This Black Mirror Season 5 Episode 1 review for the episode titled “Striking Vipers” is spoiler free. You can also check out our spoiler-free thoughts on the entire fifth season by clicking these words.
Anyone who has followed Charlie Brooker’s career will be well-aware of his fascination with video games, which I suppose rubs up right alongside his fascination with family, friendship, fulfillment, and everything else that’s wrapped up in “Striking Vipers”, the first episode of Black Mirror‘s fifth season.
Anthony Mackie, fresh from appearing on Captain America’s left in Avengers: Endgame, stars as Danny, a married father whose mundane midlife existence leads him to a chance liaison with an old college friend, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), when their avatars in a distressingly realistic VR game have exciting simulated sex.
What this might mean for Danny forms the bulk of “Striking Vipers”. Is he gay? A philanderer? Does a pixelized simulacrum of you having it off with a pixelized version of someone else even constitute sex? If it does, does it constitute cheating on your spouse? Will there be DLC?
With recent advancements in VR gaming, the conversations raised by “Striking Vipers” are worth having. But that isn’t all the episode has on its mind. Of course, the moral panic of increasingly-immersive gaming is at the forefront, but the story is underpinned by more analog notions of getting older and lonelier, reuniting with old friends, and exploring notions of sexual fluidity. Pining for a more spontaneous and carefree life isn’t a new idea, but it’s a timeless one. Filtering those existential anxieties through the lens of reality intersecting with fantasy is what makes “Striking Vipers” a traditional Black Mirror episode, but despite fleeting instances of absurdity, it’s a restrained, low-key and relatively touching installment, perhaps as ordinary as the show has ever been, but no less provocative for it.
It’s easy, I think, to prefer when Black Mirror falls just short because it’s reaching wildly for some abstract idea, and it’s easy, too, to lament when it doesn’t try to excel itself in every outing. But the willingness of “Striking Vipers” to hone in on the human element is a worthwhile approach, especially when the technological quandaries seem right around the corner.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.