Black Mirror: Striking Vipers
June 5, 2019 11:14 AM - Season 5, Episode 1 - Subscribe

Two estranged college friends reunite in later life, triggering a series of events that could alter their lives forever.
posted by rhizome (48 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:23 PM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

My epiphany is that I'm the man at parties that likes bikes.
posted by adept256 at 2:23 PM on June 5, 2019 [13 favorites]


I felt that was saying some really interesting things about sexuality and love between friends and how that can get murky, and blew it on the dismount.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:15 PM on June 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

slow-burning, unexpectedly interesting
posted by growabrain at 9:03 PM on June 5, 2019

Oh, this was really interesting and didn't leave me hating the world, which is what Black Mirror usually does. I wish we'd had more information about the resolution - how he and his wife got to that arrangement. Otherwise, I was really impressed with how it approached fluid gender and sexuality.
posted by crossoverman at 4:30 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Quietly good.

I agree that this was a slow-burner; at first I was really not into the pacing, and when I realized there were ~10 minutes left I knew it was going to have to pack a lot in and it (mostly) did. Random thoughts:

- Clearly TCKR is the hitch they're posting to in this series now... okay.
- I appreciated how this didn't depict the technology as 100% bad. It let Danny and Karl explore their identities and sexuality. The ramifications were coming from a place of relationships instead. Very different take than, say, S1 (in my opinion).
- Casting was great.
- The ending and resolution push, slightly, towards a different level of understanding. Clearly the game is real enough to all three people to the point where Theo also gets to do something that is real enough, for her. (And who knows how deep either "free day" goes?)
- Based on what we know the above comes out of a very mature and consensual relationship.

I suppose the ending can be read in many ways including "Oh god, these two people are relying on technology to express themselves and show love, TCKR wins again" but also "Well, three adults figured out what works for them even though two of them are/were in a traditional relationship."
posted by hijinx at 6:31 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

To clarify what I thought that they flubbed on the ending - I dug the acceptance of fluid sexuality and using technology to express themselves, but what I didn't like was that that expression was shuttled into a "once a year as a birthday treat" kind of thing.

Also, hell, why not introduce Theo to the game and let her have a go? Or hell, even join in?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:33 AM on June 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

I don't think the end was entirely flubbed, but I do think there needed to be more information about the "arrangement" at the end.

The "once a year" arrangement seems to be about balancing real life with virtual life, which is an intriguing idea. But once a year doesn't seem like much of a balance. I can see why they would go with this as it's a nice button ending. The problem is this is a really complex and interesting story so the pat ending feels too quick and easy.

Still, I really enjoyed it.
posted by miss-lapin at 7:48 AM on June 6, 2019


Four years ago, Tabitha-to-be would have been all about this episode.

I, on the other hand, most definitely was not.

That might just be disappointment, though. From the moment Karl chose the female avatar in the old Striking Vipers game, I thought the episode would explore trans themes. After all, many of us explore our gender expression through video games long before we are out even to ourselves.

But Karl wasn't trans. I really don't get what was supposed to be going on with him. He was a straight cis man who just really enjoyed sex with his male friend as a woman? To the point it ruined his normal sex life? That seems strangely specific.

So in the end, it felt like a wasted opportunity.

Oh, well. Maybe another episode somewhere down the road will actually explore the themes I was hoping for.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 8:29 AM on June 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

You could be waiting a long time, because while romance with online personas is a real thing and fertile ground for drama, it's boring to film. It's just people looking fondly at glowing rectangles. I've seen examples in my own life of the online relationship being destroyed by IRL contact. All the way going back to IRC days. It must happen all the time but we don't see it represented in media very often at all. It's just hard to film, chat logs are boring. So they glued some near-future tech onto an everyday experience to make it telegenic and relatable.

It works for the narrative, but not for the universe. If that tech was real it wouldn't be confined to a glitch in an old game reboot. It would transform civilisation into something we wouldn't recognize. That it hasn't is where we suspend our disbelief.
posted by adept256 at 8:46 AM on June 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

Online romance is definitely not what I was hoping they would explore.

