TV Review: 'Black Mirror: Striking Vipers (Season 5, Episode 1)

“Where does this end?”
“Who says it has to end?”

After a year and a half of waiting, the BBC-turned-Netflix sensation, Black Mirror, has finally returned. Unfortunately, that return is marred by the disappointing three episode long season five. It’s better than nothing and as the premiere, “Striking Vipers” is a stark reminder of the series’ creativity and that blend into the real-world implications as technology continues to evolve as an ingrained aspect of our culture.

Our first introductions are to Danny and Theo, a couple spicing things up at the club with a bit of stranger-picks-up-the-woman role-play. Their share a place with Karl who also shows up and later spends time with Danny hooked on the fighting game, Striking Vipers. Flash forward 11 years; Theo and Danny are married with a young son with designs on having a second child. From the start, it’s clear that Danny’s in an inexplicable rut. Despite the picture perfect family, something’s missing from his life; whether, at 38, it’s because he’s hitting the midlife crisis zone or he’s lacking a more tangible something, is up in the air. But when Karl stops by for Danny’s birthday, gifting him with the newest Striking Vipers VR game, Danny finds the spark he’s been missing…in the last place he expected.

Unlike current VR games, “Striking Vipers” takes the reality in virtual-reality to an entirely new level. Not only does “the game emulate all physical sensations”, the players are not beholden to the structure of the game. What that means is, just like reality, the player can do anything he wants. For Danny, he and Karl end up having a virtual affair through their respective characters, Lance and Roxette.

Though things begin innocently enough, it quickly becomes something more, to the point that both men become distracted in their daily lives. This is even more pronounced with Danny, whose disconnected behavior eventually draws Theo’s suspicions that he’s having an affair. Her tearful confrontation of this behavior at their anniversary dinner is the wakeup call for Danny to push both the VR game and Karl out of his life.

Danny and Karl’s long-held friendship takes a major turn when they meet on the VR field of Striking Vipers.

Seven months later, things are going well for Danny and Theo. They seem closer than ever and not just because Theo’s very pregnant. But that bubble of happiness is pierced when Theo invites Karl over for Danny’s birthday dinner. The palpable tension between the two men end up with them meeting once more in the game, though this time Karl drops the “L” word.

This declaration freaks Danny out but instead of cutting his friend off, he sets up an in-person meeting with Karl to discover if what’s between them is real or just a byproduct of VR gaming lust. Their face-to-face quickly spirals and the two find themselves in a brawl in which they are arrested. Theo demands to know what is driving the tension between the two men and it’s here where “Striking Vipers” caps off the screw job to the viewer’s mind.

After another time jump, this time of nearly a year finds Danny and Theo as happy as can be. Karl has moved on with his life (even getting a cat) and everything seems normal. That changes when Danny’s birthday arrives. Not only does Theo give him the VR game, demanding that he return it to her in the morning but Theo herself goes out on the town, ready to partake in her own free pass. Thus, on one night a year, both couples allow themselves to partake in the taboo, an open-ish relationship with strict rules that seems to have allowed all three people to find their happy place.

And there it is. A conclusion that seemingly comes out of left field—granted, there was a hint of this type of resolution during a previous conversation between the couple—but is able to satisfy all parties involved. But it’s not where Danny, Theo, and Karl end up in “Striking Vipers” that’s the real story, rather the implications of such a VR outlet as it pertains to infidelity and a person’s mental health.

While there are no games of this complexity in the real world, in time there will be and they will become a part of that near future society and people will have to redefine what is okay in a relationship and what is not. Even now, many see casual flirting, not to mention cyber affairs as a segment dwelling under that infidelity umbrella. That’s clear enough but what “Striking Vipers” doesn’t answer are the more uncomfortable question of, in such a realistic VR, what is the dividing line between video game fun/enjoyment and the taboo? Would underage kids be prevented from playing these games? What would happen if a player discovered too late their playing partner was underage? Would that be statutory rape? Child abuse? Or how about when Karl mentions his sexual rendezvous with a bear; would that constitute bestiality or animal cruelty?

These seem like senseless questions but if VR ever grows into the technology that can create these all-encompassing experiences, these types of questions will have to be answered. And whatever those answers may be will define where society has gone. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly the contemplation Black Mirror is looking to create.