This review contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 5: Metalhead.
When commencing the annual black mirror binge-watch, I noticed one thing – social media had already very much made up their minds over the runaway favourite of the season (‘Hang the DJ’, this year’s ‘San Junipero’), and the relative dud. That dud, based on popularity, is most likely ‘Metalhead’; not only does the episode appear dead last on many people’s personal lists, but I’ve even seen recommendations to skip it altogether.
As I’ve now watched the series through, the very first thing I would say is this: please do not skip such a brilliant example of filmmaking. Partly because I don’t believe there is reason to skip an episode purely based on its popularity in the eyes of others, but also because ‘Metalhead’ is just so damn good.
This said, its unpopularity is understandable. The episode is short, bleak, to-the-point, and contains none of the shocking twists and turns we have come to expect in the anthology series. Rather, ‘Metalhead’ combines tense storytelling with stunningly crisp visuals to deliver forty minutes of classic minimalist horror – but with a villain befitting of Black Mirror’s technophobic theme.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the episode follows Bella (Maxine Peake) who, after a botched attempt to acquire supplies from a warehouse, must escape from a robot guard dog which is tracking her. This is virtually all that the story entails, with a few scenarios thrown in; Bella sleeps up a tree after realising that the dog cannot climb, she finds an abandoned car and must attempt to quickly find the keys, she encounters the distressing evidence of those who could not cope with this new world, and chose to die instead.
These scenes may be simplistic and drawn-back, a sharp contrast to the complexity expected in Black Mirror’s world, but the emotion embedded within every turn of the story is piqued due to this concentration. There is no focus on shocking via twists or time used to develop this near-future setting past what we need to know – that these dogs will kill by any means necessary, and that Bella is at the mercy of this threat.
The tension within the episode is almost unbearable at parts and this fear is largely located in the brilliantly chilling nature of the enemy. The robot dogs are terrifying because they are completely inhuman. This is a moral that has been established repeatedly in Black Mirror, as a show that wishes to convince us that technology is evil and will eventually kill us all. ‘Metalhead’ is this concept in its purest form, and the episode explores this fear thoroughly. The dogs are killing machines in every way possible, and this is established from the very beginning of the story when Bella loses two of her friends within the space of a few minutes, simply due to the awakening of a single dog. Once they implant their tracker, you’re virtually already dead, and Bella’s desperation throughout the episode is made even more horrifying by the realisation that she faces only one of these creatures, and an injured one at that.
This inhumane nature of the dog is exacerbated through frequent displays of humanity on Bella’s part. In the first place, the episode is driven by her bravery in engaging on a rescue mission, and the loss of her friends in pursuing this mission exemplifies this. These are people driven by a unique need to make a painful life easier, and this selflessness distances Bella from the robots even more. The vulnerability shown by Bella at multiple points in the episode – her tears at the discovery of the corpses in the house, her sleeping form almost falling from the tree, her difficulty in acquiring the keys to the car – all humanise her in contrast to the seemingly infallible dog, which does not feel mercy, doubt, or pain.
The human/robot dichotomy is best felt in the ending shot of the episode, as the camera reveals the box that Bella had risked (and, in the end, given) her life to gain access to: a box full of teddy bears. This reveal has been met with some shock over the apparent stupidity of this sacrifice, but those who deem this as meaningless are perhaps missing the point. The teddy bears and Bella’s pursuit of them for the emotional wellbeing of her son is the ultimate representation of what it means to be human. The practical use for the bear may be very limited – a robot dog certainly would not have any use for them – but to Bella, as part of a society seemingly at the very end of its existence, the happiness brought by that bear was worth risking it all.
This is the morality that ‘Metalhead’ relies upon. It is a morality that – perhaps ironically considering criticisms of the episode as unlike any other – places this entry at the very centre of the ‘Black Mirror’ dynamic. Yes, it may be bleak, gory, and minimalist, but it’s a perfect fit into the technophobic themes of the series all the same.