Given that these were old friends and not strangers who meet over the internet, the setup didn't seem particularly ripe for that.

The setup would, however, have been an excellent vehicle to show a person exploring their gender identity, which goes far beyond sex and romance.

Karl could have been a trans woman just discovering herself. They could have been non-binary. He could have been gender queer.

Instead, he just had a fetish.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 9:31 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

It could have been a lot of things, but did it succeed at doing what it was trying to do? Also, I don't think it's insignificant that they are black guys.

He was a straight cis man who just really enjoyed sex with his male friend as a woman?

I suspect there's a definition of trans that fits this, but the "sex as a woman" part kind of requires it to be imaginary. In context, however, is nonphysical trans truly a scriptwriting failure?
posted by rhizome at 11:12 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I agree that the episode was good overall but sputtered at the end. I thought the writers had something they wanted to say about Down Low culture but stepped back at the last minute and went with the love-triangle angle instead. And yeah, the once-a-year arrangement doesn't seem like it would make anyone happy in the long run!

I did appreciate the lighter touch of this episode -- usually I find Black Mirror tries to ram the "technology is rotting away our morals OKAY" message down my throat too hard.
posted by Rora at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I mean this was written to be legible to cis people as a love story; it seems to take place in a universe where no one has heard of being trans. Like I don't think the story has anything to say about being trans, itself.

He was a straight cis man who just really enjoyed sex with his male friend as a woman?

To me it was obviously meant to be love, but a taboo love.

I'm not convinced neither of them felt anything from the kiss, either. I think Danny kinda did.
posted by fleacircus at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

posted by fleacircus at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2019 [17 favorites]

Like, how could the scene where Danny asks about 'what it's like' to be the woman not end with them trying it out? It wasn't really about exploring the implications of the technology...

And nthing that the once a year arrangement is more narratively pat than satisfying/believable/interesting.
posted by fleacircus at 2:05 PM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Why are we assuming once a year? I thought the mark on the calendar meant once a month?
posted by crossoverman at 7:58 PM on June 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

Theo gives him the chip wrapped up in a box and says "Happy birthday" as she does. Birthdays are once-a-year events.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:08 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've seen examples in my own life of the online relationship being destroyed by IRL contact.

Oh good, not just me.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:13 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, hell, why not introduce Theo to the game and let her have a go? Or hell, even join in?

The threesome DLC isn't coming until next year.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:40 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites] I kind of want to see the changelog for that.

"Inserting your penis into one partner no longer transfers sensation to both partners. This was unintended behavior and has been patched out."

"Fixed a bug where double penetration would crash the server."

"Corrected a glitch where if you did a 69 at 4:20 all participants would involuntarily yell 'NICE!' until 4:21."
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:58 AM on June 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

Also, not only was it nice to see Anthony Mackie in a different sort of role than what I'm used to from him (the MCU movies and The Hurt Locker), but this is the first time that I've seen Pom Klementieff do anything besides Mantis from the MCU, and I liked her a lot. The comics Mantis was more martial arts oriented, and that would be a nice switch for the MCU version going forward.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:12 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I suspect there's a definition of trans that fits this, . . .
I suspect there's a definition of trans that fits this, but the "sex as a woman" part kind of requires it to be imaginary. In context, however, is nonphysical trans truly a scriptwriting failure?
I would never read just wanting a feminine body during sex is not trans without some positive declaration on the part of the person with the desire. There was no indication that Karl was dissatisfied with his gender other than some sexual dysfunction because he wasn't having the sex he actually wanted, or any indication that he thought of himself as anything other than a man.

I'm not sure what you mean by "requires it to be imaginary". If he doesn't want to make any changes at all to his body, then, sure, I guess. But that's a choice on the part of the writer's and that's at a big part of what I'm complaining about. They took this premise that could have been about identity, and made it just about sex.

