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BLACK MIRROR’s “Metalhead” Turns the Apocalypse Upside Down

BLACK MIRROR’s “Metalhead” Turns the Apocalypse Upside Down

Black Mirror‘s black and white chase through post-apocalyptic Scotland offers a paradox. Its premise is paper thin, but is also gobsmackingly profound.

To get the easy/rough part out of the way, “Metalhead” was gorgeous but incredibly dull. The flimsy, trope-y excuse for the chase wouldn’t have been so bad if the chase itself had been even a little bit interesting. Unfortunately, Bella’s (Maxine Peake) futile footrace against the robotic beast was like a shaggy dog story in service of a winking punchline. The dog’s abilities and limitations seem flexible depending on what the plot demanded, and Bella bounced between being Bear Grylls and having no survival technique whatsoever.

But the core conceit of the episode—and the intentional vagueness thereof—is fantastically clever. After all, how many post-apocalyptic stories are exactly the same? Thousands? There’s a major event (environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, aliens, zombies, Terminators), scrappy mankind finds a way to survive, and then Viggo Mortensen’s kid gets sold to cannibals. The genre is oversaturated, which “Metalhead” exploits to great benefit.

It only gives us one clue as to what happened to the world: the robotic dogs. Their existence and the fear they instill in Bella’s crew paint a picture of a society brought to its knees by tiny, militaristic anti-theft devices. Instead of Skynet, we were taken out by automation. That’s a wonderfully unique riff on the end times because it refuses to offer people any dignity in our own collapse. Post-apocalyptic tales usually offer something profound or out of our control as a world-ending culprit, but over-solving robbery is a hell of a petty way to go.

Unfortunately, the flip side to having zero exposition is that it’s difficult to engage fully with Bella or her plight. That’s partially an empathy gap caused by knowing only that they’re doing something foolish to help a friend’s child and partially because the episode bends over backward to keep Bella from plainly saying what they’re after (the worst is when they call it a “replacement”).

Which leads us to the paradox. The premise of three almost anonymous post-apocalyptic personalities encountering RoboCop’s dog while trying to steal something is simply not enough to fill 40 minutes of screen time. As a result, the fact that they’re trying to steal a teddy bear feels face-slappingly cheap.

But the fact that they’re trying to steal a teddy bear is also an outstanding, deeply humane subversion of the worn out genre.

It’s not about getting medicine or food or water, but about risking your life for a human comfort: the kind of thing you might consider a luxury once the world goes to pot. That kind of thing is almost always overlooked in post-apocalyptic stories, and it’s never the main focus, but “Metalhead” is bold enough to argue that toys and art are just as vital to survival as the other stuff at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. It argues that mental health is a precious commodity when everything around you is despair.

One of the absolute best scenes in the premier bleak-worshipping, post-world movie The Road comes when the Man (Mortensen) finds an intact Coca Cola for the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) he’s been safeguarding through the wasteland. The child drinks it, and it is absolute carbonated heaven. The bubbles! The sugar! One sliver of joy in a choking blanket of destitution. It’s almost enough to make you think life is still worth living.

It’s also the kind of element that’s too often missing entirely from post-apocalyptic fiction, as if the end of the world would also mean the end of our ability to laugh or play music. As if we’d all be frowning through dirt-patched faces every single second of the day. As if we’d lose everything about ourselves because the power grid goes down.

Instead of forgetting the human capacity for pleasure or offering it as a bittersweet, momentary gesture before heading back out into the cold, “Metalhead” makes it the central driver of the plot.

But in making it the twist, it also robs us of its importance throughout the entire ordeal. It’s almost like we’re forced to watch the episode a second time to fully appreciate the warm profundity of the reason it exists. To appreciate the starving, sleepless sacrifice that Bella makes—and the ultimate sacrifice her two compatriots make—in the name of making a child happy in a desolate world.

Black Mirror Joy-Binge Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were a seasoned survivor, wouldn’t you know the dog would send up another blast of tracking beacons when it died?
  2. What’s worth risking your life to secure in the wasteland? Would you go out there for a toy?
  3. How many years away are we from letting security robots conquer the world? More or fewer than 10?

Images: Netflix

Read more of our recaps for Black Mirror season four!

Images: Netflix

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