TV Recap: Black Mirror, Metalhead
Black Mirror made its name with tech-based dystopian sci-fi that is as smart as it is disturbing. The episodes usually introduce a new futuristic technology that sounds attractive at first, then shows you that not everything is as idealistic as it might seem. In some cases, like 'The National Anthem' or 'Shut Up and Dance', today’s technology is used with malicious intent. 'Metalhead', the fifth episode of the fourth season, fails to deliver the commentary of its predecessors but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a compelling episode of television, though.
The plot of the episode is rather simplistic. A trio ventures into the seemingly empty world looking for something that will ease the misery of one of their dying friends back home. They quickly encounter what can only be described as a robot dog intent on killing them all. Two of them die rather quickly while the third, a woman called Bella, escapes and spends the rest of the episode trying to evade the killer machine.
The simple plot allows director David Slade to have some fun with the setting. Employing a black and white style that accentuates the harshness of this world, Slade constructs some really great action sequences. His moving camera, often shot from a drone, drives the tension of a lurking predator. His wide shots remind you of how empty this wilderness is and how alone the protagonist must feel. The robot dog, while silly sounding, is indeed intimidating. Capable of killing in one blow or chasing down a moving car, it easily provides terror that keeps Bella running.
Along with the visual style, Maxine Peake carries the weight of the episode on her back as the sole survivor in this bleak world. In a mostly wordless performance, she conveys a mix of desperation and perseverance to the very end. She always knows what to do next, whether she’s been pinned in a tree or embedded with a tracking chip. Occasionally she slows down to talk on the radio, announcing to her home that she’ll come back even though she knows that there might be nobody out there listening. She knows that her chance of survival is low, but that doesn’t slow her down.
Bella isn’t exactly an original character. She’s someone who holds onto hope when there isn’t anything else left. It’s a classic survivor role you see in most horror movies, like Sally in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The episode itself is also similar to a horror movie, but without the happy ending that often comes with the franchise. When Bella eventually destroys the machine that’s been hunting her she gets hit by a blast of tracking chips. She knows that removing these would kill her, but leaving them in would allow her to be hunted by even more of these dogs, so she decides to just end it herself. The hope and perseverance that had gotten her through the day wasn’t enough.
The message is dismal, like you would expect a Black Mirror episode to be, but doesn’t provide the kind of commentary you’ve come to expect from the series. There’s no message about the dangers of the future. It says nothing about how technology has changed how we relate to each other. It says very little about technology at all. The twist at the end, a shot revealing that what they had gone to retrieve was just a box of teddy bears, leaves the whole episode feeling empty. Even some of the other more straightforward action episodes of the series ('White Bear', 'Playtest') had a turn that gave the action more interesting context. Metalhead struggles to even do that. As exciting as Slade’s direction and Peake’s performance are, showrunner Charlie Booker’s script makes the episode a rather shallow entry in an interesting, complex show.