"non-physical trans" could be a thing, but I don't believe that this episode showed it. So if that's what they were going for, I'd say they failed.But I don't think it was, and I'm not saying it was a script writing failure. Just that I didn't like it.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 10:19 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

My backseat-writing instinct was that the episode simply should have flat ended as it pulled back through the window to show him finally starting to talk to his wife. But I actually enjoyed that they didn't show whit one of how they came to their arrangements--I'm tempted to view it as itself a very Black Mirror commentary on privacy versus access to others; whatever they did, whatever the road the three of them took to get there, it was their business, not the audience's. But only a little tempted!
posted by Drastic at 11:50 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Was a treat to see my hometown as the location. Classic São Paulo views, Copan in the last scene, Viaduto Santa Ifigênia, a view of Paulista Ave, Minhocão. I guess the beach scenes were probably shot somewhere in São Paulo state. The Jericoacoara Bar looks a bit more modest in reality.

Fun episode, and not as gloomy as season 1.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 2:39 PM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

"I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn't get you outta my mind."

That was an amazing quote and perfect delivery
posted by numaner at 9:06 AM on June 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

Every Episode of Black Mirror Ranked: This one is #8 our of 23.
posted by rongorongo at 9:19 AM on June 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

tbh I feel a little bit judged for my tetris 99 habit
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:32 AM on June 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

I liked this episode. It was pretty naturalistic and in a lot of ways more about humanity than technology.

It is interesting to see how many of the comments here wish it told a different story. I tend to watch something and then think more about whether I like how they told the story. Although I guess if I didn't enjoy something, I do wish they just told a different story.
posted by snofoam at 3:51 PM on June 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also, seeing all these episode rankings made me realize that I like or at least appreciate almost all Black Mirror episodes. By contrast, I don't think I enjoyed any episodes of the new Twilight Zone or the Philip K. Dick Electric Dreams show.
posted by snofoam at 4:13 PM on June 8, 2019

I have some trouble with the Guardian's framing:

17. Men Against Fire

A soldier stalks the earth, murdering a number of grotesque mutant monsters. But wait, what if those monsters were just normal people disguised by an augmented reality chip in the soldier’s head? Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? Except you did, right from the very first frame.

Why are they addressing me? Write your own damn review and dispense with de Becker's forced-teaming. "Hey, remember when we didn't like this episode for the same reasons? You...did...didn't you?" Especially in a ranking listicle, which are the gossamer New Yorker cartoons of criticism.
posted by rhizome at 9:21 AM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just watched this one after a friend keyed me in that it's about trans issues. I liked it a lot more than a lot of people here on fanfare--but then, I didn't see Danny and Karl's conversation after their IRL kiss to be necessarily honest, especially on Danny's part, after Karl already rejected him.

Mostly I saw it as a story about toxic masculinity and acceptable means for men to show affection. Early in the episode Karl seemingly flirts with Danny through veiled threats (What was it? "Roxette's going to fuck your head off") and then we see Tyler and his friends act out through physical aggression toward one another and toward Danny. In the end, it's not the kiss that gets them to catharsis but a physical fight. While in the prisons of their own bodies, it's the only means to express anything toward one another. At least Karl has humor, but Danny is so emotionally repressed that he has only violence.

A lot of things could be going on with Karl. I don't see him saying a kiss doesn't work for him in his male body as a sign that he is necessarily comfortable in that body. I think it's significant that in the end he's not dating anyone, that he just has a kitty cat instead.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:50 AM on June 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

One of the funniest things about this episode was how the fighting game actors would inch towards each other miming idle animations. I also really liked how the alley where Karl and Danny met was basically a fighting game stage.

I think Karl is probably trans, though I don't know if the show knows it. Probably have to see Karl's Skyrim characters to be sure.
posted by fleacircus at 1:10 PM on June 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

PhoBWanKenobi-That's super insightful, and I' glad you brought up the cat. The ending made me super sad for Karl. I mean I love my cats but I don't consider them emotional surrogates for a romantic relationship. I think of them more as short roommates who shed a lot and have a weird cellophane eating fetish.
posted by miss-lapin at 2:22 PM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Anyone else feel really uncomfortable with Karl's aggression at the dinner scene? Danny says no multiple times and Karl keep pushing harder and harder and gets physically closer and closer. Which is interesting on another level because he's the one that's the female avatar. But his aggressiveness really got to me there.

