'Striking Vipers': why the first episode of the new 'Black Mirror' is one of the best yet

If a tree falls in a virtual world and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

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Black Mirror season five landed on Netflix this morning, and judging by opening episode Striking Vipers, creator Charlie Brooker won't be letting up in terms of quality anytime soon.

Striking Vipers is surely one of the most multi-layered and thematically complex episodes of the show to date, and definitely sits among the best instalments so far, alongside such works as San Junipero and Metalhead.

There are major spoilers ahead, so click away from here if you don’t want the surprise ruining.

So what’s the deal?

In the opening scenes we’re introduced to couple Danny and Theo, and their roommate Karl (Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II respectively - an impressive Marvel mash up of Mackie's Falcon and Mateen's Manta, with a bonus supporting appearance from Pom Klementeiff, aka the MCU's Mantis later in the episode), as well as Karl’s girlfriend Daisy, who we don’t need to worry about too much as we won’t be seeing her again, partying in a club.

We get an early hint that role playing is going to be a theme when Danny plays out his "stranger at a bar" scenario, much to Theo's delight. Back at their shared flat, we also learn that, no surprises here, video games will play a role as Danny and Karl battle it out for supremacy on Striking Vipers, a late 90s/early 2000s player v player beat 'em up not too dissimalar to Sega's Fighting Vipers. We can't help wondering why Danny bothers – he's clearly not very good, and his usual character of choice, clean cut Lance, doesn't land a single punch on Karl's chosen fighter, punky anime badgirl, Roxette.

Fast forward: 11 years later…

Abdul-Mateen's Karl gives Mackie's Danny a very special present. Netflix
Abdul-Mateen's Karl gives Mackie's Danny a very special present. Netflix

After that brief set up we fast forward 11 years. It’s Danny’s 38th birthday party, and the contrast to those early, carefree, partying and video gaming days is clear. Danny’s knee has given out, Theo is a full time mother, and halfheartedly flipping burgers on a backyard barbecue is the new pretending to be strangers in a club. Record label exec Karl, who Danny basically now sees once a year on his birthday, is still living the bachelor life, but even that’s not perfect. His romantic liaisons seemingly consist of dating much younger girls who have to pull Google up on their phones to understand his cultural references.

Enter the 'Striking Vipers', again

The pair face up as their VR version of the 'triking Vipers' characters. Netflix

This year, Karl has bought Danny what will prove to be a very special present: Striking Vipers X, a brand new, VR version of the game the two used to love. Now, the player actually enters the game's exotic world and inhabits the body of his or her character. Later, when the two friends are both online, they give the game a first try, but things don't turn out as we might have expected. A brief fight sequence demonstrates that Danny is still a rubbish player, but it transpires that when Danny and Karl inhabit the bodies of Lance and Roxette, they don't want to fight – quite the opposite in fact, they seem to be falling in love.

Ok, that sounds weird…

It’s a fascinating premise, and one that takes on real relevance in a world in which the notion of identifying as different genres, species, or even inanimate objects is becoming more and more accepted. The developing situation raises questions of identity, sexuality, male emotional repression, infidelity, ageing, parenthood, friendship ... the full gamut.

Theo frequently criticises Danny and Karl for not talking enough, not giving each other a good old manly hug when they meet, being too uptight despite being old best friends. Well, they certainly lose their inhibitions in the world of Striking Vipers.

Of course, this bizarre new relationship also affects their relationships in the real world. Karl no longer finds human physical relationships satisfying and even attempts romances with the game’s computer-controlled characters in an attempt to fill the void when Danny pulls the plug on their tryst.

Theo is convinced Danny is having an affair ... which he sort of is, or is he? Both men start to question whether their VR activities mean their long-held assumptions about themselves in the real world have been wrong all along, and devise a test to prove they haven’t. They both pass, itself leading to a fight and suggesting the results may not be entirely conclusive.

Skip to the end…

Just as Brooker has brought all these burning questions into the open, he pulls another time jump on us, which is actually a great idea. It would have been easy to have the three sit around a table and enter into a polemic discussion about the rights and wrongs of their various actions, and what we can learn about their true inner selves. But that wouldn't be very Black Mirror.

Instead, we skip to Danny's birthday the following year and it's taken as read that these discussions have taken place. The party finishes, and all three have July 14 marked on their calendars. With the last guests gone, Danny and Theo exchange gift boxes. Danny's contains the VR headpiece for his once-a-year visit to Roxette, while Theo's is for putting her wedding ring in and going out to meet a stranger in a bar. Uplifting music plays alongside soft focus shots of our trio going happily about their annual business, and we get the sense that everybody is happy with the new arrangement. It's possibly the most uplifting Black Mirror ending since San Junipero.