Kotaku Editor Natalie Degraffinreid and I watched the second episode of the new season of Black Mirror, which is about two old friends that reconnect through a video game. If that sounds both tame and normal, we would both like to assure you that it is neither. It was so out of control that we had to sit down and talk about it. Charlton Brooker, are you like, okay?
Natalie Degraffinried: This episode is Doing The Most. Sometimes that’s bad, and sometimes that’s great. People are talking about the Miley episode, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” but there was so much going on in “Striking Vipers,” which, first of all, would you pick up a video game with that title? It sounds very made-up video game in a TV script. Though it also reminds me of Cable saying “Hyper. Viper Beam” in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, so maybe I’m full of shit.
Gita Jackson: I saw some people say that it was a reference to Fighting Vipers, a 32-bit fighting game. But it did feel like a cartoon parody of a video game, honestly. Like, Roxette? Excuse me? Can I find her at 30 Rock?
Natalie: Interesting! The game itself seemed to draw from a lot—Tekken probably, with the polar bear character Tundra, and I also got a little bit of a Killer Instinct vibe from the footage they showed at the beginning? Also Virtua Fighter, so maybe that makes sense given the game it was apparently based on. But then the actual in-game virtual reality footage came, which I dreaded, and it looked like the characters were dressed in cheap, store-bought cosplay, and I was just like, y’all can literally port my mind into a video game and this is what you’d have me wear? Really?
Gita: It was like they plundered a Party City. The actual fighting I liked a lot—it was a bit of an Edgar Wright rip, but that was the kind of dynamism it needed. The special moves and combos were especially well edited, I think. It was fast-paced, kinetic, and the punches really felt like they landed. I know you weren’t as into it though.
Natalie: I was actually going to bring up Edgar Wright! It felt like a cheap Scott Pilgrim scene. It was fine to me. I let it go, though, because there, ah, obviously wasn’t that much fighting going on, and more importantly, I feel like they needed a strong layer of camp to prevent those scenes from feeling too “real” and thus ruin the cognitive dissonance going on with Danny and Karl—is this cheating? Is this gay? Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, by the way—outstanding. And Nicole Beharie did that, oh my god, the restraint and control in all her scenes. But yeah, the in-game scenes did what they were supposed to do, I guess, even if they didn’t precisely hit the mark for me, tonally.
Gita: Okay, let’s zoom out a sec and set up the plot a little. This episode establishes that Karl and Danny are two longtime friends that haven’t seen each other in a while. Danny got married and had a kid, while Karl maintained a bachelor lifestyle. Nearing 40, they’re both just bored. They used to play fighting games together, but lost touch. Then Karl gifts Danny a VR version of Striking Vipers, and well, uh. They fuck. In the game. They fuck a lot. My big question for this episode is: Is Charlton Brooker okay? This is an intervention.
Natalie: Actually though, now that you bring that up, that’s one of the most interesting aspects to me. Karl had just gotten out of a 10-year relationship, I think it was?
Gita: Yeah, they implied that they’d been broken up for a year, and we met the ex in the prequel sequence, which takes place 11 years prior. Also just checking—is Karl supposed to be a model? He goes to a fitting at one point and he really doesn’t look 38.
Natalie: Maybe? I was trying to get a bead on that. His apartment did look nice. I know Danny was a banker. I wish we knew a little more about him and his past relationship, and why it didn’t work. We get a tidbit from Danny’s wife Theo that they weren’t good for each other, but I wonder exactly what was going on with Karl. He’s going through the motions just like Danny is.
Gita: They’re both so listless in their lives, and clearly found a sense of newness from being with each other. But also Danny recognizes this as damaging to his marriage, while Karl doesn’t see it as cheating really. The exploration of sex and relationships in this episode was actually.... kinda good?
Natalie: There’s a very clear implication that what Danny is doing is cheating, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. And I felt the same about the sex and relationship aspects! The sexual orientation aspect I was torn on. I wish this weren’t another “living out my gay life in VR” thing like “San Junipero” was, especially because this one very much toes the lines of the “downlow man” trope, but I found myself ultimately feeling pretty OK with how they handled it in the end, even though some of it was so whimsical I couldn’t deal.
There’s a scene of Danny trying to decide if he wants to send a little kissy “x” at the end of his text message to Karl, and for me it was just like, this great moment of wondering about boundaries and feelings and, really, Danny’s whole self-concept. I know we get tired of seeing reluctant gays on TV, or “straight people” doing gay stuff but not actually gaying it up, but there is something to be said about discovering or exploring a new aspect of your sexuality—whether orientation or kinks—later in life. It’s like, they’re feeling this strong urge in a way they hadn’t or hadn’t in a while, and that means something.
Gita: Yeah that’s exactly how I felt! That kind of urge or development of sexuality is very real. It’s entirely possible to have your sexuality continue to grow well past your 20s. I think it was best expressed in that one scene where Karl is trying to explain the female orgasm to Danny. He uses a dumb metaphor, but you can tell through the acting that he is fascinated by the experience of being a woman. He doesn’t necessarily want to transition, and clearly still enjoys sex as a man, but being able to also exist in a space as a woman is something that excites him. And he and Danny just have great chemistry!
