‘Metalhead’, unlike most Black Mirror episodes, doesn’t raise a whole lot of questions. But straight off the bat, here’s one that stands out immediately after watching. At what point can a narrative become too minimalist, too stripped back?
At 41 minutes, ‘Metalhead’ clocks in as the shortest episode the show has offered to date. But I’m not sure that means much, as this isn’t exactly an episode in which time is particularly bound to anything. It could have been 82 minutes, 123, and so on – okay, perhaps two hours might be pushing it slightly, but there have been comparably plotted feature length films aplenty – and the story would have expanded to fit. Perhaps a bit more time spent in the warehouse at the start. A couple more close calls. A couple more chases. And it could have gone the other way; a couple fewer close calls, and so on. The prime example of radical short television is The OA’s episode 6, a half-hour episode in a season that also features episodes over an hour long. The same contrast exists in Black Mirror season 4, but where The OA expanded and contracted to tell the overarching story not unlike a novel – and as co-creator Zal Batmanglij pointed out, “Could you imagine if the chapters of a book were all the same length? – ‘Metalhead’ is shorter, because, well, because it is.
There’s really no other way to describe the length, because by design there’s very little to go on in general. Four characters appear on screen, and of those, two – Clarke and Anthony – are dead within minutes, their heads blown off by a robotic sentinel with a strong, deliberate resemblance to Boston Dynamics’ BigDog prototype. The fourth character is that ‘dog’, which, by virtue of its persistence and improvisation in hunting down Maxine Peake’s surviving Bella, develops a visible personality of sorts. But really, it’s just Bella who’s defined in any significant sense, and even she is hard to grasp hold of. Her determination to get back to her family shines through, as does her will to survive. But for all the typical grit and spirit of Peake’s performance, it feels somewhat like she’s in a vacuum. Granted, it’s a vacuum featuring wireless radio, and murderous robotic dogs, but there isn’t much for Peake to play off of, and thus, there’s similarly little for the audience to take in. It’s abundantly clear – before the dog enters the fray – that this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland of sorts. That would be the first guess anyway, as an episode of Black Mirror, but the nature of the nervous banter exchanged in the car at the beginning rams the point home.
But what kind of apocalypse it’s followed is left unclear. The origin of the dogs – the main one is joined by an army by the end – is left unclear. The exact nature of the sanctuary Bella is trying to get back to, and how it’s remained unscathed, perhaps relatively safe in such a world, is left unclear. And ultimately, the purpose of the episode as an exercise is left unclear.If ever there was going to be a proper Marmite episode of Black Mirror, it’s this. Those who’ve been with the show since Channel 4 might point to ‘The Waldo Moment’ – indeed, Charlie Brooker points to ‘The Waldo Moment’ as “one episode that [he] didn’t really nail”. And in a sense, ‘San Junipero’ is Marmite-y, in that not everyone was so completely enamoured with it as myself and others were. But ‘Metalhead’ feels particularly primed to be polarising. It’s both a story without much to it, and a story that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere.
Bella realises that one of the trackers that exploded from the ‘prime dog’ as it went offline has embedded itself in her jugular, meaning that any attempts to remove it – as she had done with her leg, and as she was about to do with her face – would be fatal. So, she slits her throat, before she can meet a grislier fate at the hands – paws? – of the dogs. And then, the camera flies away to the scenes of the episode, all being locked down and investigated – though there’s not much to investigate, given the nature of the episode – by dogs. And then, at the end of the camera’s path, comes the reveal of what was inside that package, what was boxed up that was worth the risk, and the three deaths that it caused: teddy bears. What else could ease the pain of the last days of a dying child?
But what are we meant to do with this? It was always a mission with intimately humanitarian intentions, given the conversation at the start, so there isn’t much added by underlining just how, dare I say, irrelevant the prize was. It’s the kind of reveal that sends the kind of message found in countless dystopian landscapes: it’s not enough to simply survive, if you don’t maintain some level of humanity and emotion. And there are hints of that throughout; Bella’s revulsion at the state of the dead couple in the house; her desperate – and potentially futile – attempts to send messages back to ‘home’, wherever that might be. There’s also the tiny hints at a bigger picture in the brief discussion of ‘the pigs’ early on. But none of this really fits together, and certainly doesn’t quite mesh with a storyline ultimately focused around the absolute of survival as an all-or-nothing affair. There’s no option for Bella to, I don’t know, catapult one of the bears back to the dying Jack. Her survival runs directly parallel to the success of the mission; her resigned suicide ensures the missions failure.It’s not a simple case of a viewer angrily shouting, “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN” at the screen. Well, maybe for some it is, but that wasn’t my experience. I’d be perfectly happy with an episode that never revealed its hand… if it didn’t go so far as to tease it. By showing that there’s more than one dog, by giving Bella a home to go back to, that she communicates with, by revealing the teddy bears, by giving Bella companions at first, even by making the design of the dogs quite so familiarly sleek and mechanical… Because of all these elements, it shows too much for an episode determined to show almost nothing, so that there is an underlying desire that’s approaching the shouty viewer’s sentiment. It goes from a locked door to one left immovably ajar. It’s never going to fully open, but that small chink of light becomes far more interesting than what’s actually in the room with you.
Approaching the final episode of season 4, and as the 18th episode of the show to date, ‘Metalhead’ feels like the kind of experience Black Mirror can afford to experiment with. Even for those who really hated it, there’s surely enough critical surplus to cushion the blow, enough to devour outside of this episode to mean that no-ones truly turned away. But one can’t escape the general query of whether it was a necessary experiment in the first place, and the question of whether it was a successful one, will meet an entirely different answer from viewer to viewer.