I’m not the first person to see Black Mirror as the new Twilight Zone. Last year Marc Bona gave a clean side-by-side comparison for cleveland.com, and Barry Vacker offered a longer treatment on Medium later in the year. But even before that, when Black Mirror first premiered on Netflix back in 2011, the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, writing for The Guardian, admitted “the series was inspired, indirectly, by The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s hugely entertaining TV series of the late 50s and early 60s.” As Brooker explains:
Serling, a brilliant writer, created The Twilight Zone because he was tired of having his provocative teleplays about contemporary issues routinely censored in order to appease corporate sponsors. If he wrote about racism in a southern town, he had to fight the network over every line. But if he wrote about racism in a metaphorical, quasi-fictional world – suddenly he could say everything he wanted.
In Serling’s day, the atom bomb, civil rights, McCarthyism, psychiatry and the space race were of primary concern. Today he’d be writing about terrorism, the economy, the media, privacy and our relationship with technology. [emphasis mine]
I emphasize that last bit because it pretty much sums up where Black Mirror differs from The Twilight Zone; it’s what makes Black Mirror a show for our time.
But this column isn’t about how Black Mirror is like The Twilight Zone, or even about Black Mirror in general. This is about the very first episode of the new season, Season 5, which aired on Netflix on June 5. In the episode, “Striking Vipers,” Anthony Mackie (from 8 Mile, The Hurt Locker, and six Marvel movies) plays a 38-year-old middle-class father and husband named Danny who has an affair with his best friend Karl, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (who played Cadillac in The Get Down and Black Manta in Aquaman) — only their affair doesn’t happen in real life, but through a virtual reality game called Striking Vipers X (which is clearly a nod to the Capcom classic, Street Fighter).
As with most Black Mirror episodes, Danny and Karl are living in the not too distant future: the virtual reality aspect of Striking Vipers X is extremely advanced, to the point where Danny and Karl only have to attach tiny discs to their temples, their eyes glaze over, and they lie motionless on their couches as their minds are transported to some exotic location (first a Japanese garden brimming with cherry trees). There they embody the fighters each has chosen, Danny fighting as the chiseled Lance (played by Ludi Lin, who played Zack in the Power Rangers reboot), while Karl chooses his old favorite, the sexy Roxette (played by Pom Klementieff, known for her role as Mantis in the Marvel movies). The game looks and feels real, down to the pain of kicks and punches and the blood oozing from Lance’s (Danny’s) nose and lips at the end of the first round, all of which fades away (“resets”) before each new round. In the midst of fierce combat, the two of them rolling around on the ground, Roxette (Karl) lands on top of Lance (Danny), and the two of them start kissing. But only for a moment: Lance (Danny) pushes Roxette (Karl) away, and Lance stands there looking confused, angry and afraid. Roxette yells out, “Exit game!” and disappears.
Once out and back on his couch, Danny still looks confused, angry and afraid. But the next time the two friends play, Danny as Lance and Karl as Roxette, they have sex — and they keep having sex with each other, apparently every night, for the next few weeks. The sex is passionate and takes place in exotic locales: on a jungle beach, on a wet empty Japanese street at night.
The first question that pops up here is: Do Danny and Karl like each other in a romantic way? Although a kind of answer is given later in the episode, I would say they don’t actually like each other that way. When they’re kissing and fucking in Striking Vipers, they’re doing it as their young, fit, sexy avatars, Roxette and Lance, not as Karl and Danny. Sure, they love the way they fuck each other in the game, and they even love chatting and cuddling afterward, both of which suggest the virtual affair is something more intimate and personal between the two best friends than merely, as Karl argues, watching porn. Even still, what they see in each other in the virtual world are their virtual packages (so to speak): Danny loves fucking Roxette, not Karl, whereas Karl loves fucking Lance, not Danny.
