SO, as we are in Pride month, I decided to write a series of reviews of some of my favorite television episodes and films that not only show amazing representation, but push the conversation forward.
As I was getting my list together I was surprised to find a last minute addition! With the (very short) new season of Black Mirror I found myself watching an episode that gets the gears moving for sure!
‘Striking Vipers’ has a comic-studded cast with Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the MCU), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Black Manta from The DCEU), Pom Klementieff (Mantis from the MCU), and Ludi Lin (Zack from the 2017 Power Rangers film/Aquaman).
The story focuses on two college(?) friends who after eleven years apart reconnect through a VR fighting game called Striking Vipers.
Right out of the gates we already have a heavy macho-loaded plate; A superhero stuffed cast, a fighting video game, and a whole lot of sex. As the two jump into the simulation Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) chooses a female avatar played by Klementieff while Danny (Anthony Mackie) chooses a male fighter played by Lin.
Things start off just fine until mid-fight when Karl decides to kiss Danny; the episode had me running questions like the Riddler after that!
Karl’s Sexuality: There’s a TON of layers to this episode but I want to focus primarily on the conversation of sexuality because obviously, this is all for the sake of Pride month.
We live in a boxed culture when it comes to sexuality. The zeitgeist has yet to evolve away from the boxes of sexual definition to shift into the idea of a spectrum. I won’t assume what the character of Karl IDENTIFIES HIMSELF as by the end of the story, but I will make observations on what we saw.
Karl is a womanizer when this episode begins. He clearly didn’t take the same root as Danny and settle down with a wife. In fact, it’s never made clear WHY his relationship with his longtime girlfriend ended at the beginning of the episode. Since then he is dating women that are far younger. Even before the events of the game occur, he clearly has no real connection to the girl he’s having dinner with.
Karl seems as adrift as Danny does just in a more luxurious environment.
Now, even in the opening scene from eleven years prior, there’s this moment where Karl jumps on Danny and simulates sexual acts. You can call that “bros being bros” but I DON’T KNOW… It jumped out to me before we got to the meat of the episode.
THEN at the party I sensed a weird tension between he and Danny. A tension that was coming primarily from Karl. It was Karl who initiated the game. It was Karl who GAVE him the game. It was Karl who picked a female character, and it was Karl who initiated the kiss with the male avatar.
For me, the character of Karl CERTAINLY has some homosexual tendencies. He becomes a WRECK after Danny breaks it off. He confesses at that dinner that he has tried everything to replace him but nothing works. Finally, they meet for the kiss… I want to go into that moment deeper below but for the sake of Karl I will say it presents an interesting question. Or at least builds on an already established series of questions…?
Was his obsession with Danny REALLY about Danny or was it about the avatar? It’s interesting that the show should pick avatars that don’t resemble the actors AT ALL. It removes them from the equation doesn’t it? These aren’t even heightened versions of themselves. It makes the simulation really feel totally separate from the men. Which might be the point?
Anyway, the other factor is that the two avatars in their acting don’t even FEEL like they resemble their real life counterparts. No offense to their performances, but it only adds to the feeling of separation from reality.
It’s also worth noting that this raises a huge question about Karl’s gender identity! He clearly explains in the game that it’s much more enjoyable for him to experience sex as a woman. Does he want to be a woman?
The story asks so many DEEP questions but doesn’t spend enough time trying to answer them!
Danny’s Sexuality: Now, this one is not as confusing as Karl. There’s no doubt that he has an attraction or an interest in the fantasy of the game. Most of his scenes focus around showing a man equally adrift as Karl as they both approach middle age. Everything at his job is bathed in grays and whites to reflect this boredom.
I don’t think his participation in the online affair is a question of sexuality (until the end) as much as it is about a man feeling in a rut with his marriage. His avatar is male, Karl’s is female; he is simulating sex with a female… I don’t think it’s too confusing other than the detail that it’s his friend in the skin.
NOW, there is a moment with the kiss in the rain that makes me pause…
The Real Kiss: After SEVEN months of not seeing or speaking to each other, Danny caves and joins Karl in the game again after their horrible dinner (where Black Mirror decided to give instagram and twitter what it wanted with the fucking a polar bear comment).
They have sex and Karl whispers “I love you.”
Danny having enough with the situation decides to confront it for real! They meet in the rain and Danny tells Karl to kiss him to see if they feel anything for each other or if it’s just the porno effect of the game.
Karl kisses him and confesses that he doesn’t feel any “fireworks.” Danny immediately responds saying he didn’t feel anything either. I have to say, I think someone was lying.
I BELIEVE Karl when he says he didn’t feel anything kissing Danny. That doesn’t eliminate the enigma of his sexual/gender identities. Nor does the episode ever decide to conclude that.
I don’t know if I believed Danny… There was something in his face that made me feel he only agreed with Karl because Karl spoke first. As always, right? Karl is the one throughout the entire story who initiates EVERYTHING. Even though they were all things that Danny WANTED to do! Danny just seemed to go along with the flow. Which is what he does with everything…
He doesn’t question his life or the path it took while he’s grilling his burgers. It’s only when his wife confronts him with all of her internal conflicts and what she’s feeling does he react to give her what she wants. Theo (Nicole Beharie) calls him out perfectly telling Danny that he checks out constantly; things happen and this character just goes inward. He’s not a seeker.
It’s for this reason that I just can’t totally believe he didn’t feel anything when he kissed Karl. I wish I could ask Anthony Mackie how he was trying to play that scene!!!
The Deal: The friends fight and at the conclusion of the episode we find a strange arrangement; once a month Theo gets to go to a bar and cheat while Danny plugs in to the game to have sex with Karl’s avatar.
It’s a conclusion that may settle the issue with the marriage so that it can stay alive for these committed characters, but it does nothing to satisfy the whirlwind of VALID questions the episode has laid out.
What IS sexual identity? Are we attracted to a person or a body? If our best friend embodied the gender we are physically attracted to, would we want them? Is monogamy still a realistic expectation for longterm relationships? Do we have to want all or nothing? Karl CLEARLY doesn’t want a relationship and is satisfied at the end with getting to be a woman once a month to have sex with his best friend!
There was SO much here and I could write for years. Though I wish they had gone thirty minutes longer to confront some of these things, I am grateful that the episode managed to do what any good story does-get people talking.
I give this episode of Black Mirror a 3/5 Potatoes.