Black Mirror's most iconic episodes are about the blur between virtual reality and real life. Season three's Emmy-winning "San Junipero" was a love story between two women that took place over multiple visits to the titular computer-generated beach town. But in season five, the show’s take on virtual reality is not so much a grand romance, but an exploration of sexuality, and what happens when our real lives pale in comparison to the worlds — and relationships — we’ve built online.
The episode opens with Danny (Anthony Mackie) flirting with a woman at a nightclub. It's going well. He offers to buy her a drink, and she accepts. However, when their friend and roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) comes over, the jig is up: It's revealed that the just-acquainted pair are actually a longtime couple. Theodora (Nicole Beharie) says that the roleplaying was actually pretty hot — and soon, we'll learn just how much Danny agrees with that statement.
The episode flashes forward 11 years, and Danny is a bored husband in the suburbs. He's married to the same woman, “Theo,” he was dating a decade earlier, but he hasn't seen his former roommate in quite some time. When Karl shows up at the barbecue, things are a little awkward and stiff between the pals — until Karl gives Danny a gift. It's an upgraded version of the video game Striking Vipers, the one-on-one combat game one they used to play when they lived together.
After a quickly abandoned plan to have sex with his wife and make another baby, Danny gets a call from Karl, who just got back from a date with his much younger new girlfriend. (She's so young, she has zero clue who Dennis Rodman is. In her defence, though...what year is it?) Karl wants to play the new virtual reality game with Danny, and instructs him on how to set up the fancy VR element. Essentially, you hook up a tiny pod to your head, which sends your mind directly into the game. You can feel all physical sensations within the combat video game — including pain — which seems like a pretty misguided choice on the game makers part.
Karl picks Roxette (Pom Klementieff), a slender Asian woman with icy blonde hair, while Danny picks Lance (Ludi Lin), a buff, lithe fighter. The men are mentally transported to the outdoor fighting ring — and they feel like they are actually in the skin of the people they’re portraying in the game.
This is a common piece of technology in the Black Mirror world, albeit the idea of swapped consciousness plays out in different ways over the show’s many episodes. The world of “San Junipero” is perhaps the most similar in that one is transported to a digital world with all the physical sensations of the real one, however episodes like “Black Museum” and “USS Callister” (two decidedly darker episodes) all feature technology in which consciousness is either copied or implanted in different objects or digital creation. The technology poses big questions: What happens when you can do or be anything you want, regardless of the physical form you were born with? And how “real” is what you do when you are not technically your physical self?
Karl and Danny confront exactly those questions when they play the game for the first time.
The fight within the game starts, and Karl-as-Roxette starts beating on Lance immediately. (Which, again, really hurts.) However, instead of escalating in violence, the fight takes an unexpected turn: Lance and Roxette — and, by proxy, Karl and Danny — kiss.
Karl and Danny exit the game moments later, horrified that they went there with each other. It may be just a game but they vow never to get to that passionate moment again.
Of course, the fantasy and allure of the game proves too strong to ignore, especially when real life isn’t quite as interesting as this particular version of gameplay. Days later, both bored with their regular routines — Karl with his vapid girlfriend, and Danny with stale home life — Danny-as-Lance and Karl-as-Roxette get back into the game, and once again eschew fighting for hooking up.
"It doesn't feel like a gay thing," notes Danny, before he's pulled out of the game by his young son, demanding attention from his mentally-absent father.
Soon, Karl and Danny are having a full-blown affair in the game, as their virtual characters. There's real tenderness between Karl and Danny, albeit it’s exclusively as their video game counterparts. Roxette lays in Lance’s lap as she waxes poetic about the feelings she gets when they hook up.
"The physical feeling of it is more satisfying," says Karl-as-Roxette of being in a woman's body during gameplay sex. "I can't really explain it. One's a guitar solo, the other's a fucking orchestra."
It’s worth mentioning that, outside the game, Karl does not seem to wish to live life as a woman. He’s proud of his masculinity and his hot, young girlfriend. It’s unclear if this is a cover for some deeper issues Karl has with his assigned gender, or if playing pretend, temporarily, appeals — the way the roleplaying situation at the beginning of the episode appealed to Theo and Danny.
