Black Mirror season 5: ‘Striking Vipers’ review - Examining a brave new world of virtual sex

A story underpinned by timeless themes of fidelity, family, fantasy fulfilment and that old dramatic chestnut, the love triangle

Fiona Sturges
Wednesday 05 June 2019 12:45
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Black Mirror season 5: Striking Vipers trailer

In “Striking Vipers”, one of three new Black Mirror episodes, Anthony Mackie – last seen sporting mechanical wings as Falcon in the Avengers series – plays Danny, a married father trying to keep a lid on his mid-life ennui. Events take an unusual turn when he has earth-shattering, chandelier-swinging sex with a female martial arts fighter in an unusually immersive VR game. Roxette, a young woman with fashionably bleached hair and an enviable collection of bum-skimming tunics, is in fact the “skin” of an old college friend, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Does this mean that Danny, whose once roaring social life now amounts to sedate family barbecues and for whom sex is now scheduled around ovulation calendars, is now a bisexual philanderer? Or given that, in this context, he and Karl are made of pixels and neither have moved from their sofas, is such behaviour now permissible? In examining a brave new world of virtual sex, this episode might better have been titled: ‘Look, no hands!’

The collision of technology and real life is, of course, a recurring theme in Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s novellas of doom, which, despite their glossy aesthetic and preoccupation with the future, recall old-fashioned morality plays as they look at human frailty and warn us about what lies around the corner.

But the difference between this and previous mind-bending episodes such as “Be Right Back”, in which a woman resurrects her dead partner as an AI robot, and “Nosedive”, in which lives are built up and broken by social media ratings, lies in its comparative ordinariness. We may not yet be getting our rocks off inside video games but the immersive, addictive properties of the likes of Fortnite have long been causing moral panic among concerned parents. More pointedly, underpinning this story are timeless themes of fidelity, family, fantasy fulfilment and, that old dramatic chestnut, the love triangle.

Certainly, “Striking Vipers” yields a nuanced depiction of marriage, parenthood and the erosion of spontaneity that both can bring. There are echoes of Mad Men’s Don Draper in Danny and his malfunctioning moral compass, even if his duplicity isn’t so black and white. Danny’s disaffection is expressed via long bouts of staring into space, a glance at a friend’s backside and the existential despair with which he fills the dishwasher. The issue of whether VR sex counts as cheating, meanwhile, is as confusing for him as it is for us. The linchpin in all this is his wife (Nicole Beharie), who is fully attuned to the subtleties of her husband’s silences and, as she tells him sadly over an anniversary dinner, the shifting patterns of his body language.

The Brooker-ish taste for the absurd is still detectable here, most noticeably when Karl reveals his efforts to get over Roxette by having sex with other characters. “I f***ed a polar bear!” he exclaims, outraged. But in a series famed for its wild visions and outré set pieces, “Striking Vipers” is distinctive by its meditative tone and everyday preoccupations. It’s all the better for it.

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