Of the three new episodes of Black Mirror that have just landed in your Netflix rolodex like a gift from TechSatan himself, Striking Vipers is the one you’ll know least about from the trailer, as it gives almost nothing away. (Don’t worry – we won’t be revealing it all here, either, though it’s probably best you watch the episode first).
Like the best Black Mirror stories, Striking Vipers pulls something of a fakey on its viewers. The tech in question – a Tekken-style video game which the players inhabit physically, experiencing the sensations felt by their characters as they belt seven shades of shit out of each other – is not the subject of the episode, merely the device which allows the human drama to unfurl.
And that drama explores the relationship between Danny (Anthony Mackie) and his friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), old college buddies whose lives have followed different paths. Where Danny is married and living what seems to be an idyllic suburban life with wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and kids, Karl is a rich executive living the bachelor dream in the city. Though they’ve drifted apart, they have something new in common: loneliness.
When they reconnect in the virtual world of Striking Vipers, their friendship reignites and takes on a physical element that surprises each of them.
The scenes inside the game are brilliant and – at first – incredibly funny, a 10 Hit Combo in the face of those who think of Black Mirror as being bleaker than a Joy Division photo-shoot. But the way the relationship develops asks serious questions that affect lives now: when does an online relationship become cheating? When should we be considering our virtual/real life balance as important to manage as a work/life balance? If we spend our leisure time in a virtual world and our real lives wearing our work masks, which is the real us, the meat person or the avatar? And, crucially, it asks the question asked by so many men when faced with a new technology: can I put my penis in it?
This one-of-a-kind love story is one of the most sensitive, emotionally affecting Black Mirror episodes yet, and – fans will pleased to learn – the spiritual sequel to San Junipero, arguably the best-loved episode yet, and the one for which the makers won two Emmy Awards. Like San Junipero, Striking Vipers finds the beauty and ugliness in a new form of romance, albeit one that, really, is just around the corner.
With a primarily black and ethnic minority cast, Striking Vipers also stands as testament to how Black Mirror has established itself as a bastion of diversity in mainstream TV, not as a box-ticking exercise, but because in asking questions of the future it reflects the world as it is now. It also shows how quickly the trickle-down effect of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us can work its magic – these aren’t ethnic minority characters playing to stereotype, as was so often the case in the past, they’re simply people playing universally relatable people.
If there’s a theme to this painfully short season of Black Mirror – just three episodes! More please! – it’s humanity. This is the most personal season of the show we’ve had yet, and in a time when the boundary between humanity and technology is narrower than ever, that’s not a bad thing at all.