In real life, Theo is growing more and more insecure: Danny won't have sex with her, despite their plan to have another child. Karl's girlfriend, on the other hand, barely seems to register his disinterest, instead resorting to porn when Karl says he simply won't "get there" in bed. Neither women, however, think that there is anything weird about their partner’s video game addiction, or how it may be affecting their real-life bedroom behaviour.
Outside of the video game, the relationship between Danny and Karl also reads very much like an affair, with hidden text messages and stolen time away. So, it's no surprise that Theodora confronts Danny during their wedding anniversary dinner, asking him if there is someone else he's seeing. Danny denies it, even as Theodora begs him for the truth — probably because, well, there’s simply no way to really explain what’s going on with him and Karl. Does Danny have a wandering eye, or has the game hijacked his brain, and made him confused about what’s real intimacy, and what’s fantasy?
Theodora tries to tell Danny she understands: It’s not like Theodora has never had fantasies of cheating. Theodora describes an earlier interaction, where a man at a bar attempted to buy her a drink (not unlike that roleplaying scenario in the first scene). Theodora turned him down, because, as she tells Danny, "that's commitment."
Danny knows the right thing to do is cut off his online relationship with Karl, which he does, despite the fact that doing so makes both men miserable. However, in terms of bettering his family life and sexual relationship with his wife, it was the right move: The episode jumps forward in time seven months later, revealing Theodora is pregnant with their second child. The suggestion is that without indulging in his fantasy life with Karl on the regular, Danny was able to make it work in the real world, with his real romantic relationship.
Things may not be quite so simple. Danny may have cut ties with Karl’s videogame alter-ego, but Karl is still one of his oldest friends...and Theo has no idea about their secret online affair. For Danny's birthday, Theo invites Karl to dinner, where the men act about as cagey as one would with the person they were having routine, secret virtual sex sessions with for months.
After their dinner, Danny and Karl sign on to the video game for the first time in months, and have passionate virtual sex up against a building. When they're finished, Danny tells Karl they need to meet outside the game — just to know if what they have is real.
The men meet in a parking garage and decide to test things out with a kiss. However, it's quickly revealed that their sexual attraction is strictly within the game — it doesn't quite play out in the same way in the real world. When still Karl demands that they get back to their virtual relationship, Danny denies him — and the two start fighting, IRL, on the ground.
Theodora picks up Danny from the police station, and demands he tell her what's going on, and why he was so angry with Karl. For the first time, Danny opens his mouth to tell his wife the truth — which is when the episode cuts to the future, another year and birthday later.
It's another barbecue, just like the one Karl attended in the beginning of the episode. The new baby has arrived. Things appear good between Danny and Theodora. Karl, for his part, has broken up with his girlfriend and got a cat instead. However, before we can think that this is just the status quo for everyone, Theodora hands Danny a birthday present.
The present is a matchbox. Inside is the headpiece for the game controller, which puts him back in the game — and back with Karl. Apparently, the last year allowed Theodora and Danny to strike up some sort of deal. Once a year on Danny’s birthday (marked with a fat X on Karl’s calendar), both parties get to live out their sexual fantasies — with other people. Karl and Danny go at it in the virtual world, while Theo takes off her wedding ring and hits a bar, cruising for guys to take her home.
It’s hard to tell if this is an optimistic ending. Did the video game save Danny and Theo’s marriage by allowing them to both indulge in fantasies they may have otherwise wanted to pursue, but were too afraid to? Danny and Theo both seem happier in the flash forward, with their marriage built on honesty, if not total fidelity.
Then again, there is another way to read this. We don’t yet have virtual reality games that allow us to simulate sex, but porn is pretty much as close as one can get to living out a sexual fantasy, sans a real-life partner. Black Mirror is an exploration of not far-out technologies, but ones that are just shy of being reality. It seems that there’s a warning in here about how fantasies created by technology have the power to dilute our real world experiences — even something as intimate as sex. Once you get a taste for something that feels even better than the real thing, will anything else ever be enough?
Overall “Striking Vipers” is one of the simpler Black Mirror outings, but that may be its strength. There is a single piece of technology here with potential to take down a relationship — if the couple at the centre does not find a way to bend to the changes in their relationship the technology has, in part, caused. It may not be as flashy as, say, the Miley Cyrus-starring “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” — in which Cyrus portrays a pop star not totally unlike her Hannah Montana alter-ego — but it’s one that reminds us that the real world isn’t so far from one that Black Mirror has created.
Black Mirror season five is available on Netflix now