Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Karl.
Image: Netflix

“Striking Vipers,” the first episode of Black Mirror’s fifth season, keeps with the series’ tradition of hitting the pause button on its nightmarish depictions of near-future realities in favor of exploring intimate, human stories about the positive emotional connections our technological innovations make possible. But, like all of Black Mirror, this episode takes its characters into uncharted psychological and emotional territory that challenges them to confront things about themselves and the world that are deeply unnerving.

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In “Striking Vipers,” we’re introduced to longtime friends Danny (Anthony Mackie), Theo (Nicole Beharie), and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who drift apart in the ways people do as they mature and move into new phases of their lives. As adults, Danny and Theo marry, have kids, and settle into the steady rhythms of domesticity, and Karl spends his down time gaming and dating, seemingly happy.

The trio come together again to celebrate Danny’s birthday over a decade in the future, and Karl’s gift to his buddy—the latest generation of a classic fighting game they used to play with one another—is what sets the events of the episode into motion.

Unlike the old version of Striking Vipers Karl and Danny used to play, the latest iteration of the fighter transports players into the game itself through a neural connection, allowing them to experience gameplay as if they were characters. At first, the friends fight and revel in their ability to feel every sensation as if it were real. And then, because they can feel every sensation as if it were real, the inevitable happens, and they begin experimenting with one another sexually.

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While Danny and Karl’s emotional affair is what drives much of the drama in “Striking Vipers” forward, their dynamic is further complicated by the characters the men choose to play in the game. Roxette (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Pom Klementieff), a kick-heavy fighter who is definitely not Chun-Li, is Karl’s brawler of choice, and neither he nor Danny are exactly sure what to make of what that means for their relationship and sexualities.

In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Abdul-Mateen discussed the multiple ideas at work in the story and how the episode unfolds in such a way that its events are largely open to interpretation. As Roxette and Lance (Ludi Lin), Danny and Karl are having a distinctly sexual relationship, even if it isn’t physical, and they share moments in the game when all they do is lie with one another and talk. But, according to Abdul-Mateen, whether Danny and Karl are in love is something that he isn’t entirely certain of:

I don’t know. At times I do, and then at times I don’t. What’s fun is that you kind of get to play it both ways. They’re definitely searching for a connection. And look, Karl does not want an intimate connection with Anthony outside of that world. He’s always saying, ‘Meet me inside of this game. Because you’re someone that I can talk to; you understand me. And, if this is what it takes to find someone who gets me, then that’s where I’m going to get it.’

He doesn’t want anything from him in the real world, or at least that’s what Karl tells himself. But they both do want that connection, so I think it makes sense that Anthony’s character would fall in love with that connection and that he would feel it’s appropriate to send an ‘x’ at the end of the text because, in a way, he has taken on another lover. He absolutely has taken on another lover no matter which way you cut it. Maybe I’m biased to say, ‘Well, Karl hasn’t but Anthony has.’ I’m sure plenty of people would argue otherwise.

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Though Black Mirror has centered queer characters in previous storylines, “Striking Vipers” stands out for focusing on two middle-aged black men grappling with their sexuality and rethinking how they understand themselves. The fact that you can interpret Danny and Karl’s relationship in a number of different ways, Abdul-Mateen said, is important:

We need more conversations about masculinity. 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.

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“Striking Vipers” is now streaming on Netflix, along with the rest of Black Mirror’s new season.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that it’d been over a decade since Danny, Theo, and Karl had seen one another, when in reality the episode had simply jumped 11 years into the future.

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