Black Mirror: 'Metalhead' Is a Short, Stylish Survival Thriller

The fifth episode of the Netflix show’s fourth season is a post-apocalyptic battle between woman and machine.

Maxine Peake in 'Black Mirror'

Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.

“Hang the DJ” might have been my favorite episode of the season. Yes, it hits you over the head with the metaphor, but it’s such a perfect deployment of Charlie Brooker’s skills: relatable comedy, subtle sci-fi, melancholy British fatalism about life and love. Plus the two leads (neither of whom I knew) were just so charming together. The final mind-blowing, world-expanding twist at the end worked for me; since the metaphor for dating algorithms was so obvious already, why not make it literal? That might have been the season’s high point in my book, but the next entry, “Metalhead,” still marked a necessary tonal shift.

Anytime I load an episode of a weighty Netflix drama, nothing makes me happier than when I see a 40-minute running time. Of all my complaints about Peak TV, the biggest is how indulgent so many creators have become, and how overlong they make their shows as a result. So I’m almost automatically inclined to give “Metalhead” a good review, considering how taut its storytelling is. Beyond that, though, it was also an example of something I’d love to see Black Mirror do more and more if it continues after this season—a straightforward piece of genre television, largely lacking in twists or gimmicks.

“Metalhead” was written by Brooker and directed by David Slade, a stylish visual craftsman who’s been behind some of the best-looking TV of recent memory, including Hannibal and American Gods. Slade got his start in music videos, and it shows in the crisp black-and-white photography of “Metalhead” and its spare, frightening world design. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Britain of some sort, mostly taking place on the sweeping Scottish moors. We’re not told what ruined the world or why it is the way it is, nor do we need to know. This is just an eye-popping tale of survival, pitting an empty-handed woman, Bella (Maxine Peake), against some lingering remnant of a technological police state.

The titular “Metalhead” is a “dog,” a terrier-sized cybernetic drone that roves around on little feet and shoots and stabs anyone it comes across without remorse. This drone can hack any door or computer with a USB key; it also has a little bit of trouble climbing things. Apart from that, it doesn’t have any discernible motivation or personality; it’s just a faceless enemy for our hero to do battle with.

I prefer a grim Black Mirror episode that’s entirely about mood and suspense to one like “Crocodile,” which tries to make a larger point but never comes close to hitting the target. It also helps that the violence in “Metalhead” is brief and shocking, arriving in short spurts any time the drone comes across a living target. Most of the drama is wrapped up in wondering what will come next, rather than figuring out the extent of some real-life allegory, which makes the dark mood easier to put up with.

Another thing in its favor? How short it is! Not to sound like a broken record, but there’s almost no Black Mirror episode that wouldn’t be improved by a trimmed running time, even really good ones like “USS Callister” (which was a comparably roomy 75 minutes long). “Metalhead” didn’t have enough time to wear out its welcome with me, nor did it waste a moment on things that didn’t matter to its primary narrative. Our hero begins her journey with two other scavengers, who are quickly wiped out by the “dog”; she spends the rest of the action fleeing its Terminator-like pursuit, including hiding in a tree, taking advantage of its sleep mode to sneak away, and finally locating a shotgun to take it out once and for all.

“Metalhead” doesn’t play up the gore, unlike many one-person narratives about survival in the wilderness (though there is one pretty gross sequence involving the removal of a tracking bug with a knife). The visuals were what carried me through the quieter moments, with Slade making sure every glimpse of the empty moors in high-contrast black-and-white photography jumps out at the viewer. Peake, whom I best know from U.K. comedies like Dinnerladies and Shameless, also keeps things grounded with her understated performance, which could have easily leaned on her terror and instead focuses on her resolve to survive.

The final “twist” of “Metalhead” is perhaps a little too cute—we see that the precious item Bella was looking for when she initially disturbed the drone was a teddy bear, to help comfort a child living in a horrible world. It’s just about the only shred of recognizable humanity in an episode that otherwise reduces people to animals being hunted. Unlike the appearance of the hamster at the end of “Crocodile,” I was happy to have the jarring sight of the bear close out this story. “Metalhead” also makes for a good, punchy penultimate installment before the meta-textual stylings of “Black Museum,” which wraps up Season 4. Sophie, were you as charmed by the simplicity of this episode as I was?

Read Sophie Gilbert’s review of the next and final episode of the season, “Black Museum.”