Agreed that at least Danny really did have feelings for Karl when they kissed. And if Dany was so curious how it felt as a woman, why not try it out? I thought that part of the story was a little limited and could have been explored more.
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:41 AM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Agreed that at least Danny really did have feelings for Karl when they kissed. And if Danny was so curious how it felt as a woman, why not try it out?

Exactly what I thought. Or let Danny try it with Theo, with Theo playing a guy and Danny playing a woman.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Anyone else feel really uncomfortable with Karl's aggression at the dinner scene? Danny says no multiple times and Karl keep pushing harder and harder and gets physically closer and closer. Which is interesting on another level because he's the one that's the female avatar. But his aggressiveness really got to me there.

He's like this in the very first scene where we see them playing the old school Striking Vipers, too. Cajoling Danny to play even when Danny says he has to work. It's not great, yeah. But also Danny is so, so, so closed off. It seems like something that both Theo and Karl are very aware of.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:32 AM on June 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Little detail I noticed, and possibly coincidental, but at the dinner table Danny is dressed like Spock and Karl like Kirk. You know, right before a little violence breaks Danny out of his mating related funk.
posted by condour75 at 8:29 PM on June 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

My epiphany is that I'm the man at parties that likes bikes.

But not motorcycles. Just bikes.

Mostly I saw it as a story about toxic masculinity and acceptable means for men to show affection.

Yeah, I think having Karl play a female character was just a way to get the two characters to that place. I don't think they would have gone there if Karl's character was a woman. Note how even after they've fucked in the game several times, they're still worried about seeming "gay".

There's sort of a meta joke in the "I fucked a polar bear" scene in that Karl had no problem whatsoever finding other people (presumably other men) who wanted to fuck instead of fight, which is that fucking and fighting are the only two ways men feel allowed to express their emotions, which I think is sort of a clever way to embed the whole thesis of the episode inside a bestiality gag.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

(If Karl's character wasn't a woman, I meant.)
posted by tobascodagama at 5:02 AM on June 17, 2019

This was my least favorite episode of the season and I'd probably place it second from the bottom of all Black Mirror episodes for me. I just hated Karl and that scene at the dinner table when he is pushing Danny while Theo, who he has known for years, is in the other room, just pushed all my negative buttons.

I'm glad garbage person Karl gets his great birthday sex once a year - since ya know, the polar bears weren't doing it for him.
posted by Julnyes at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I just finished this episode and I thought it was fairly interesting. Bits of it didn't work for me and ultimately I felt it asked more questions than it answered - but they were interesting questions.

Is Karl gay? Is he not gay? Is he not "not gay"? Does being a woman in a video game have anything to do with being trans? Is preferring sex as a woman in any way related to wanting to be a woman? Is Danny cheating on Theo? Is he having an emotional affair with Karl? Karl's avatar? If it's the avatar, can you even have an emotional affair with someone who doesn't exist? Would Karl have been as in to this if their avatars had been reversed? Would Danny? Does Karl's difficulty with women in the real world mean that he's gay or gay-ish or is it just that sex in the video game is so awesome that flesh and blood women just can't compete?

I was annoyed that the guys let the pregnant woman clear the table. I get that they needed to have a private conversation for Plot Reasons, but there were other ways to do that. Come on, guys, let the lady put her feet up.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:40 PM on June 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is Karl gay? Is he not gay? Is he not "not gay"?

I think that was the primary point of this episode - it highlights the current zeitgeist that sexuality is completely personal, travels along a fluid spectrum and essentially exists as a construct in ones own mind.

Why must there be only the one, or the other?
posted by jkaczor at 8:49 AM on June 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I liked it and I laughed a lot from recognition. The fighting game gimmick was excellent and I really liked how the character designs weren't hyper-sexualised, in that the players interactions still felt like a break from the intent of the game rather than an invited/intended consequence of it. The backgrounds were on point too. Felt like there was a lot of unexplored conceptual room intrinsic to the Character Select screen, but to be fair the episode only had an hour.

