The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. —George Orwell, Animal Farm
People who say they hate Black Mirror are usually talking about episodes like “Metalhead.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s plenty to recommend in this tight little installment, the shortest of season four. As staged and shot by director David Slade, it features sequences as tense as anything I’ve seen onscreen in 2017. And its portrayal of the “dogs” — robotic super killing machines, whose origin is never explained (though you can make your guesses) — works precisely because it doesn’t try to tell you what they are or where they came from. (That said, I’m guessing the choice to shoot the episode in black and white, which feels mostly inexplicable, was done to cover up the slightly unreal quality of the visual effects in regards to the dogs.)
But by the time I got to the end of “Metalhead,” I found myself wondering just what the whole thing was supposed to be about. The last shot is nonsensical, and the tale itself seems to indulge in the sort of grim nihilism that Black Mirror is often accused of but rarely guilty of. It felt like it was missing a key five-second insert shot that would suddenly make everything click into place.
But instead, we’re left with what’s actually onscreen. And what’s actually onscreen is nasty, brutish, and (mercifully) short.
“Metalhead” offers a rapid descent into a post-apocalyptic future
“Metalhead” opens with the disinterested observations of Bella, Clarke, and Anthony, three scavengers in what’s immediately clear is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They pass a farm, and discuss how pigs used to roam there. But there are no pigs now. The dogs, it would seem, killed them.
In the future of “Metalhead,” “dogs” are autonomous robotic creatures, which reminded me of the robotic dogs that were briefly a hot holiday toy a few years ago. But these dogs are equipped with all manner of ruthless tools, from scanners used to track down human beings to guns implanted in one of their limbs.
Our trio thinks the warehouse they pull up to on a supply run is dog-free, but right when they find the box they were looking for — highlighted by the handy serial number scrawled on Bella’s hand — they also find a dog resting right behind it, which quickly dispatches Clarke and Anthony, leaving Bella racing through the wilderness, trying to stay one step ahead of her tireless pursuer.
It is, in other words, The Terminator, but with a wordless, nearly noiseless (but for the whirring of metallic parts) antagonist. It reminded me a bit of the American naturalism of writers like Jack London, transported to the United Kingdom. The dog might as well stand in for the forces of nature, for as relentlessly as it pursues Bella, even trapping her up a tree overnight, which definitely feels like something out of London’s work.
The dog’s pursuit of Bella takes up most of the episode’s running time, and it is thrilling to watch as writer Charlie Brooker slowly reveals the many ways the dog tracks its prey, even after its own death. Similarly, Bella’s ingenuity at evading the dog makes her a character who’s easy to get invested in. Maxine Peake’s performance confines almost all of its terror to her darting eyes. The rest of her is just ready to run at a moment’s notice, and that quality makes several scenes throughout the episode almost unbearably tense.
But at the risk of overinflating a genre exercise that doesn’t need to be overinflated (what does it all mean?), it’s clear from that early conversation about dead pigs and the episode’s ending — in which Bella defeats the dog pursuing her, only to be stung by its trackers, which will bring hordes more of them to her door — that this is supposed to be about something larger, something to do with humanity.
That becomes all the more clear when we learn that the item our trio was scavenging from the warehouse, revealed only in the episode’s final shot, was a teddy bear, meant to make the final few days of a child’s life more bearable. This lands somewhere between affectionate exasperation for humanity’s foibles and a sick joke. Just what is “Metalhead” trying to say?
Have you seen the little piggies, crawling in the dirt?
The more I think about “Metalhead,” the more I think it found exactly the wrong balance between too much information and too little. It explains just enough about the dogs to leave you wanting to know more, and frustrated when you don’t, but it also maybe explains too much to leave them a satisfying mystery. If they were stranger, more alien, we might have spent more time wondering if they were humanity’s creation, come to wipe us out, or alien invaders. As it stands, they just seem like robots, and the result is a robot uprising tale that feels a little underdone.
This is why I keep coming back to that early conversation about pigs. I think what Brooker and Slade are going for here is a story about the grim reality of going from predator to prey. After all, pigs in their wild state are destructive forces that will eat just about anything and don’t much care about the aftermath of their destruction. Really, that sounds like humanity, in a way, something that George Orwell also observed years and years ago.
This is hammered home in the way the dogs kill human beings: a single strike to the head that’s reminiscent of the way animals are killed on a slaughterhouse floor. No, the dogs aren’t consuming humans for meat, but a lot of the principles are roughly the same. (I spent a long time trying to find out if Brooker is a vegetarian. It seems he’s probably not, but old restaurant reviews he wrote seem to suggest he’s certainly thought about the ethics of consuming meat long and hard.)
Still, this is just me guessing. Probably, I should be happy about this — better to be too open to interpretation than too didactic, after all. But the way that “Metalhead” conflates Bella’s seeming eventual suicide (after realizing how many trackers are embedded beneath her skin) with that open box of teddy bears suggests a deeper, larger meaning that is either insultingly shallow — look at us silly humans, going out of our way for our dumb creature comforts when they’re largely unnecessary — or willfully obtuse.
After all, Bella is collecting the bear for a young relative. Now that humanity’s entire existence is at stake, why does the life of one child matter more than the life of another? And yet we can’t escape the hardwired belief that because it’s our child (or, in Bella’s case, a nephew), a little piece of our own DNA might survive into the future, no matter how long.
It’s the reason we’ve survived as a species, and “Metalhead” suggests it’s a reason we might die, too, a long series of small-scale incidences of individuals putting the well-being of them and theirs ahead of all of us and all of ours.
So maybe that’s what “Metalhead” means to say. We are as much a victim of our programming as the dogs — easily thwarted by a bucket of paint over their sensors — are. We’re ruthless in some contexts and quite stupid and soft in others. I don’t think I liked “Metalhead,” but perhaps I just haven’t figured out the right questions to ask it.