You ever watch a trailer thinking it’ll go one way and then it goes a whole ‘nother way? There’s an entertaining beauty in that, and frankly, it’s my movie trailer style of choice—you know, instead of giving away the entire plot. Either way, trailers are meant to tease. The fun misdirection is an added bonus.
Cue Black Mirror’s Season 5 premiere.
Writer’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers” episode.
As Netflix’s press release explains it:
Two estranged college friends reunite in later life, triggering a series of events that could alter their lives forever.
The episode stars Anthony Mackie (Danny), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Karl), and Nicole Beharie (Theo).
To promote the popular anthology series’ fifth season, Netflix’s Strong Black Lead hosted a viewing party in New York, screening “Striking Vipers” for a select group of folks. Film and TV critic, Rebecca Theodore-Vachon expressed her thoughts following the advanced screening, teasing the episode’s impact on Black Twitter.
Since I was suffering from a bit of insomnia after a late day nap, I decided to give the episode a whirl that night. And boyyyyy was Rebecca right.
The episode begins with college-aged Danny who awkwardly hits on Theo, which turns into a role-playing (this part becomes important later on) bout of foreplay between an already existing couple. Enter Karl, Danny’s very good friend, and the two bond over playing a Street Fighter-esque game called “Striking Vipers.” I will say this—I caught slight homoerotic vibes when they tussled after bantering over the game. It was a fleeting moment, but it made me go, “hmm.” I peeped early on.
We cut to 11 years later, with Danny and Theo married with a son and Karl newly single. Danny is considerably bored with his family, BBQ, and patchy beard life. He even creepily stares at the ass crack of a female family friend, and therein lies the main misdirect. Karl catches up with Danny and the two old friends giggle over Karl’s new extra-young conquest’s Instagram page at Danny’s birthday party, and not-so-slyly hide it from Theo. Again, a misdirect, as I thought Mackie’s Danny would be a “cheating with an IG Honey” fuckboy from the trailer. Karl later gifts Danny with an updated version of “Striking Vipers,” which now includes a virtual reality component. Karl promotes the new add-on better than a car salesman, noting how wild and otherworldly it is.
That night, the two play the game, which inserts their consciousness into the bodies of the game’s characters. Karl picks a female character, Danny picks a male character. Danny quickly realizes that the most insane aspect is that the VR-world’s happenings equate to real-world feelings. He can feel those hits.
After the game versions of Karl and Danny’s fight turn into a tussle—reminiscent of the aforementioned one in the real world—things get hot. That’s right, the game characters start kissing. Danny, panicked, exits the game.
However, Danny realizes he kind of likes the way that felt. That nigga is conflicted. Karl likes it, without question. Danny reluctantly tries again, and the kissing leads to a full-blown fuck session. “Striking Vipers,” indeed. Hey, double entendre!
Of course, the men brush off any “gay” labels (because omg that’s the worst that can happen, right???), don’t explore their buried sexuality any further, and chalk up the whole experience as being akin to porn.
Soon, their “harmless” virtual reality romp transforms into obsession, since it is indeed, the best sex they ever had. Not only are there themes of sexual exploration, but also that of gender identity as Karl attempts to explain the feeling of sex from the perspective of the female game character, likening male and female sexual pleasure to a “guitar solo” versus “an orchestra.”
Danny begins to heavily withdraw from Theo, who naturally and heartbreakingly believes that means it must be something wrong with her—specifically her post-baby body. In a particularly notable scene during their anniversary dinner, Theo admits her own disappointment with what their life has become; so much so, she almost considered fucking the guy who hit on her at the bar while she was waiting for Danny to arrive. After a sobering conversation, Danny decides to end his “Striking Vipers” tryst with Karl for the betterment of his family.
The episode crescendos into a climax where the two men bicker over what cannot be denied—their steaming hot connection. Eventually, the two share a real-world kiss in the pouring rain in order to confirm whether or not what they have is “real,” which devolves into a physical fight match. Again, there are underlying layers to unpack in this whole scene. Were they lying to themselves when they said they didn’t feel anything? Even if they weren’t lying, isn’t there something deeper to assess in their newfound sexual kink?
“It’s not cheating; it’s not real!” Karl exclaims to an internally warring Danny in the episode.
But, as Black Mirror typically encourages its audience to ask—what is “real?”
The episode ends with Danny revealing his secret tryst with Theo and we see a montage of what their future has come to be—the couple are still together, but now with a new aspect to their marriage, which is open on an appointed day. Danny is free to strike his viper with Karl and Theo is free to live out her fantasy of fucking strangers she meets at a bar.
As Rebecca noted above, I can definitely see this episode fostering a larger discussion on sexuality via Black Twitter, particularly in the case of cis black men. Predictable hotep indignation aside—seriously, I bet they’re going to say Role Playing Games (RPGs) are now part of the “gay agenda”—I think this episode would be a great jumping point toward sexual identity and gender identity intersections, the fluidity of sexual identity, and the concept of sexual freedom. And the timing of this episode premiering during Pride Month is not lost on me. Who knows if it was intentional, but the timing is right, nonetheless.
Plus, Yahya’s thighs look great when he’s sitting on his game sofa.