Monday, April 19, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: Striking Vipers


Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Herein lies #15.

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote the script, while veteran television director Owen Harris helmed the episode. Harris is no stranger to the Black Mirror universe, having directed two of its most celebrated (and not just by me) episodes: the Emmy-winning San Junipero and my personal favorite, Be Right Back.

The Setup: We start with a sort of softer Crocodile-style intro to Danny, Theo, and Karl's carefree 20s. Danny and Karl are besties and roommates who pass many an evening playing a Mortal Kombat-ish video game called Striking Vipers, but time moves on and ten years later, they've grown up.

Danny and Theo are now a married suburban couple with a young son, putting a whole lot of effort into conceiving number 2. Karl is still living the wealthy music producer bachelor life, finding his younger dates via apps and spending awkward dinners trying to explain his '90s references.

Life gets complicated for both men when they decide to play the new, far more advanced version of Striking Vipers, which lets its players enter a realistic virtual space and try out a whole set of new moves without consequences. Before you can throw in a high kick, Karl's avatar Roxette and Danny's Ryu-ish Lance give up on street fighting and begin, well, you know.

The Ending: After testing out their relationship IRL (as the kids say), Danny and Karl confirm that they're not attracted to one another but still, the game sex is better than anything they've seemed to experience in real life (as the adults say). Danny tells a now very pregnant Theo the truth and the credits-filled coda tells us their future: once a year, they're allowed a respective dalliance. For Danny, that means logging on and summoning Lance for a date with Roxette. For Theo, going to a bar and meeting a stranger for sex.

The Theme: Satisfaction comes in many forms, and for our Striking Vipers trio, it means occasionally looking outside your marriage (and physical body).

The Verdict: I still maintain that Striking Vipers isn't quite as adventurous as it thinks it is, mostly because the coda's resolution feels rather strict. Clearly, Lance/Roxette sex is more satisfying to Danny (and obviously Karl) than anything in real life, and the tradeoff that means an annual virtual trip for Danny and a one-night-only one night stand for Theo feels, well, disappointing for all parties involved. Perhaps that's the point?

That being said, Striking Vipers is certainly fun to watch, particularly if you have any connection to '90s era fighting video games (Street Fighter 2 champion talking here). Anthony Mackie shows a different side than anything we've seen him do onscreen, while pre-Watchman Yahya Abdul-Mateen II manages to convey so much stifled unhappiness hiding behind his playboy persona in limited screentime. It's a solid hour of television, but just one with bigger ideas that deserve a deeper dive.

Technology Tip: All those fantasies you had as a teenager with a SEGA Genesis are even hotter in your adult future

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 2/10 No one is actually hurt, and while Danny and Theo's marriage hits a bump, it ends up far stronger than it started (at least for now). The 2 really all falls on Karl, who is clearly longing for. whole lot more.

Quality Scale: 7/10; like most of the series, this is a beautiful looking episode, with quality actors giving performances that we haven't quite seen before. And anyone who grew up learning the button codes for character-specific moves and experiencing extreme '90s joy at defeating their opponent in an exotic 2D backdrop will appreciate the game design.

Enjoyment Scale: 6/10; seriously, I count Chun-Li among my childhood heroes, so I can't say I'm immune to the charms of Striking Vipers. This might be the sexiest episode in the series, but I still, on second viewing, just find it missing something.

Up Next (Month): Yet another video game, albeit one of a whole different genre with Playtest

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