Really liked how an accommodation was found rather than a bleaker ending. Halfway through I honestly assumed that by some contrivance the kid was going to have a go on Dad's Favourite Game and somehow A Terrible Situation Would Occur. Bullet dodged, probably. Also, dunno if it arises from me maybe misreading the scenario as Preggers=NOSEX at the end, but surely he could have invited his not-pregnant-in-the-game wife to play?

Whole piece read to me more as a Bi-thing than a badly done Trans-thing, but I absolutely accept other people's readings of it.

Only real grumble is the classic Black Mirror middle-classness of it all.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 5:38 PM on June 24, 2019

Heh - my assumption was that the standard display screen would actually be showing a view of what was happening in VR (y'know a standard feature for normal gaming situations so other people in the room aren't bored sitting next to someone that is essentially in a drooly VR coma), and then Danny's wife would walk in and there would be some ramifications... (or his son, who would also have questions) ... my stomach kept churning, awaiting that "twist".
posted by jkaczor at 9:20 PM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I want to 100% agree that we are not meant to accept at face value that there is nothing between Danny and Karl "in real life" just because of their declaration that there were no fireworks when they kissed. There was clearly something between them. In the Black Mirror way, technology facilitates certain interactions but that doesn't mean that we socially capable of dealing with them. The ending is not exactly a happy ending (although it could have gone much, much worse). How they dealt with what emerged from their game interactions was by putting it in new and different box. Undoubtedly a somewhat healthier place to be but an arrangement with major compromises, most obviously for Karl. I don't think it is a "best of both worlds" ending.

I also don't think the intention was to comment on trans issues but rather on the limited social repertoire for male intimacy. Theo commented on this several times. Everything Karl did, from the choice of the game for his birthday present, was trying to be closer to Danny. He could have got him, like, a new subwoofer for his stereo or something. I'm not 100% sure about this, but if the main theme is homosociality, doesn't it preclude it being a trans story despite the gender-fluid aspects? For Karl, I think having a positive experience as a female avatar in the game world was a serendipitous side effect of wanting to be with Danny, not an affirmation of his gender identity.
posted by nequalsone at 6:50 AM on June 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think it's fairly clear the polar bear didn't stare wonderingly into his eyes and stroke his hair.
posted by provoliminal at 4:36 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I liked this episode. Mostly because it was ambiguous. It doesn't quite work as a transgender story. There's elements of that of course, but the details are pretty far removed from the experiences of the transgender friends I know. Karl doesn't so much seem like a woman as he does a man who is enjoying the kink of feeling what a woman does during sex. It's also an allegory about how bros aren't very good at talking about their feelings, something blatantly made obvious with Danny's wife constantly chiding them about not being more intimate. But then the episode never really resolves the feelings; if anything really all that happens is the guys agree to jerk off together and pretend it doesn't mean anything. Even though it obviously does.

But what most fascinated me is this show as an allegory about Down Low culture. I don't know enough about to really judge the accuracy, and the relationship felt awfully cartoony for that. But it definitely played differently with two African American characters at the center. Black Mirror has been pioneering in using lots of Black actors in its shows, dating back to the first British productions. But few of those characters felt really embedded in Black culture, whether British or American. This episode definitely did. Or seemed to, but like I said I don't feel confident in my judgement about that.

The weakness of the episode was that Karl was not a protagonist character. We never really see his motives. I read him mostly as a closeted gay man, wanting Danny and realizing this was the only way he could have sex with his bro. But I think I brought most of that reading myself, it's not supported enough in the text. Particularly at the end when they kiss in real life and Karl's like "nah"; that seemed sincere. OTOH why'd he jump Danny's bones the very first time they played the game together? That seemed premeditated.

Random aside about Black Mirror continuity; if you invented a technology that let people have virtual sex, you're really missing the market if all you do is sell it as a fighting game.
posted by Nelson at 8:45 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

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