July 18, 2019

Has Black Mirror Lost Its Edge?

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about “Striking Vipers.” Black Mirror’s best episodes are about relationships, and how technology can facilitate forms previously impossible in a pre-digital era. That’s why “San Junipero” has remained such a classic entry of the show, not only for its uncharacteristically sunny conclusion but for its bold imagining of new spaces and times and capacities in which people might someday be able to love one another. “Striking Vipers” has similar ideas on its mind, but digs more into an already extant strangeness for us here in 2019 — the distinct way we build online relationships in tandem with IRL ones, and how one can take on elements absent from the other.

“Striking Vipers” follows two friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reunite in a VR version of a Street Fighter–esque game, and almost instantly begin an intense, virtual sexual relationship in the form of their Day-Glo avatars. That the episode immediately invited a stream of gay-panic memes is predictable but disappointing — what is so provocative about it is how it resists being about any one type of sexuality. Danny and Karl are platonically intoxicated by each other as younger men, and as soon as a technology emerges that can embody the plane on which they are attracted to each other, they go for it. The compromise of the episode’s conclusion feels bittersweet-to-tragic to me: Danny opted into one platform (heterosexual marriage) before he realized that this altogether more satisfying platform existed, and nobody really wins in the end.

“Striking Vipers” is Black Mirror at full potential, potential it hasn’t always risen to, especially since coming under the Netflix umbrella. As an anthology show, Black Mirror is a mixed bag by design, and the sometimes dense amount of world-building and concept-introducing it has to do in an hour can verge on corny and/or blunt. But I find this more forgivable with Charlie Brooker’s show, which I see as something like a dramatic can opener — a tool which can be used either to access something previously hard to get at, or to bash someone over the head with. The bashing has tarnished its reputation over the last few seasons, but when it’s good — as I think the latest season mostly is — it feels indispensable.”

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