Like the spoilers in this post, comparisons to the much-loved ‘San Junipero’ episode from Season 3 are unavoidable and perhaps if that episode did not exist then ‘Striking Vipers’ wouldn’t feel quite so clunky. Despite some decent performances from the three main actors, and a super cast, the new episode plays out like an ill-conceived mash-up of Mortal Kombat and Brokeback Mountain with very little emotion between the two main men.
Anthony Mackie (best known as Falcon in the MCU) plays Danny who is coming to terms with middle-age married life with onetime flatmate Theo played by Nicole Beharie (probably best known these days for the TV version of Sleepy Hollow). The trio is completed by their old flatmate Karl played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (who plays Black Manta in Aquaman) who now has a more affluent lifestyle dating young women in another part of the anonymous near-future city.
Karl and Danny used to play a console game together in the flat called Striking Vipers and years later on his birthday Danny is given the new VR version of the game Striking Vipers X as a gift from Karl along with the necessary ‘sticky dot’ neural interface system recognisable from previous episodes of Black Mirror.
Danny hasn’t seen all that much of Danny since he moved away, and Danny started a family, so it’s good to hook up with him remotely in the new game after his birthday barbecue. Of course, and as you’d expect, this is where things take a strange turn. Despite there being more on-screen chemistry between Theo and Karl, rather than Danny and Karl, what is supposed to be a martial arts fight to the death quickly turns into an online VR love-fest.
There’s some predictable macho denial in the morning in a stilted ‘about last night’ conversation, but the next time they meet online the same thing happens – maximum humpage between their buff avatars played by Ludi Lin (also in Aquaman, and Power Rangers) and Pom Klementieff (Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy). Quite why a VR fighting game should have the necessary stimuli set up in its coding for sexual stimulation is a question left unanswered. Seems like it would be outside of the programming parameters really.
Anyway, they continue to get it on until Danny is challenged by Theo over whether his disinterest with trying for another child with her is a sign that he doesn’t love her anymore. Its 40 minutes into an hour-long episode and so of course he breaks all contact with Karl and tries to live his normal life. And in the following scenes with Theo pregnant, Danny getting on with his life and Karl cracking up in his city apartment it’s clear that Danny is sticking to his guns. But of course we all know that it’s not going to be as simple as that, if it was we might as well pack up after 45 minutes.
Oblivious to the “don’t feel like a gay thing” thing between the two men, Theo invites Karl over for dinner, including a nice looking tiramisu. Sorry that’s unnecessary detail, but I really like tiramisu. Having discovered that when they kiss in IRL they feel nothing (although was there some doubt I saw in their eyes at this point?) they argue and come to blows. Theo has to pick up Danny from the cop shop and Danny has to spill the beans on what’s been happening, setting up the pay-off at the end of the show.
It’s fairly obvious that this is going to involve some kind of trade-off since we get a big speech earlier from Theo about how she’s had to sacrifice things to be where they are today, and there’s the set up right at the top of the show where we are shown that the idea of getting off with strangers at bars turns her on. So the trade-off is one in which, once a year on Danny’s birthday, she’s allowed to go out and pull a stranger while he stays home and bangs Karl inside Striking Vipers X.
The story is rather straightforward and also lacking in all but a few possible Easter eggs connecting it to previous episodes. I think comparisons to ‘San Junipero’ and/or Brokeback Mountain are slightly off the mark however since it is never really in question (despite my thinking there was some doubt after the kiss) that these two guys are heterosexual, whereas in the other episode and the famous film the main characters are most certainly attracted to the same sex.
It’s hard for viewers to get their heads around the IVR versus the IRL relationship between the two buddies, and that’s the whole crux of the episode – it’s a very freaky situation and while Karl tries to rationalise it by saying that it’s ‘like porn’ it clearly isn’t since when he tries, in Danny’s absence, to connect with other players in the same way the chemistry just isn’t there. The fact that the characters only seem to be able to fully recognise their bromance when it’s encapsulated in pixel perfect avatars and they are physically separated actually adds some pathos to the whole story.
However I did find the episode rather weak after the joy of watching Bandersnatch. There wasn’t enough character development between the buddies, not enough exploration of the idea that some people love their best friends more than their partners, maybe to unhealthy levels, or enough chemistry between Mackie and Abdul-Mateen II.
Hopefully the other two episodes will be better than this. I’ll keep you posted…