On Wednesday, June 5, Netflix made Season 5 of Black Mirror available for streaming. Although overall the season did not fare well critically, its first episode, “Striking Vipers,” is considered by many to be the season highlight. It begins with a familiar story: two college friends, Danny and Karl, who eventually grow apart as they pursue different yet equally dissatisfactory lives. Danny (Anthony Mackie) cannot seem to conceive another child with his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). Meanwhile Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) pursues young women while struggling to build a relationship on something other than youth, looks, and sex appeal.
This sets up the two for the disquieting affair that follows. Through a mainstay of the Black Mirror universe, TCKR metal discs, the two reconnect by way of VR technology. This allows them to leave their less-than-thrilling lives by the wayside in favor of the VR game Striking Vipers, which allows them to inhabit new bodies in a new reality. Having played together in college, they both decide to reassume their old avatars, the young and attractive Roxette (Pom Klementieff) and Lance (Ludi Lin).What begins as a standard melee battle spirals into physical chemistry. The two begin an affair, both refusing to acknowledge the relationship beyond their virtual haven. It takes a toll on their real-life relationships, and eventually the entire cast will have to come to a compromise in order to salvage the love, both platonic and romantic, that the four share for one another.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Mateen II opened up about playing Karl, and the underlying message of the episode.
As a longtime fan, the actor came into the project with an understanding of the Black Mirror universe. “I was definitely a fan and really excited about the opportunity to go and play.” He said. “They push the boundaries and are part of the conversation. It’s a show that’s in the zeitgeist. I think it’s some of the most exciting stuff on television right now.”
But the prospect of being on Black Mirror was not the only thing that excited Abdul-Mateen II. He also was deeply attracted to Karl’s character, and wanted to seize the opportunity to explore his psychology. “I was really attracted to Karl’s vulnerability,” he began. “I looked at Karl as a guy who was cool on the outside, but he had a secret. I think some of the best characters have a secret and one of the things I realized about Karl was that he has a nice car and apartment, and from the outside it looks like he has a nice life. He even projects that. But we learn there’s something missing. The love life that he presents is not the reality. I knew that in Karl I could share a lot of vulnerability to play someone who had a deep, un-met need. It was really fun to step into that and see what it was like to wear a mask, and see what happens when that mask comes off. That’s who I found in Karl — a guy who was lonely and a guy who needed real companionship, and who would really like to have that in his life.”
As is the case with most Black Mirror episodes, the underlying meaning of the narrative is largely up for debate. “Striking Vipers” is no exception, and Abdul-Mateen II took a moment to acknowledge the complicated message behind the episode, which covers a multitude of themes including sexuality, marriage, growth, age, and technology.
“There are so many different themes on the table and we talked about all of them. One of the first themes I saw was addiction. I looked at Karl as sort of an addict. He needed to play this game. He couldn’t survive without it.” He started. “The other themes were relationships: how do we define a relationship? What does it mean to have a monogamous relationship versus a relationship as we know it between best friends? What is infidelity? Then there’s the conversation of sexuality. Through this video game thing, does this mean the characters would describe their sexuality as fluid? So that’s what I loved about it; we took a lot of things that are relevant to the conversation right now and put that into a formula that allowed us to explore all of it in a satisfying way. People are going to take so many different things away from this episode and all of them are going to be relevant.”
In particular, one component of the episode that has attracted some attention is the decision to write a romantic storyline starring two black men, whose sexualities orientations remain unclear throughout the story. “This is going to bring about conversation about masculinity, romanticism and sexuality being fluid.” Abdul-Mateen II said. “And about whatever you call bromances and things like that. There’s this moment at the end where they themselves don’t know what their sexuality is. There’s this are they-aren’t they moment that I love. Where they try it out and realize they are not in love, or that the love is only confined to the connection they feel in the video game. So, what does that make them in the moments when they’re participating in their relationship in the video game? It’s so cool to be able to be a part of something that allows you to explore all of those questions and then give it to the audience, because one of the best things about Black Mirror is the interaction afterwards and the conversations online. That’s what I’m really looking forward to — getting that feedback. That’s when you really get to see the impact of what you’ve made.”
The importance of such a narrative is not lost on Abdul-Mateen II. In the interview, the actor expressed a clear understanding of how rare stories of this nature are in Hollywood. It is something that he would like to see more of.
“We need more conversations about masculinity,” he said. “I remember wondering how this story was going to play in a barber shop. How the narrative would play out with people having a conversation saying, ‘Are they gay because they played the video game? Yes, and then, no.’ I think it’s always a good time to check our understanding of relationships and sexuality and expression, and how we relate to one another, whether you’re black or white or whatever your background may be. The story is universal, but it’s in the sci-fi world where you have black leads and that’s always something really cool to keep putting onscreen.”
Eventually, the two characters come to the realization that they must test out their chemistry in the real world. This brings the two to an alleyway, and they both agree to share a kiss in real life to determine whether or not their spark can be sustained beyond their avatar’s bodies. The kiss was short lived, and afterwards both agree that they felt absolutely nothing.
This brought the interviewer to ask Abdul-Mateen II how he played the moment, and why did Karl express sadness thereafter.
The actor began his answer by speaking to Karl’s surprise: “In my mind, Karl was so surprised. He was thinking, ‘This is the real thing.’” He said. “I’m not sure that he went into it hopeful, but I think he went into it expecting, ‘This is what my life is going to be now and I think it’s going to be real.’ But it’s another one of those things that sort of changes on the day and on the take. I think there’s a world where they kiss and they’re both excited that there was no spark, because they are thinking, ‘Yes, I’m a man.’ So much of this story is also about manhood and challenging that thinking of, ‘You can’t do this because I’m a masculine person and this is not who I told myself who I am.’ And so the kiss confirms all of those things. Then there’s a world where, when the kiss doesn’t work for both of them, it means they will never have that spark, that real thing in the real world. So it means that part of their dreams will only come true in this virtual reality and this alternate universe. Man, the implications of that moment and how that’s received and how it’s played are huge for both of the characters. I think part of that moment is a relief, but part of it is also saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make a compromise and we can’t have it all.’ Which is disappointing.”
The episode concludes with a compromise. Once a year, Karl and Danny enter their VR world for a rendezvous. Meanwhile in real life, Theo leaves home and seeks the company of other men. Like many Black Mirror episodes, the quality of the ending is ambiguous. Although there are elements of happiness to this compromise, ultimately no one’s wish is fully fulfilled. Still, Abdul-Mateen II likes to think the characters found some happiness.
“I think they did. I like to think that they did,” He started. “They’re normal people who are doing the best that they can with technology and with the given circumstances that they have found themselves in. I think they’ll do that for as long as they can.”
Then the actor moved to what is so striking about Black Mirror: its ability to relate science fiction to real life. “Eventually, if their lives are anything like ours,” he said, “something’s gotta give at some point. It can’t be all pleasant for too long.”
Black Mirror is now available to stream on Netflix.