'Black Mirror' Imagines What VR Sex Could Be Like in Its Season 5 Episode 'Striking Vipers'

striking vipers
Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in "Striking Vipers." | Netflix
Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in "Striking Vipers." | Netflix

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever a shiny new form of technology emerges, humans will try to find a way to have sex with it. It's become a lot easier in the Internet age to realize some of these desires, especially given the anything-goes power of video games and virtual reality to do pretty much anything you want them to do. But, desire can be complicated, which is exactly where Black Mirror's meditative, sorta-gay, sorta-not Season 5 episode "Striking Vipers" finds itself.

Danny (Anthony Mackie) and his best friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) have, as many friends do, a tradition. Whenever they get together, they've gotta play Striking Vipers, a fictional fighting video game like Street Fighter or SoulCalibur, in which they trade blows and K.O.s, each usually opting to play as the same character every time. Fast-forward a few years into the future, and Karl presents Danny with a gift: the new VR-enhanced version of Striking Vipers X, complete with one of those little sticky discs people in Black Mirror love to jam into the sides of their heads. (Continuing the show's commitment to a vaguely defined shared universe, the VR "disc," which you might recognize from "USS Callister" and "The Entire History of You," is made by TCKR System, probably a future evolution of Tuckersoft, the retro gaming company created for Bandersnatch.)

That night, the two men log on to play and are shunted into the game's hyper-stylized VR world, each appearing as their characters: Karl is Roxette (Pom Klementieff), a female martial arts fighter, and Danny, as always, is muscular open-vest-wearing Lance (Ludi Lin). The two do battle, Karl-Roxette pounding Danny-Lance into the dirt with her Thunder Punch and Windmill Wipe-Out, until -- within the heat of battle -- the two suddenly start making out on the ground.

Initially, Danny is horrified, and quickly no-homos his way outta there, exiting the game and joining his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) in bed. But he can't keep himself away from Striking Vipers forever, and yet every time he joins his buddy in the ring, they skip the fighting altogether, becoming more and more intimate. "So, guess that's us gay now," Karl-as-Roxette sighs. Danny and Theo's relationship suffers, and they stop having sex, Danny preferring the digital sensuality of the video game despite the fact that he knows the person he's having sex with is, in reality, his buddy. Finally, be becomes too uncomfortable with the whole situation and calls it off, not speaking to Karl for months until Theo invites him over for dinner as a surprise.

striking vipers
What would you do if your dude friend was also a hot woman??? | Netflix

The two argue as soon as Theo leaves the room, Karl begging Danny to come back to the game and continue their sorta-relationship. He explains that he's tried all the other characters, having sex with multiple players at once even, and it's still not the same. "I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn't get you out of my mind!" he says. Danny relents, but that night, in a post-coital daze, Karl-Roxette whispers to him, "I love you." Danny decides the only way to figure out if this really is anything is to kiss in real life, so the two meet in an alleyway and try it out. They tell each other they feel nothing, but start fighting anyway, and Theo later has to drive to the police station to pick Danny up.

The end of the episode, interspersed between the end credits, has Theo present Danny with a birthday present -- the Striking Vipers VR disc -- before she leaves to go to a bar. Danny and Karl meet in the game and resume their intimacies, having come up with a tentative solution that, in a way, benefits all parties. This is their life now, and they've got to live with it.

Video games provide an outlet for many things -- mainly violence, which has been debated for years (if we didn't have violent video games, would we have more people shooting up schools and churches and killing their exes, or do the violent video games inspire people to do that in the first place, etc., even when research has debunked the connection). "Striking Vipers" presents an alternate, if similar, problem: What happens to your conception of your sexuality in a virtual world? Can you be straight and still want to have sex with your also straight friend? Are you gay for your friend if you only have sex with him when he's pretending to be a woman? When Eddie Brock makes out with the hot female-shaped version of Venom in Venom, is that gay??

"It's not cheating, it's not real! It's like porn or something," Karl says to Danny when they finally try to talk things out. That "or something" is the vague realm in which questions like this, and the meatiest episodes of Black Mirror, thrive: to this episode's credit, it never presents the decisive solution as either good or bad, though it ends on a less bleak note than many of the show's other installments. Black Mirror's strongest experiments often find themselves at the intersection of sex and technology -- the sex-via-memory-streaming in "The Entire History of You," the pain-addicted pleasure of "Black Museum"'s first vignette, and the raucous and joyful lesbian love story in "San Junipero" are a far cry from the usual "phones = death" stance the show has been known to take, simply because even today's technology has made it infinitely easier to experiment with and explore our own sexualities. That's not to say that in a couple years we'll all be banging our friends via hot video game avatars, but if Black Mirror episodes portend our future, I'll take virtual queerness over bloodthirsty robot dogs any day. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.