It’s incredibly easy, and almost always funny, to mock Black Mirror’s slightly smug, moralistic formula. (For my money, the best Black Mirror parody is Mallory Ortberg’s at The Toast, with the joke “what if phones, but too much” that actually inspired Charlie Brooker to write the ending of the episode “Playtest.”)
Technology is evil, and all of the conveniences we’ve slowly come to rely on will eventually kill us. We are frogs in a gradually boiling pot of water and we won’t realize we need to jump out until it’s too late and we all have brain implants and walls made of television screens. Twist: It was all a simulation all along.
And so, on its most superficial level, “Metalhead” is a literal embodiment of the most rudimentary premise people use to deride Black Mirror: What if technology got smart and it was trying to kill us?
But almost everything else about “Metalhead” is distinctly un-Black Mirror: It’s the first episode shot entirely, beautifully, in black and white. There are no real twists, and there’s no pan out to show the rest of the world in which this episode takes place. Instead, we get a classic man vs. animal story told, brutally, in near real-time, as a woman (Maxine Peake) in a post-apocalyptic world tries to escape from a sinister metal dog assassin.
The episode begins with the protagonist and her companions driving to complete a mission to get something for someone who’s dying, presumably her nephew. “I promised my sister,” she says. Even though there are no illusions that whatever they get will save him, they want to make the time he has left easier. As they pass empty farmland, someone comments that all of the pigs are gone. “The dogs took care of them,” someone says. That phrase’s true meaning won’t become apparent until later, as we discover that those “dogs” are not actual, biological dogs, but unstoppable, four-legged killing machines.
They reach a warehouse without incident, and as one of the group attempts to hijack a van, the other two go into the building to retrieve whatever it is they’re trying to get. It’s this moment, their entrance into the warehouse, that makes a case for the episode’s black-and-white aesthetic: the lights streaming from the ceiling could be streetlights in a film noir.
It becomes obvious just how much preparation went into this seemingly simple errand: the boy attempting to hijack the car has a notebook filled with numbers and information he’ll need to get it moving, and our protagonist in the warehouse has numbers written on her hand to tell her the exact location of whatever they’re looking for. As her companion pulls a box down, we catch our first glimpse of the dog, which had been laying dormant, presumably waiting for some unlucky humans to stumble by, just as they had. The dog spews a metal ball into the air that explodes with shrapnel.
The man and woman sprint away but the dog shoots the man straight in the head, revealing the other reason this episode works so well in black-and-white: there is a ton of blood, and gore. This episode would be brutal and gruesome in color.
The woman jumps into the car and drives away as fast as she can, followed by her cohort, who managed to start the stolen van. But the dog wasn’t just guarding the warehouse: now that it has prey, it won’t rest until all the humans are dead. The dog sprints down the road and jumps through the back window of the van, and shoots the driver, again in the head, before inserting a metallic finger into the car’s digital interface and taking control of it, driving in pursuit of the woman in the car. These dogs aren’t just animals: they’re smart.
After a few frantic minutes, the dog (more beetle-like in its shape, actually) drives the woman’s car off the road, leaving her vehicle precariously hanging off a cliff. The dog, with “sight” that scans its surroundings, is able to track her. Turns out that shrapnel that erupted from it before is a honing signal, a tracking GPS.
As the dog approaches the vehicle, the woman manages just barely to escape him, by getting out just as it jumped in, seconds before the car falls over the cliff, with the dog inside. The dog survives, of course, but — small mercies — its gun arm has been destroyed. (Recap continues on next page)