while Brooker broadens the scope of his subjects, such as commenting on politics or sexuality.
It’s that second topic that Brooker seems to struggle with the most, but when tackled, it bears fruit to some of his most widely acclaimed episodes. The season three episode San Junipero (which I touched on previously here) shows up on many “Best Episodes” lists online, yet I find it to be one of the most thematically confused. The newest season of Black Mirror features another episode (Striking Vipers) exploring sexuality explicitly (in more ways than one), and although many reviewers online hail it to be a rousingly progressive story on complex sexual and racial themes, I found it to be the most frustrating episode of the entire series to date.
Striking Vipers tells the story of Danny (played by Anthony Mackie), a man in his mid 30’s who is happily married to his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie). Danny is surprised on his birthday by a visit from an old friend, Karl (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Danny and Karl used to play the Street Fighter-esque fighting game Striking Vipers in their 20’s, and Karl brings Danny a futuristic virtual reality version of the game they can play together online.
Immersed in the game late one night, Danny and Karl discover that they are attracted to each other within the bodies of their jacked-up digital avatars (Danny plays as a muscular male karate master, and Karl plays as a scantily clad female fighter), and they decide to…uh…consummate their passionate desires within the game (this instantly raised a million questions in my head considering this was not the intended use the game was programmed for, and I just as instantly regretted asking those questions). Danny and Karl continue their secret online liaisons for weeks, and the more time they spend in the game, the more evident it becomes that it is affecting Danny’s marriage.
Up until this point, I had been fascinated by the themes I thought the episode had been exploring. Danny is clearly in love with his wife, so why is it so difficult for him to break with this virtual fantasy? The answer is because Danny is convinced his midnight rendezvous aren’t real. He isn’t cheating on Theo because he isn’t in a relationship with another person. Hell, he isn’t even technically sleeping with anyone else, right?
Danny’s dismissive attitude towards the harmful effects of his digital fling seem to have real world roots in men struggling with an addiction to porn. So much so that Karl offers the seemingly inoffensive use of porn as a justification to playing the game. “It’s not cheating, it’s not real. It’s like porn!” he asserts, trying to convince Danny what they’re doing isn’t hurting Theo.
Only it is hurting Theo. As Danny gets drawn further into the allure of fantasy sex, he withdraws physically and emotionally from his wife without even realizing it. Danny and Theo have a young son and before Karl came into their lives they were trying to conceive a second child. They enjoyed a close relationship and their love flourished. After Danny got sucked into Striking Vipers with Karl, Theo continued to initiate marital encounters with her husband but Danny always turned her down. “I’m tired,” was the same reply he’d give, often immediately after a session in the game. As the weeks go by, Danny only becomes more distant. He used to laugh and joke with Theo, now he doesn’t even seem to notice when they’re in the same room.
Only after Theo confronts him on their anniversary does Danny realize the damage he has caused their marriage: “You don’t touch me anymore. You don’t even kiss me. There is none of the small stuff: squeeze my shoulder, a hand on my back as you pass me in the kitchen, not even that. Do you want me anymore?”
This conversation is a wake-up call for Danny, and he realizes how his addiction is pulling him away from the one person wants to be closest to, and he cuts off the source of the poison eating away at their relationship. This is where I started to have real respect for the episode (a respect that was soon to be betrayed) in how it dealt with the long term effects of addiction. Addiction isn’t just something that goes away when you want it to; long after you think you’re rid of it, it can come back stronger than ever. In some cases it becomes a life-long struggle. Danny thinks he’s done with Karl, Striking Vipers, the whole kit and caboodle, but more than half a year later he’s drawn back to it with a vengeance.
It wasn’t a victorious direction to take the story, but it was an honest one. It would have been dishonest to leave the audience thinking that deeply ingrained harmful habits could be forgotten with a shrug. In some ways I kind of wished the episode had ended there, with Danny drowning in this vicious cycle of self-destruction. It’s a harsh way to end a story, but hey, Black Mirror isn’t exactly known for its cheery endings.
I also appreciated that after falling to his vice again, Danny realizes that he can’t combat this himself. He needs help, so he turns to the one person he should have confided in from the beginning: his wife.
This whole episode had been a rather poignant exploration of a theme we don’t hear a lot of in today’s society. Porn in general has more or less become widely accepted today, and people like to pretend its use doesn’t have any negative effects, especially between married couples. So to see a secular TV show tackle the subject head-on with such honesty was refreshing, exciting even.
Which made the ultimate ending of the episode all the more frustrating.
Over the credits, the episode shows us what happened after Danny revealed everything to his wife: Theo appreciates Danny’s desire for a sexual escape and lets him play the video game with Karl once a year while she goes out to a bar to hook up with a random stranger. What started out as a hard-hitting anecdote about addiction and the effects of pornography, instead devolved into an exploration of unorthodox relationships in an ever-expanding technological world.
After everything between Danny and Theo, Charlie Brooker is only really interested in one question: What does Danny and Karl’s relationship mean?
I had thought that question had been answered fairly early on; Danny and Karl were taking part in a juvenile, surface-level fantasy. This answer had seemingly been confirmed by the story itself multiple times. Not only did Danny’s bond with his wife grow stronger when he resisted meeting up with Karl in the game, but following their regression months after trying to stop cold turkey, Danny and Karl met up face to face in the real world to test the depths of their relationship. “We’re gonna kiss,” Danny confronted Karl in the middle of that rainy night, “If there are fireworks then, okay, bam, it’s an “us” thing. At least we’ve got a foothold on it.”
There are no fireworks, and Danny and Karl’s fling seems to be confirmed as simply…nothing. Devoid of any real connection, I thought it was evident that their game was nothing more than that: a game. It was a game that was destroying Danny’s marriage, but that only made the solution more obvious. Danny needed to get rid of this unhealthy distraction and devote more time to his wife, and he needed help to get there.
But sometimes people like to complicate things, and for those who live with a worldview that’s constantly trying to redefine what a relationship can be, they like to find ways to make unconventional couplings appear more natural. If a man and a woman can be together, why not two men under the guise of male and female digital doubles? In fact, why can’t both dynamics work in conjunction with each other, the two men being together in alternate digital bodies while one of them is comfortably married to a woman in the real world?
It’s a muddled narrative that shows that yes, Danny is capable of being true to his wife. It may take hard work, time, and support, but he is perfectly capable of kicking his toxic habit and live up to the promise of his wedding vows. Not only is he capable, but he’s happier when he does! So what are we supposed to take away from that ending? Why toil at becoming a better person for your partner when you can continue to flirt with danger and still make it work? That isn’t love, that’s selfishness.
You can find any number of reviews of this episode online praising its celebration of unique, colorful, non-monogamous relationships. Theo and Danny’s compromise is seen by many as a win, a third option to a yes or no question. But in all of these complicated dynamics, people are losing sight of what this story was really about. It isn’t about three people giving the finger to traditionalism in a new age of enlightenment, it’s the story of a drowning man reaching out to his partner to help him from giving in to the waves, only for his partner to jump in with him as they both spiral down into the depths. And what makes it most disturbing is that this is portrayed as being their happily ever after.
About the Author
Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids. He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington. Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante. Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.
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