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.
With her small headstart, the woman makes her way to a small stream, where she tries to cut the tracking device from her leg, black blood flowing from the wound like oil. She throws the tracker into a water bottle and throws it down the river for the dog to chase. More time. She manages to use her radio to call back to her home base, saying she’ll try to make it back for Graham, but there’s no indication that anyone can hear her. We do learn here that her name is Bella.
Even the smart river trick can’t keep the dog away forever. Bella climbs a tree, and turns a branch into a makeshift perch, a la Katniss from the first Hunger Games. The dog finds her, but with its gun arm gone, it can’t shoot her, and it can’t climb. Bella seems victorious, until the dog powers down into sleep mode and its end game becomes obvious: wait her out. It will last longer without food and water than she will.
In another stroke of genius, Bella realizes that if the dog is disturbed, it rouses from its sleep. She has with her a bag of peppermints, and every time she counts to 1000, she throws one down and forces the dog to wake up, and then re-power down. She does this over, and over again, until finally, she throws a peppermint and it doesn’t wake up. It ran out of battery. It can recharge in the sun, but still — more time.
Bella runs and makes it to a house guarded by a massive wall — one imagines to protect against riots or dogs or whatever created the dystopian hellscape Bella is living in. She hops the fence, and using a grabber-device, manages to hook the keys and bring them out through the mail slot and let herself in to try to find the car keys, which, infuriatingly, weren’t attached to the house keys.
In the bedroom is the most gruesome sight of the episode: two corpses, decayed nearly to skeletons, who killed themselves side-by-side in bed, beneath a headboard splattered in blood. One of them still holds a shotgun to his chin. Bella, having come this far, does the terrible, disgusting, necessary thing: peels his dead hands from the gun, and finds his car keys in his jean pockets.
By now, the dog has found the house, using its tech-limbs to open the electric gate and get through the door. Because it has no gun arm, it needs another weapon, and in a very funny moment that probably wasn’t supposed to be funny, the dog attaches a knife to its severed arm and spins it a few times to test it out. That little act comes across as adorably Wall-E, or the live Doodle with the magic pencil from that episode of SpongeBob Squarepants.
From here, it’s a close-quarter showdown. In a stroke of ingenuity, Bella pours white paint on the dog’s “face,” ostensibly blinding its cameras and forcing it to rely on its sense of sound. It follows that sense of sound out to the driveway, where the car radio is on at full blast, doors open. While the confused dog stabs the speakers with its knife-hand, Bella shoots it with the shotgun, shattering it, killing it.
It seems like she won, but, there’s no such thing as victory in this episode. Before it sputters out, the dog sprays another round of shrapnel trackers right into Bella, this time embedding them into her face, where she won’t be able to cut them out.
Knowing it’s the end, Bella goes back into the house, and offers a tearful apology for failing in her mission, and telling Graham she loves him. There’s no way to know if the message goes out; all that comes back is silence. Bella slits her own throat, and the camera allows us to see a pack of dogs patrolling, coming closer to the tracker. There was no way out.
In the episode’s last shot, we get the closest thing to a twist: the camera goes back to the warehouse, past the bloodied, headless corpse, to the box that fell, the box filled with what they were on a mission to retrieve. It’s teddy bears. Stuffed animals. They were trying to get a stuffed animal to bring back to a dying boy.
I’m conflicted with this episode: On one hand, it’s a genuinely tense and frightening chase. If “technology is trying to kill you” feels like a cliché near-parody of a Black Mirror premise, then the teddy bear reveal is equally eye roll-inducing. And because this is Black Mirror, I spent the entire episode waiting for a reveal — is this all a dream? Those teddy bears were white, right — is this a punishment theme park like the episode “White Bear”? Are we ever going to figure out what these dogs were and how they turned against humanity? The answer to that last question is no. The episode never becomes more than the sum of its parts. But, with excellent acting and pacing and beautiful shots, those parts are pretty good.