It’s easy to imagine a grim near-future in which Black Mirror perpetually chases the high of “San Junipero,” with diminishing returns. The Season 3 episode, which starred Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a queer couple who could’ve only found each other in cyberspace, was the first in the series to give its characters a happy ending, imparting a much-needed dose of tonal unpredictability to a show notorious for its dystopian paranoia and despair about technology. But creator Charlie Brooker, who has written or co-written every episode since the series’ sophomore year, whiffed his intended follow-up to “San Junipero.” In Season 4’s “Hang the DJ,” a romance pitted against a dating algorithm abruptly gave way to the deflating twist that we should’ve trusted the algorithm all along. The episode’s most startling reveal was how little Brooker seemed to understand what made the love story tick.
Black Mirror’s three-episode fifth season, which is now available, is its shortest of the Netflix seasons, not counting one-offs like December’s interactive “Bandersnatch.” Overall, the new entries are an underwhelming lot. Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott is betrayed by a particularly weak script in “Smithereens,” which doesn’t divulge its rather mundane tech phobia until the episode’s final minutes. Much more fun—but irrefutably silly and melodramatic—is “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” starring Miley Cyrus as a pop star whose exploitation by a family member is aided by gizmos too theoretical to strike genuine fear. The standout episode is meant to be “Striking Vipers,” named after a Street Fighter–esque VR game in which two longtime but now-distant friends—family man Danny (Anthony Mackie) and perma-bachelor Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)—consummate an attraction to one another that neither man seems to realize he had harbored. In the digital guises of Lance (Ludi Lin), a Ryu-like martial artist with a hairless chest and bulging muscles on every surface of his compact body, and Roxette (Pom Klementieff), a Cammy-esque kickboxer with a platinum bob and black underwear peeking out of her short red dress, Danny and Karl find that their digital duels keep turning into mind-blowing sexual trysts. (The game, we’re told when they start throwing punches, “replicates all physical sensation.”)
Until its surprisingly unromantic resolution, “Striking Vipers” is one of the most ambitious and intriguingly enigmatic stories Black Mirror has ever told. [Spoilers ahead.] In contrast with most of the series, this installment resists giving us too many answers. We’re never quite sure what exactly the nature of Danny and Karl’s attraction is, for instance, or how the former’s differs from the latter’s. Foremost, it’s unclear whether the pals have sublimated their homosexual desire for one another into more socially acceptable targets (i.e., Danny’s wife, Theo, and Lance’s eyebrow-raisingly younger girlfriend, Daisy, played by Nicole Beharie and Monique Cynthia Brown, respectively), or whether the two men are only into each other as a (Asian, accented, athletic, aggressive, hella cheesy-looking) straight couple. We also never learn which elements play a role in their relationship: the secrecy, the escapism, the novelty, the role-play, their yearslong friendship, the safety of a game world free from prying eyes, the fluidity between homosociality and homoeroticism, the uncertainty of the genders, races, sexual orientations involved, and/or the ability to blur any and all categories. (Whew.) What we do know is that Theo and Daisy feel sexually neglected—with Theo suspicious that her husband’s having an affair—and that Danny is reluctant to blow up his nuclear family if his attraction to Lance isn’t “real.”
Do their touchless affairs even count as cheating? For most of the hour, “Striking Vipers” hums along on a delicious uncertainty, unfettered by Brooker’s customary didacticism. Eventually, though, the episode’s underwrittenness begins to sink the romance. Danny and Karl decide to meet up in person to gauge their physical attraction to one another in real life, and Karl, who’d enjoyed the “best sex of [his] life” with Lance, decidedly doesn’t enjoy their kiss. With Danny, the matter of his gratification is more unsettled—both the camera and Mackie play it coy. It’s at that pivotal juncture, when the emotional disjunct between the men is never more character-revealing, that it hits us how little we know about their IRL relationship to one another.
The conclusion of “Striking Vipers” is one in which technology assists in the queering and opening up of the central trio, to the satisfaction of each individual’s wants. Danny gets to stay in his heterosexual marriage, not least for his kids’ sake, and enjoy scheduled flings with his friend. Karl realizes that, when he isn’t with Danny, he prefers the company of his new cat to Daisy’s. And Theo, who had felt sexually stifled by her marriage, is free to pick up strangers on the nights when she and Danny have prearranged their strayings. The characters’ new situations flirt with ideas frequently associated with queerness—open marriages, a gay-ish affair, the ability to transition between male and female bodies—but the amorphousness of their relationship and the heavy emphasis on protecting Danny and Theo’s union make the ending feel less like a romantic micro utopia than an optimization of heterosexual marriage, one that eliminates the destabilizing threats of new urges and sexual exploration. Danny and Karl’s erotic ardor is ultimately domesticated and instrumentalized in the same way that Danny and Theo’s sex life was, at least temporarily, dedicated to maximizing her chances at getting pregnant. If we had a better understanding of what drew Danny and Karl to each other, we could better root for their relationship. But without those crucial details, it just feels like the best ending Black Mirror can give us is scheduled sex.