Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Black Mirror, "Striking Vipers"

It feels strange to talk about Black Mirror reinventing itself. Even if you leave aside the fact that this is a show in its fifth season (plus two specials), a point where habits tend to be firmly fixed, what would be the impetus for it? From its scandalous premiere in 2011, Black Mirror has always been lauded for being exactly what it is. Even the people who have criticized it—for its cynicism, for its nastiness, for its reflexive distrust of technology—have helped to cement its brand, our idea of what a Black Mirror story is like and can accomplish. And yet, when you finish watching the three episodes of the just-released fifth season, there is no other way to describe them than as a departure. It's probably the strongest season the show has fielded since its first, but it's also the least Black Mirror-ish.

Some people might describe the season as optimistic. This isn't entirely inaccurate—the third episode, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", is basically a YA story about two sisters who help a pop star evade the clutches of her nefarious manager, along the way repairing their own fractured relationship. On the other hand, the second episode, "Smithereens", is a hostage drama driven by the hostage taker's suicidal depression, and which ends ambiguously but, it is strongly implied, tragically. But even in this episode, there is a sense of benevolence, of a world that mostly travels along well-established and well-intentioned grooves. The people who accumulate around the hostage crisis—police officers, hostage negotiators, SWAT teams—behave with caution and professionalism, working hard to secure the best possible outcome. The corporate officers at the titular social media company, whose CEO the hostage taker demands to speak to, similarly act responsibly, sharing information with authorities, prioritizing the life of the hostage even though he's just an intern at their company. Even the people who behave like assholes—the onlookers who tweet confidential details about the crisis that scotch the cops' plans, the company's legal advisor who doesn't want to let the CEO know about the situation—are being assholes on a relatable, human level, and with obvious limits on their behavior. It's a moderation that is entirely atypical of the show.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in its fifth season Black Mirror is much more focused on character and plot than on technology. You see this, for example, in the way that none of the episodes feature technology that is new to the show (or even to reality—"Smithereens" could take place in the here and now). Instead, they mix and match previously-established technologies—the personality-modeling "cookies" from "White Christmas" and other episodes; the VR gaming interface from "Playtest"—and imagine new uses for them.  One effect is that for the first time in its life, Black Mirror can just tell stories, rather than pointing at tech and urging us to beware. It's not an entirely successful experiment—all three episodes are a bit weak in their endings, the need to service an actual plot stretching creator Charlie Brooker (who wrote them all) to his limits—but it's still an exciting one for a show that had seemed to run out of stories to tell (to the point of trying to leave the actual storytelling to its audience).

The emphasis on story also means that Black Mirror's more annoying, preachy tendencies are toned down. "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", for example, peddles the eye-rolling, tired trope that tween-oriented pop is shallow and worthless and that cool girls should only like rock (by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, the type of riot grrl rock that was at the cutting edge when Brooker was young). But it's also too busy with its story for that message to get much space, and for the most part it is possible to ignore it and enjoy the episode's more positive themes of female solidarity and sisterly support. The emphasis on story also means that the fifth season of Black Mirror has the least to say about technology's interaction with capitalism, a topic on which it has sometimes managed to be quite probing. When we meet the CEO of Smithereens, for example, he's a good-hearted dweed who complains that his company has "gotten away from him".

The episode I want to talk about, though, is the season's opener, "Striking Vipers". It is, to my mind, a strong contender for one of Black Mirror's all-time great episodes, and easily its most interesting. It's also the queerest story the show has told in some time, perhaps ever, though not in the more straightforward way of "San Junipero". Instead, "Striking Vipers" is a story that challenges us, and its characters, to figure out its variety of queerness as it goes along.

The episode begins by introducing us to a trio of friends: protagonist Danny (Anthony Mackie), his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie), and his roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The trio live the carefree lifestyle of the young, going out to clubs, doing drugs, and playing video games all night. Eleven years later, Danny and Theo are married, live in the suburbs, have a young son, and are trying for another baby, while Karl is still living it up as a single man in the city, dating women ten years younger than him. At Danny's 38th birthday party, Karl gives him the latest version of Striking Vipers, the Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game they used to play in their younger days, along with a VR extension that lets players inhabit their chosen fighter. Later that night, the two men meet in the game, Karl playing his favorite character from the old days, Roxette (Pom Klementieff), and Danny embodied as Lance (Ludi Lin).

(You could raise issues about the fact that the two in-game characters are Asian—and, unsurprisingly for this type of game, have exaggerated, stereotypical styling and personas—but one effect of that choice is that all five of the episode's main characters are POC.  In fact, every speaking character, and most of the background ones, are non-white, a first for the show.)

What's most surprising and fun about "Striking Vipers" is how it repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag. Most Black Mirror episodes, even the ones with twists, tend to establish their starting conditions and story types fairly early on. But "Striking Vipers" leaves you guessing for most of its first act, uncertain about the story it's telling. And once that story materializes, it's a shock. The basic premise—two men on the cusp of middle age, both with good lives that nevertheless leave them vaguely unsatisfied—is a familiar one, and raises certain expectations. We expect Danny to have an ill-advised affair. We expect the two men to become entangled in one another's lives (perhaps through a body-switch?). We do not expect Roxette and Lance, after a few minutes of trading blows and admiring the game's full range of sensation, to turn a mid-fight tussle into a hot-and-heavy makeout session.