Natalie: That was actually super interesting to me—the role-playing aspect, and the aspect of just exploring. It reminds me of what ultimately made me decide that nonbinary was the best way to describe my own gender, which is also fluid. It’s like, what if you just find joy in different things in different ways? What does that take away from you or from the people around you, and does it need to do that? We hang so much of who we are on who other people are—men do this, which means women do this, otherwise there’s a breakdown. It’s exhausting and imposing and doesn’t let people be who they want to be.
While I think there’s real room to criticize how they handled gender—particularly Karl’s very tired desperate-other-woman shtick, the vague way they waved their hands at changing or affirming or exploring gender—I also actually like that they left some room there. I also enjoyed all the cishet man feelings flying around in general. There are a multiple very angry, very sexually charged scenes, both between Danny and Karl and their avatars. It was an interesting way to poke at all that and how it gave them new ways to explore their feelings, underscored by Theo consistently telling them how bad they were at it.
It did some things very right tonally. But like I said before, I felt like the camp was necessary but not executed super well. Some of the scenes seemed kind of, I don’t know, sensationalized? Particularly the video game scenes, but then that was that dinner scene, which had me screaming and sort of reeling. It was very reality TV/soap/Maury—I probably reacted the way they wanted but was sort of cringing, too.
Gita: I’ve been a really big fan of Charlie Brooker’s work for a while—seeing the magazine cover for Sugarape, the fictional Vice magazine-inspired hipster rag from Brooker’s previous show Nathan Barley, in “Jack, Kevin and Ashley Too,” was a real treat. He’s usually quite good at heightened absurdity, as well as moments of abject humiliation, but I’ve always felt he lacked as a writer in like... actually liking or empathizing with his characters. Everyone in Nathan Barley sucks, which is the point of the show, but it means you’re left with a really bleak world where the only nice character is subjected to deadly pranks over and over (really!). So the fumbles here, and elsewhere on Black Mirror, didn’t surprise me but yeah... sometimes it just needs a defter hand.
The conversation about Karl fucking the polar bear, for example, is uhhhh hilarious. “I fucked a polar bear but was thinking of you the whole time!” I was cackling! But that also really needed to be a tender moment between two lovers consumed with guilt, and well, it’s just hard to thread that needle.
Natalie: Right, I yelped at him sexing up Tundra the bear. I definitely appreciated some of the comedic moments. I think that’s part of the problem, though—Brooker relies a little too heavily on comedy as that vehicle to make characters relatable, I think. I do feel like they actually think the guilt thing well, though—the moment with Danny going into a room and closing the door was particularly good for me, because it reminded me less of a traditional affair and more of, say, hiding porn from a loved one. They’re both just so stuck on their masculinity, which I found realistic to some extent since to be frank, it even happens in gay communities. Like there’s something to be said about how these men interact with femmephobia and transphobia and internalized sexism undergirding their whole concepts of themselves. But I think that’s the whole thing, right? Role-playing. Social scripts. What if we got to be, not someone else, just a version of ourselves with more options? Speaking of more options... Theo better get her whole life. Can we talk about the ending?
Gita: Oh hell yeah that ending. I’ve been reading that people see it as pessimistic, but it didn’t feel that way for me at all. By the end, Danny has come clean about his affair, and Theo and him come to an arrangement. On his birthday, he gets to fuck Karl in Striking Vipers, while she gets to go and fuck a dude from the bar, which is something that is repeatedly established as a turn on for her. That actually sounds like an extremely fair deal and is something that other couples that practice non-monogamy have done. What’s there to be sad about!!!! Theo just upgraded her whole ass life, man!!!!!!
Natalie: I’m going to sound judgmental, but I feel like it takes an extremely rigid view of marriage and what you can get out of it to call that ending pessimistic. They made a choice that seems to work for both of them. They love each other and their kids. They have outlets for when they don’t have the spoons for each other after over a decade of marriage. But people are weird about non-monogamy, assuming that it’s always one-sided or lopsided or a sacrifice/compromise. It doesn’t have to be and often isn’t! I finished the episode excited for them!
I do wonder—do you feel like the episode was conflating online and offline sex, though? I didn’t read the terms of them opening their marriage as a tradeoff—i.e., I didn’t think there necessarily had to be an implication that Theo having sex with real people is the same as Danny having sex with someone online. Some people did. I could certainly see that argument given the moments they put parallel in the closing scenes, but to me it was more like, “Oh they just talked about what they wanted and stopped repressing themselves.” You know?
Gita: The ending felt very freeing to me! When Theo cried over a sad anniversary dinner when she suspected something was going on with Danny, I was so sad for her. He got to be sexually fulfilled, but she didn’t. Now, they both do, and they get to keep their marriage and love for each other.
Natalie: Like they showed Danny booting up Striking Vipers, Theo out in a bar. I feel like each couple sets their boundaries on what’s right and wrong, and honesty is more of a factor in what is and isn’t cheating than a concrete/universal set of actions? And understanding your partner’s feelings.
Gita: I completely agree! Cheers to Danny and Theo. And Karl.
Natalie: And Karl’s cat!
Gita: AND KARL’S CAT!