As Black Mirror returns to Netflix in a sadly truncated Season Five, largely owing to the amount of time and resources that were dedicated to the choose-your-own-adventure stylings of “Bandersnatch,” the moment has come to once again consider the show’s legacy in a world that now also contains a new version of the program to which it has inevitably been compared since the beginning: The Twilight Zone.
The first CBS All Access season of what is regularly referred to as “Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone,” despite the fact that Peele didn’t write or direct any of its episodes, has rightly been viewed as something of a cultural letdown. It’s not necessarily because that show’s episodes failed to capture the vibe of classic Twilight Zone installments, but rather because they have a tendency to highlight the lack of refinement in the original series’ sociopolitical commentary, when viewed through a modern lens. Suffice to say, what was classic and groundbreaking in 1960 smacks of guilelessness when repeated almost 60 years later. That’s what makes these new Twilight Zone episodes come off as feeling so superficial—their storytelling hasn’t grown up and matured with the times.
And that’s also why we should be doubling down in our appreciation for what Black Mirror has represented since it first debuted in 2011. All too often dismissed as being some kind of pale Twilight Zone imitator, it is instead a natural refinement of the ideas Rod Serling’s seminal series once espoused. Like any anthology, its quality wavers from episode to episode, but its best works tackle truly relevant themes with an emotional maturity not seen anywhere else in the “hard sci-fi” genre. And the first episode of Season Five, “Striking Vipers,” is the ideal example of what it looks like when everything goes right for Black Mirror, ranking among the series’ most pitch-perfect achievements.
At the heart of “Striking Vipers” is a pair of relationships centered around Danny (Anthony Mackie), a disheartened father who perfectly captures the mounting ennui of a late-30s, physically diminished “cool Dad” grappling with the fact that his “best years” are undoubtedly behind him. Trying for a second baby while banished to the lameness of suburbia with loving wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and a young son, he radiates a tug-of-war between dissatisfaction and genuine appreciation for “comfortability.” That is, until the reemergence of college friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gives Danny a birthday gift of a next-gen virtual reality fighting game so the two can reconnect online.
At this point, one would be forgiven for assuming they know where “Fighting Vipers” is going. Allegorical stories revolving around the wide concept of “virtual reality” in science fiction have a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the duality between the real and the unreal, and whether the disconnect from “real life” is inherently problematic, positioning virtual interaction as invariably “less than” and frequently pathetic or shameful. Black Mirror, on the other hand, immediately leans in the opposite direction.
What is supposed to be a “fighting game” with an aesthetic borrowed equally from Street Fighter 5 and Dead or Alive, instead becomes something very, very different. Although they intend to clash fists, Danny and Karl end up locking lips instead, within the guise of their fighting game avatars—one male, and one female. The first instance of this suddenly sexualized atmosphere happens so suddenly (though organically) that it truly does take the audience by surprise, but it also highlights how naturalistically the resulting series of reactions play out. They all feel profoundly well-earned, and they spark a series of rhetorical questions about the nature of sexuality and infidelity that will no doubt make up the content of college-level human sexuality essays for decades to come. It’s of little surprise to see that “Striking Vipers” was helmed by British director Owen Harris, who also gave us the extremely well-regarded episode “San Junipero”—if anything, “Striking Vipers” feels like a spiritual sequel.
At first, Danny and Karl naturally react with the shock and embarrassment of two alpha males suddenly grappling with their own sexual orientations out of nowhere—you half expect one to throw in a distasteful “no homo” in their first conversation afterward. But then, as the digital liaisons reoccur and deepen in scope, it only raises more questions that are profoundly difficult to answer.
Most obvious is the question of whether their dalliance means Danny and Karl have always somehow had repressed feelings for one another. Both have otherwise lived the lives of straight, cisgendered men up until this moment. What is it, then, that they’ve discovered? Romantic love? Or addictive lust? What, if anything, does Karl’s choice to portray the female fighter, “Roxette” (played by an almost unrecognizable Pom Klementieff from Guardians of the Galaxy) mean in terms of his own masculinity, as defined by either the audience or his character? If Danny and Karl switched player characters, would the attraction even still exist? Is it conditional?
Going beyond simply the conundrum of Danny and Karl’s digital-physical relationship, “Striking Vipers” then demands the audience consider the very nature of infidelity itself. Does a series of kung fu cyber hookups, entirely without real-world physical contact, qualify as a legitimate affair? Is there an emotional affair happening at the same time, or is that even possible if the two men involved don’t identify as bisexual? And as the digital experience becomes more and more perfectly realistic, at what point can one simply consider it to be effectively real, for all intents and purposes? Is 95% realistic essentially the same thing as real?
“Striking Vipers” doesn’t necessarily weigh in on all of these questions, acting more as an incredibly dense set of rhetorical prompts for the audience to discuss from the safety of their own living rooms. One can only imagine that millions of couples will watch this plot and come to strikingly different conclusions, in terms of its ethics. But it begs repeating that exploring questions of this kind of existential depth is why we watch modern science fiction in the first place—not to consider limited, “what if” scenarios like “What if an alien showed up at a party?” or “What if a comedian’s jokes affected reality?” that we see in the first season of CBS’ The Twilight Zone. Those high-concept premises can barely stand up in the face of the realistic, emotional journeys undergone by each of the characters in “Striking Vipers.”
It likely goes without saying, but both Mackie and Abdul-Mateen are fantastic in this. Their initial, bawdy “catching up with an old friend” conversations are both humorous and ring true with the surface-level superficiality of conversations we all tend to have with friends we haven’t seen in a long time. Over time, they diverge, with Mackie as an emotional core torn between his desires, and Abdul-Mateen as a well-meaning but insidious-sounding temptress who seems to be developing an unhealthy fixation on this particular form of cathartic release. Nicole Beharie is also outstanding, playing Theo as a woman who is acutely aware of the fragility of her marriage and self-consciously insecure about aging. It’s devastating for viewers to watch her question herself, knowing the source of the couple’s brooding marital tension.
There are a few potential areas of exploration that could have been more deeply addressed, especially in the vein of “So is everyone else using this game as a sex simulator as well?” But what ultimately stands out in “Striking Vipers” is the startlingly mature way it approaches each unorthodox relationship—including the ultimate fallout in its conclusion. Put simply, Black Mirror considers the various ways one might react to these developments within the context of your own life and your own relationships, and then it consciously chooses not to judge its characters. In doing so, it produces one of the most modern, 2019-appropriate takes on love, sex and fidelity that the TV medium has ever seen.
So with that said, don’t mourn the tired, throwback mentality of The Twilight Zone in 2019. Celebrate the forward-looking bravery of Black Mirror instead.
Black Mirror Season Five is currently available on Netflix. Check out our reviews of the second episode, “Smithereens,” as well as the final installment, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.