This review includes spoilers for Black Mirror Season 5, Episode 1
Netflix’s Black Mirror Season 5 premiered on the company’s streaming platform with three episodes. First things first: although the first episode was entertaining, it didn’t feel like a Black Mirror episode. What got me, and presumably many others hooked to the show, is the intense feeling of dread you get after finishing an episode.
When you see your reflection in the black screen at the end of an episode, you usually sit there speechless, questioning how far technology will go and how it will impact our lives. This episode was not quite like other iconic dark and deep Black Mirror episodes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The episode is set-up in a way that echoes nostalgia for the past as it starts with an energetic Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as 20-somethings playing their favourite video game, Striking Vipers X. As a Marvel and DC fan, seeing Mackie and Abdul-Mateen act alongside each other was an experience in itself, and I was ready to see what this episode had to offer.
Fast-forward 11 years and the scene changes to gloomy shots of mundane adult life, as Danny is married to Theo, his long-time girlfriend, and has a son. The change in scenery made me realize that this episode was going to be the kind where the protagonist tries to find an escape from mundane everyday life. Danny and Karl catch up at Danny’s 38th birthday where Karl gives him a new virtual reality (VR) experience version of Striking Vipers X.
Later that night, Danny sits down in front of his TV and decides to play the game with Karl. The VR experience works, of course in Black Mirror fashion, by placing a circular implant on the side of your head. Several episodes in previous seasons of Black Mirror, such as USS Callister and Arkangel, involve the protagonist placing a circular implant on their temple, and it never really ends well for the characters. Once I saw the implant, I began theorizing what terrible things were going to happen to our protagonists: if you die in the game do you die in real life? Will they get stuck in the game?
Well, the episode took a completely different turn.
Once the characters enter the game, Danny and Karl lay almost lifeless on their couches with grey blank eyes and expressionless faces. There it was, the uneasiness that comes with many Black Mirror episodes. Danny and Karl select the same video game characters they played 11 years ago, Roxette and Lance. The two quickly realize how realistic the VR simulation is as they feel the pain with each punch and kick. Because of how real the characters felt pain, I thought perhaps the characters would face real-life health consequences, but nope, the game just resets and their injuries are healed.
The two also come to realize how real pleasure feels in the game, as the two form a virtual sexual relationship that they become addicted to as the episode progresses. This causes distress in their real-life relationships as they become solely satisfied through the virtual relationship. Ding-ding-ding: here’s the conflict that arises from the technology. Once the conflict was revealed, I began to wonder how far it would push the characters, and what it would make them do.
However, this episode gave Black Mirror fans something they don’t get quite often, which is a resolution. After several hardships, Danny and Theo agree to have a sort of an ‘open relationship’ that fulfills both of their needs one a year. Danny and Karl get their virtual night together, and Theo gets to prove she’s still got it with her own version of a good time. Once the credits rolled, I wondered if there was something more after, because it felt like something was missing. Maybe because nothing bad happened?
Striking Vipers gained quite the hype; especially from Marvel and DC fans since the promotional images teased a face-off between Anthony Mackie (The Falcon) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen (Manta). Comic book fans did get another surprise as Pom Klementieff (Mantis), and Ludi Lin (Captain Murk) also made appearances. It was nice to see these DC and Marvel actors share a screen, but it’s not exactly the crossover that some may envision.
However, this episode did not have the pay-offs like other episodes — there was no twist or doom-filled ending. To some, this may be a nice change, but to others, it might feel like a letdown. However, the episode does make viewers question the future of VR technology and just how far it will go. It also alludes to other technologies like foldable phones and automated dishwashers.
Let’s just say that this episode didn’t leave me with the feeling of impending doom about technological advancements that previous episodes have.
Maybe that’s a good thing.