Here’s where the real question hits: Does Karl like having sex with men? The not so simple answer is that Karl doesn’t like having sex with men physically, as Karl, but likes having sex with a man, Lance (Danny), neurologically, as Roxette. But then, what’s the difference between enjoying gay sex neurologically, in your mind, but not physically, in your body? That’s a deep question, one I’m sure I don’t know the answer to. And the question is made deeper still by the fact that Karl becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the sex he has with women in the real world — he’s a bit of a lady-killer — and only gets the most sexual gratification from having sex with Lance (Danny) as Roxette in Striking Vipers.
Yet, can what Karl feels be called sexual gratification when it’s all in his mind? After all, back in the real world, he’s just on his couch, zoned out, barely twitching. When does sex become sex? Where does the mind start and the body end, and what’s the difference between the two, between the neurological and the physical?
Idealist philosophers would argue that all we are is mind, and so, if you enjoy gay sex in your mind, you enjoy gay sex, period. But that only leads to more questions: If you could kill someone in Striking Vipers, for instance — if you could wrap your virtual fingers around someone’s virtual neck and squeeze the virtual life out of them — and if you enjoyed doing that over and over, night after night, if you received some sort of pleasure from it, would that mean you like killing people? Or, to get even more twisted, what if you could have virtual sex with a virtual animal, or a virtual 10-year-old? What if there was a virtual game where you could play Hitler, or Stalin, or Lord Voldemort? What would that mean for you in real life? What do our virtual selves say about our actual selves?
Here again I don’t think what happens to Karl or Danny neurologically means much for them romantically or sexually. Some scientist could hook me up to a machine that triggers orgasms in my brain whenever I see or am actually touched, or even fucked, by a man, and it still wouldn’t mean I’m gay. It couldn’t even make me turn gay (if there were such a thing), because the sexual pleasure, and the orgasm, would be artificially produced in my brain, and not by my having sex with a man. And, of course, the same would be true for a gay man hooked up to a machine and given neurological orgasms whenever he saw, touched, or fucked a woman: he would still be gay. Unhook the machine, and you’re the same as you always were.
None of this is to say that having sex with your best friend or being gay is wrong. Consenting adults can do to each other whatever feels good, so long as they’re not hurting themselves or others. The wrong that threads itself through this Black Mirror episode is the fact that Danny is married, and that the virtual romance with his buddy Karl is eroding the actual romance with his wife Theo (played by Nicole Beharie from the Fox show Sleepy Hollow). That’s where Danny is in the wrong. Karl, on the other hand, is only in the wrong in that he lets the virtual romance with Danny destroy his real-life experiences. Whatever pleasure Karl gets from having sex as Roxette, no matter how pleasurable the virtual sex is, it isn’t real; and Karl, as an actual human being, owes his allegiance to the real world. (My materialism is showing.)
Jordan Peele just launched a reboot of The Twilight Zone on CBS, and Kumail Nanjiani, who starred in The Big Sick and Silicon Valley, and features in the new Twilight Zone episode “The Comedian,” told Entertainment Weekly that Black Mirror is more “cynical about humanity” than The Twilight Zone. It’s definitely bleaker: The “Striking Vipers” episode ends with Theo leaving her husband, and Danny and Karl carrying on their romantic, sexual, and virtual affair, seemingly for the rest of their actual lives. It’s sort of sweet, in a sinister way.
The darker aspect of the episode is that you can’t help thinking that, with the rate of technological advancement as fast as it is, one day there will be a way for human beings to live out virtual lives that feel more satisfying, more fulfilling even, than their actual lives. When the episode ends, Karl and Danny are still relatively young, so you have to assume that the allure of the virtual world will grow more and more as their actual bodies age and break down, a process which only be sped up by the fact that they’re spending nights upon nights on the couch doing nothing. You could even imagine them eventually moving in together, to split the costs of living, and being two old men zoned out on a couch having virtual sex with each other in a video game — fucking depressing.
And because the technology might one day exist in our world, such a scenario will probably happen, and in millions of different variations: loners, men and women, and kids too, having all types of sex and doing all sorts of wild, twisted stuff in a virtual world — whole lives passing away in the blur of virtual worlds filled with virtual pleasures. But, then again, we’re not too far away from that today.
Featured image: Danny (left, played by Anthony Mackie) and Karl (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’