The fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on December 29th, 2017. In this series, six writers will look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
Spoiler warning: This essay does not give away the ending of “Metalhead,” but it does cover a significant percentage of its minimal plot.
Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror is celebrated for its wit, its style, and in some rare cases — as in last season’s “San Junipero” — its incredibly earnest emotional sensibilities. But mostly, the show is known for reminding us that the technology we surround ourselves with every day could be leading us toward a dystopian hellscape where our very humanity may be lost. That isn’t a particularly cheery message, and with some episodes, not a particularly plausible one. The show doesn’t really provide solutions to the problems it suggests, but normally, it does serve up thought experiments and cautionary tales: “Reflect upon your current behaviors,” Brooker seems to be saying, “so we all don’t end up like these sad saps.”
And then there’s the season 4 episode “Metalhead.”
From a plot perspective, “Metalhead” could be pitched as Black Mirror’s take on The Terminator, distilled down to its simplest form. A roving robot is hunting a woman named Bella (Maxine Peake), and it will not stop until it has caught her. But this isn’t an ordinary robot; it’s a Boston Dynamics-style robot dog, with the sleek design of a high-end gadget and a relentless variety of tools and tactics at its disposal. As the episode whips by in a series of visceral action vignettes, there isn’t any larger takeaway or word of warning to be gleaned. It’s just a disturbing reminder that the future is coming, and it will not stop. Ever. Until we are dead.
Like most episodes of Black Mirror, “Metalhead” drops into a non-specified future without much ceremony or explanation. There’s a trio, led by Bella, driving in a car on their way to an unspecified destination. They lament how pigs have disappeared from the landscape, taken care of by the “dogs.” A brief line of dialogue suggests this future society is one of extreme inequality, and the episode is shot entirely in grainy black and white. Taken together, the elements capture the feel of a bleak world of have and have-nots.
Their goal, it turns out, is to break into a warehouse to steal something for a dying family member of Bella’s. But after they enter the facility, the robotic dog appears, shoots tracking projectiles into Bella’s crew, and begins killing them. It even takes control of a vehicle to force Bella off the road, setting up a desperate run across the Scottish moors as she tries to save herself.
As a piece of action filmmaking, the episode is ruthlessly efficient. Director David Slade (American Gods, Hannibal) hits the gas early and never lets up, capturing Bella’s desperate attempts at escape with a vérité sensibility, while never blinking away from the dog itself. There’s no time to question whether the creature is a practical effect or computer-generated when watching “Metalhead.” Slade shoots the robot simply, as if it’s utterly grounded in reality, and whether it’s chasing an escaping van (and catching it), or tracking Bella through the rocks alongside a river, the approach paints the focus on the creature as an unstoppable, visceral threat, creating some of the most tense, cringe-inducing moments in the entire series. The episode is short — barely over 41 minutes, including credits — but what it packs in can be so unnerving that it’s hard to see how the episode could have stretched any longer without becoming untenable.
(In an EW interview, Brooker says his original script included a behind-the-scenes controller for the dog, which would have made this more of an episode about drone technology than autonomous robots. Frankly, “Metalhead” is better off with the cuts he made, which make the dog more alien and terrifying, instead of basically a remote-controlled gun.)
The visceral, chase-oriented story calls to mind movies like Steven Spielberg’s 1971 debut Duel, in which Dennis Weaver was terrorized on the highway by an unseen pursuer in a semitruck. But Black Mirror follows its usual technological-threat theme, which adds a layer of subtext to the game of cat-and-robot-dog. The robot is replete with features viewers will recognize from their own smartphones and computers: sleep mode, GPS tracking, and what appears to be some sort of over-the-air wireless charging. It’s a consumer electronics device designed to kill, weaponizing what we normally think of as forward-thinking, disruptive features. It’s familiar, yet terrifying, primal, yet impossibly advanced. At a certain point, the never-ending assault of the dog starts to feel like the relentless, iterative march of technology itself, something that can neither be stopped nor controlled. Human beings may try to outsmart or fool it, as Bella does throughout the episode, but the implication is that humanity has engineered the perfect weapon, and those unlucky enough to wind up on the wrong end of it are doomed.
That last idea is driven home in the episode’s final stretch. Despite the economic inequality inferred in the opening, Bella runs across a luxurious, well-equipped compound that includes clearly rich residents who have met their own untimely demise. It makes the overall menace of the landscape in “Metalhead” even more insidious. Not even wealth and privilege are enough to win out in the face of whatever this sinister world holds, and children aren’t saved from its atrocities, either. There is only the relentless push of technology.
While most of the backstory remains vague in “Metalhead,” it’s easy to imagine Brooker having a company like Amazon in mind when portraying the episode’s mysterious warehouse full of goods. Package-delivering drones aren’t much of a leap from patrolling robot dogs, after all, and a warehouse where humans are no longer needed thanks to robotic advances would be a tidy explanation for the economic ruin that appears to have afflicted the characters in “Metalhead.” But the episode isn’t that literal, and its implied scope is much larger. Some Black Mirror episodes in the past have critiqued social media culture, or the dangers of augmented reality, but by keeping this episode’s story so streamlined, Brooker is able to spin “Metalhead” into something much larger. The episode’s final shot is a gut punch that suggests Brooker wasn’t talking about robots or shipping, but the loss of human innocence — all in the name of “progress.”
Depending on your point of view, Black Mirror is either at its best or its worst when it is truly hopeless, laying bare its cynical views on technology and humanity. “Metalhead” is an episode firmly designed for the first camp. Beyond the thrills of the chase itself, there is no hope for a happy ending in “Metalhead.” There is only the final ending.
Relevance: This episode doesn’t grab hold of a specific cultural moment or technological trend as much as other episodes do. This is about the big picture. We recognize it as connected to cutting-edge robotics work being done today, and by suggesting that robotics work will eventually be weaponized to serve an elite owner class by killing off any have-nots who dare put a toe out of line, Black Mirror creates a larger commentary on technology itself. But the episode doesn’t scream out relevance the way an near-future episode about social media oversaturation would.
Aesthetics: The black-and-white photography is a refreshing change of pace, and it’s worth marveling over the seamless integration of the robotic dog into the natural landscape. For a show that probably relies too heavily on transparent screens in every direction, and the Gattaca-esque mindset of “Let’s shoot in real, pseudo-futuristic buildings and call it a day,” the primal, almost analog look and feel of “Metalhead” is a standout across the entire season.
Squirm Factor: What’s the maximum score we can give to something like this? 10? 11? Whatever the maximum is, take that, and double it. My wife and I were literally squirming on the couch while watching this episode, and even thinking about certain sequences now, my toes start curling up. “Metalhead” is so tense, it’s almost not any fun at all. But then again, that kind of dichotomy is what makes Black Mirror so mesmerizing in the first place.