Spoilers ahead for the Black Mirror Season 5 episode "Striking Vipers." Black Mirror Season 5's "Striking Vipers" starts a conversation about identity and how gender, romantic attraction, and sexuality can all be separate, but then fails to fully dissect it. That the episode doesn't delve deeper into this complex mix of issues is surprising for a show both lauded as bold and provocative and acclaimed for it's openly queer episode "San Junipero." And it's only further proof that while Black Mirror has made strides in the way we tell emotional, affecting stories about human nature and technology, the show still struggles to render the full nuances of what it means to be a queer person in a queer relationship.
The episode revolves around Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), two lifelong friends who reconnect and decide to play their favorite video game from their youth together: the Street Fighter-esque Striking Vipers X. In this advanced, virtual reality version of the game, Danny and Karl can feel every punch and kick while their bodies remain stationary — and it doesn't take long for them to realize they can feel and do other things, too. As Danny plays the chiseled Lance (portrayed by Ludi Lin) and Karl plays the scantily clad Roxette (portrayed by Pom Klementieff), they find themselves attracted to each other. They kiss, and soon, Roxette and Lance begin a sexual relationship. Or is it Danny and Karl who are having sex?
The question of what these VR trysts mean for Danny and Karl's sexuality is the central question of the entire episode, and one that doesn't get a firm answer. This is in part because of how it's presented: we're not sure if Karl and Danny are drawn to each other because of a long-buried sexual desire, or if they just tumble into it because their deep emotional "bromance" becomes an outright romance when acted out through the lens of straight couple Roxette and Lance.
"Don't feel like a gay thing," Danny says at one point, and indeed, the climax of the episode is both men meeting IRL to see if there's something genuine between them. That Danny is cyber-cheating on his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) with Karl has driven a wedge between the three of them, and Danny is determined to solve it — even if that means that, yes, he ends up with Karl. So they kiss, but no sparks fly.
And just like that, the matter is settled. The episode ends with Danny talking to Theo and agreeing that once a year, Danny and Karl get to meet as Roxette and Lance, while Theo goes out and picks up someone at a bar. In terms of storytelling, it's a clean arc: the episode begins with Theo and Danny roleplaying as strangers at a club, and ends with something similar. Like the booming fetish scene in Second Life, "Striking Vipers" tells us the Roxette and Lance dalliances are simply a weird sex thing. But framing the IRL kiss as the be-all and end-all answer to Karl and Danny's complex relationship leaves so, so many questions unexplored.
The fact that Danny and Karl don't just have sex but talk and cuddle with each other (at one point, Karl even says "I love you" in the game, leading Danny to storm off), brings up questions around heteronormativity, or the belief that a person's biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles are all in perfect alignment. That's not the way the real world works, and many people's identities are much more fluid. But the conclusion that these are just two cisgender straight men with an addiction to virtual porn feels like an oversimplification, and one that does a disservice to the nuanced discussions currently happening around gender and sexuality.
When Roxette lies on Lance's lap, does that mean Karl enjoys the role of a more submissive woman, or has any romantic feelings for Danny? When Lance strokes Roxette's cheek and kisses her tenderly, does that mean Danny is more fond of Karl than he lets on? Going deeper into it, does knowing who's controlling the avatar as they act out these romantic gestures make either of them even a little biromantic? Roxette literally says "I love you" to Lance, something that should warrant a larger conversation than it does.
When Karl says he enjoys the physical feeling of playing as a woman, and that having sex as a man is "a guitar solo" but as a woman it's "a whole orchestra," shouldn't that bring up questions of why he feels more pleasure or comfort in the body of a female avatar? Wouldn't that naturally bring up questions of potential body dysphoria, especially as we're shown later on that Karl feels detached and frustrated with his own life?
What about when Danny ends the relationship for a bit in the middle, and Karl falls into a deep depressive funk? What are the implications when the narrative frames Karl walking into Theo and Danny's home as deeply uncomfortable, and Karl hurtfully asks Danny, "what am I, like your ex-wife or something?" If Karl were a woman in real life, it'd be clear immediately that Danny feels torn between his attraction for two people, but because Karl is a man, it's painted as ambiguous and shameful.
The problem is that we're never given enough backstory on the two to determine how much stake to put in their relationship, and if their feelings go beyond just the physical (or in this case, mental). While there are early hints that Danny and Karl are very close — in the prelude scenes, a young Danny slides out of bed to play games with Karl until dawn — it's framed as just a normal social interaction. The episode is more focused on Danny and Theo than it is Danny and Karl, and unfortunately we never see anything from Karl's perspective.
This ends up creating a huge chunk of missing story because it's Karl who buys Danny the game, Roxette who kisses Lance first, and Karl who suffers the most when Danny cuts it off. Perhaps tellingly, it's also Karl who says he tried it with other real players controlling Lance, but it wasn't the same. He's not attracted to Lance; he enjoys being with Danny. "It didn't get me, not like when we're in there," Karl says. "You and me." This is hinting at something that goes beyond just sex and crosses over to something else. Is it romantic? Is it something deeper, like true soulmates? Sure, Danny and Karl found they're not sexually attracted to each other. But are they in love? Is it that in Danny, Karl — who's been dating a woman more interested in her phone than him — has discovered his first truly intimate relationship? "Striking Vipers" never bothers to tell us.
It's surprising that the episode doesn't dig deeper into any of this set-up because in real life, many people do play video games as different characters all the time, for sometimes very personal reasons. In a Vice essay, Diana Tourjée wrote that video games allowed her to explore her own identity as a transgender woman. "Controlling these characters began to feel more authentic than controlling myself ... Because I could choose the names, appearances, and genders of the avatars I embodied online, they became an extension of me."
That's not to say that because someone plays as a character of a different identity, we can immediately assume they're questioning their own. But when Danny and Karl are playing characters whose bodies they fully inhabit and experience, it should at least beg the question.
In the end, the lackluster IRL kiss lets "Striking Vipers" play it safe, ending on a commentary about open relationships rather than gender and sexual fluidity. This retreat to more comfortable territory may be unsurprising, as every Black Mirror season has felt like it's been chasing the high of "San Junipero." But for an episode that's also one of Brooker's most contemplative, tender, and beautifully drawn to date, that doesn't make it any less disappointing.