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.
It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when you had to explain to people what Black Mirror was, and it took more than two full sentences to do so. (“It’s this British show, it’s kind of like The Twilight Zone but about tech, there are only three episodes per season, you have to stream it off a sketchy Russian website but it’s so good, you’re going to love it!”) Now that “Black Mirror” has become a shorthand for any downfall-by-tech narrative, and the number of episodes has ballooned to a downright decadent 21, plus a Christmas special and an interactive movie, what the show is and what people expect it to be have become more diffuse.
Thanks in part to a handful of bleaker (and I would say weaker) episodes, Black Mirror now regularly invites a sneering backlash on social media, with a sample criticism reading something like “Cor blimey, the computers’ll fuck you up proper, mate!” The joke being that the show is (1) alarmist, (2) alarmist about things that smart people have already thought about and don’t think are worth discussing further, and (3) British. It’s not even really British anymore in the Netflix era, so that one we can set aside for the time being, other than the fact that there’s a lot of overlap in jokes about Black Mirror and jokes about Radiohead.
I would argue that there’s some narcissism of small differences going on here. Especially for a certain subset of Twitter, where one of the perennial most popular topics is “this website” and what it’s doing to our “broken brains,” the dominant acceptable posture to take when a new season of Black Mirror comes out — a show that uses fiction to examine what this and many other websites are doing to our broken brains — is to dismiss it whole cloth. (Critics’ reviews of the new season are more thoughtful in their dismissal, but generally less favorable.) I don’t mean to suggest that Black Mirror doesn’t deserve a sharp critical eye, especially when it’s dealing with issues so near and dear to our online lives — and that it doesn’t always stand up to such scrutiny. But I do think that something about that proximity invites extra cynicism.
I’ve had a few IRL conversations about “Smithereens,” the second episode of the new season. It’s the one where Andrew Scott is an Uber driver named Chris, who takes a Smithereen (i.e., Twitter) intern hostage and demands to speak to CEO Billy Bauer (i.e., Jack Dorsey). A common gripe with the episode seems to focus on the reveal that Chris’s life fell apart after he was tweeting and driving, and since that day he has held Bauer and the company responsible for how they’ve colonized our brains. “It’s a don’t text and drive PSA,” comes the critique. Perhaps because it has long since infused itself into mainstream culture, habits, even our very muscle memory, it seems we have a low capacity to think metaphorically about technology. As soon as something specific is fingered (texting and driving, playing too many video games), we fixate on it, so the story must literally be about that. And if your fake Google/Facebook/Twitter is unconvincing, we’re out.
But, first of all — and I hate to sound as uncool as a PSA here, but maybe don’t text and drive? And secondly, you have to hold “Smithereens” at arm’s length to see it as a mere scold. The trajectory of Chris’s desperate, not-at-all heroic attempt to simply be heard feels intensely relatable, stripped of the situational specifics. Almost everyone with an online life has felt smushed at one time or another by any number of tech lords — whether it was being targeted by unmoderated hate speech on Twitter, losing a job due to the whims of Facebook’s algorithms, or running on fumes in order to make a living with Uber. This is real desperation; Chris’s lethal tweeting is a stand-in for all of it. (And, cruelly, the more he rants about it, the crazier he looks.) As a story about a man making all the wrong decisions for incredibly real emotional reasons, “Smithereens” feels a bit like a modern Dog Day Afternoon.
But once you mention texting and driving, something about “Smithereens” shatters for people; they figure they’re being lectured to and start watching defensively. Lecturing is not not in Brooker’s repertoire, but I don’t think Black Mirror, for all its highs and lows, is the scold people make it out to be. It has a strong, intentionally silly streak (see: “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”), can be incurably romantic (“San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ”), and regularly gets great performances out of great actors. Because these are, more often than not, human stories — about no less than what it is to be human in a world whose every corner has been digitally augmented, and what new forms humanity might take, for better or worse.