After a bit of perfunctory denial, this turns into a regular thing, with the two men forgoing any pretense of using the game for its intended purpose and instead meeting in it solely in order to have increasingly acrobatic, cinematic sex via their avatars. One thing that Black Mirror has been relatively slow to address is the way that technology is only rarely used in exactly the way its creators intend. The show loves to talk about how technology will pull us in unseemly, inhuman directions, but it rarely addresses the reverse, the fact that, as William Gibson put it, "the street finds its uses for things". That a game like Striking Vipers might be used for sex feels both inevitable, and like a refreshing avenue for story that the show has thus far failed to explore.

It doesn't take long for the audience to figure out what the characters are denying—that this isn't simply a form of masturbation, but an affair. Both men start neglecting their partners—leading to a lovely monologue from Beharie, whose character type is after all a thankless one but who the episode leaves space to be human, thoughtful, and sexual. More interestingly, the sexual relationship between Danny and Karl deepens their friendship. Early in the episode, Danny complains that he and Karl can't really talk anymore beyond the surface level of small talk. But in the game they have true intimacy, even beyond the sexual, all while Danny keeps a huge secret from his wife that damages their own ability to be intimate.  Ultimately, Danny is forced to choose his family over his personal satisfaction, leaving Karl genuinely bereft in a way that he can't even put a name on.

Another way in which "Striking Vipers" defies the expectations we might have developed for its story is the fact it refuses to put a label on what Danny and Karl have. One very plausible reading of the episode—which I've already seen—is as a metaphor for closeted homosexuality, and specifically life for closeted black men on the DL. But within the episode itself, that doesn't seem to be the answer. When Danny and Karl try to see if their connection exists in real life, they feel no heat, even as their in-game encounters become more intense. Nor does Karl seem to be questioning his gender identity. Though he insists that he enjoys sex more as Roxette than in his own body, in every other respect he seems happy with life as a man.

To me it feel like "Striking Vipers" is less about sexual identity than it is about kink. Danny and Karl have hit upon something that really works for both of them, that deepens their relationship, but also complicates their lives. Which is delightful, because most of the time, when pop culture discusses kink, it does so in a way that is prurient, or mocking, or pitying. "Striking Vipers" treats its characters with respect and sympathy, and their proclivity as something that emerges naturally from their humanity. It's a rare case of Black Mirror reversing the arrow of its anti-technology hectoring. For once, instead of technology bringing out the worst in us, it allows us to discover things about ourselves, and our capacity for pleasure, that we never knew.

It's at this stage, however, that the episode finds itself in a bind, because there is no way to proceed from this point that leaves all of its characters happy, as they clearly deserve to be. Danny loves his family, but he gets something out of his relationship with Karl that he can't get from Theo. And neither Karl nor Theo are happy with him being only half-present in their lives. He ends up leaving one of them, and then the other, but being unhappy with both choices.

The episode finally comes up with a solution that feels like walking back some of its previously-established assumptions. Danny goes back to Theo, but gets occasional nights off when he's allowed to meet Karl in the game. In exchange, Theo gets a night away from her marriage, free to pick up a handsome man for a one-night stand. But this feels rather unconvincing. For one thing, we've never gotten a sense that Theo wants an open marriage—though she speaks about her frustrations with monogamy, it doesn't feel like a deep desire so much as the sort of vague frustration that all married people sometimes feel without wanting to act on it. For another thing, a one night stand simply isn't equivalent to the emotional affair that Danny and Karl were carrying on, and Theo should still be concerned about how that might endanger her marriage. Finally, what about Karl? Is he really content with having Danny to himself for a few nights a year, despite previously having claimed to be in love with him?

I found myself wishing that "Striking Vipers" had been a little less character-focused, a little more Black Mirror-ish. What if instead of focusing on this trio—whose dilemma is ultimately irresolvable without hurting someone—we instead took a wider view of the community that develops around the game and its off-label use for sexual encounters? Karl tells Danny that he explored this community and concluded that no one satisfies him as much as Danny-as-Lance, but what if instead of that, he found someone in it who shared his kink and was available for a real relationship? What if Theo tried her hand at the game? As I wrote, endings are the achilles' heel of Black Mirror's fifth season, and this is especially noticeable in the case of "Striking Vipers", which until this point was such a strong, interesting story.

Still, even a weak ending doesn't completely undermine the episode. Between its compassionate approach to its characters and its open-minded approach to technology, "Striking Vipers" charts a path for how Black Mirror could evolve and grow. I hope that more people discover it and embrace its message of treating kink respectfully (while still respecting people who might not share it but also have claims on you). But I also hope Black Mirror learns from it about how it can be a better, more interesting show.

3 comments:

nathan said...

"I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn't get you out of my mind" is my favorite line in forever. Thanks for writing about this, I'm happy to agree with you that this was a strong season and Striking Vipers a standout.

Dave said...

I watched the episode after reading this review (Black Mirror has been more miss than hit for me and can't really compete with OG Twilight Zone) and while I saw the kink angle you talked about, I couldn't get over how incredibly gay it was with subtext so thick that it's practically text. Karl specifically has a breakdown for months when Danny breaks off the VR sex, confesses his love for Danny, and tries to entice him back into the game with graphic sexual language. On the other hand, Karl seems genuine when saying he feels nothing when he kisses Danny IRL while Danny's response of not feeling anything is more ambiguous. But the connection between him and Danny seems too intense to be purely straight or kink. It's probably one of my favorite episodes of Black Mirror with "15 Million Merits" being number one.

Retlawyen said...

It feels almost quaint that BM imagines the app's stated purpose is anything other than porn. Like, surely, no good capitalist would be confused about the killer app for the 'be in imaginary bodies' platform?

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