Season 5, Episode 1
Between the ages of 14 and 22 I spent nearly all of my spare time playing Pro Evolution Soccer on the PlayStation or Championship Manager for the PC. My friends and I would spend literally hours playing against each other, shit talking, and waxing lyrical about all the girls that we weren’t talking to. Halcyon days. Very rarely during one of these mammoth gaming sessions would anyone ask even a remotely probing question. This isn’t a missive about toxic masculinity, just an admission that, most of the time, lads don’t really care about their own feelings or those of their friends, not when there is some ritual humiliation in the form of a Pro Evo trashing on the table…
Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror installment acknowledges the shallow pool that is male relationships through the lens of Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – former flatmates who find themselves at disparate stages of development in their relationships and careers.
Danny and Karl’s relationship is defined by their love of Striking Vipers, a fighting game from their misspent youth, which also gives this episode its title, and is resurrected when Karl buys Danny an immersive VR version of the game that leads to unexpected revelations for both of them.
First off, while this isn’t the most memorable Black Mirror entry, there is still lots to enjoy here. Seeing the Street Fighter inspired video game brought to life is a genuine joy and former game reviewer Charlie Brooker allows his love for the genre to shine through. Both Mackie and Abdul-Mateen are excellent, as is Nicole Beharie as Danny’s wife. One unintended consequence of the huge popularity of the Avengersfranchise is that the actors involved have almost become inseparable from their characters. This means that while it is initially jarring to see Anthony Mackie without his Falcon costume, it is also refreshing to see someone who is clearly a talented actor, able to do some actual acting, rather than just flying about.
My criticism of Striking Vipers is that I wasn’t really sure what Brooker’s message was or indeed if there was one. Normally, I would put this down to ignorance on my part but I’m normally pretty in tune with what Brooker is trying to get across and I wasn’t sure here. There isn’t a moment where everything clicks into place and this left me feeling uncharacteristically cold at the end of the episode.
Having said all that there was enough here to ensure that Season 5 has gotten off to a compelling start. It must improve across the next two episodes to even come close to being towards the upper echelons of Black Mirror’s best work.