“Metalhead” is pretty good. A bit daring and experimental, but that sort of thing is always to be applauded, especially when it’s pulled off so well.
“Black Museum” is the single best episode of Black Mirror I have ever seen. (Please direct all vitriol to the comments section, below.)
From here on out: Spoilers.
EPISODE 5: METALHEAD
Someone’s been reading their Cormac McCarthy.
“Metalhead” is an exercise in minimalism, in a lot of ways. It’s the shortest episode in Season 4 (though you’d never know it, with the torturously ratcheting tension dragging seconds into hours). The story is fairly straightforward: Civilization has been wiped out. A group of survivors are trying to get something from a warehouse to help someone at their base camp who is dying. They accidentally activate a “Dog” (a robotic murder machine on four legs), which systematically kills them off until it’s just Bella (strong work by Maxine Peake), our protagonist, and the Dog, locked in a desperate chase across post-apocalyptic Scotland.
This is the only episode of Black Mirror to be shot entirely in black and white. And not just black and white: a stark, high-contrast black and white with a touch of warmth in the grade. More Pi than Nebraska. This isn’t a gimmick, either. It’s more subtle manipulation of all of us on the edge of our seats as Bella struggles to get the key into a lock, or dig a tracker out of her body, the Dog coming on relentlessly somewhere behind her, just out of sight. It turns the episode into a horror film.
Oftentimes, especially in Science Fiction, flash and pizzazz are covering fire for a cardboard story. (See Blade Runner: 2049, every Transformer film ever made, etc.) There’s real danger in stripping something back as far as “Metalhead” was stripped…but there’s also a kind of freedom, for both the creator and the viewer.
We never find out just how civilization fell. There are a few clues: Bella’s fondness of peppermint candies tie this episode to Season 4, Episode 3: “Crocodile.” It isn’t too much of a leap from that world to the world of “Metalhead:” if even our memories have no sanctity, why shouldn’t the police have total access? To our front gates, to our front doors, to our cars? If we have nothing to hide, then why would we need privacy? Why kick a door down, or smash a window, when we could just give the Lawmen the keys?
(Do these arguments sound familiar? They should: we’re already a few steps down this road in the U.S.) But humans are fallible. We are imperfect, and make imperfect decisions. We can be bribed and swayed by emotion. Enter Robocop. (Think I’m joking? Dubai already has them.) But that’s all speculation.
Brooker never tells us, and that’s part of what makes the episode so effective. We’re thrown into this post-apocalyptic world, and all hell breaks loose. There’s no chance for Bella to sit across the fire from Clarke (Jake Davies), reminiscing about the day it all went wrong, or how different things used to be back before X happened…because everybody’s dead before we even have our bearings. Maybe that’s a clue in itself. Maybe that’s how the world ended: all at a stroke, without warning. Not with a bang, but with a few hours of screaming.
“Metalhead” is like a poem, and a poem is not a puzzle to be solved. What makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road so incredible isn’t the long exposition about exactly how things came to be this way. It’s the human story, fully alive and fully realized, that we’re thrust into. Same here. What matters isn’t the nifty, smart, cynical explanation for all this. What matters is that Bella loves someone named Graham, who she is trying desperately to see again. That the people whose house Bella breaks into killed themselves while watching television, staring into the omnipresent Black Mirror. That’s important.
The fact that everyone we met in “Metalhead” died trying to get a new teddy bear to comfort a dying child, even in a world where every step outside could be your last; what that says about humanity, even in the face of annihilation: There’s nothing more important than that.
EPISODE 6: BLACK MUSEUM
In a season of some of the finest science fiction I’ve ever seen on television, “Black Museum” is the best of the lot. It may be the best of the series. (I’m sure someone will take me to task for saying so, but these are just my opinions, so pipe down.)
“Black Museum” is an anthology story inside an anthology series. While her car recharges (I’m sure Elon Musk is working on it), a young girl named Nish (Letitia Wright) heads over to the nearby “Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum.” Haynes (Douglas Hodge: perfection) leads her through a macabre museum of tragedy and horror, telling stories about some of the exhibits as he goes. But when they get to the main attraction, it becomes apparent that some things are not as they seem.
There’s something here for everyone. For the hardcore Black Mirror fans, the first walk through the titular “Black Museum” is a giddy dream come true. Look! There’s the Parent Unit from “Arkangel!” Ooh! And there’s Robert Daly’s DNA gizmo from “USS Callister,” with Tommy’s sucker still on it! The bathtub where Anan was murdered in “Crocodile!” And…a mask of Charlie Brooker? (Yep.) There’s so much here. There are nods throughout the entire episode, more than I have space to point to. Just trust me. Bring your baskets. It’s an Easter Egg Hunt.
For those swept up in the political rage orgy that has been the last year or so, Brooker’s slipped in a few jabs. If some of the scummy things that Rolo says seem to ring a bell, it’s because his is not the first garbage mouth to form the words. “Fake news!”, “Hatchet job!”
When he first meets Nish, who is (as far as he knows at that point) a foreign woman of color, he jokes that she should be used to the heavy security she has to go through to get into the museum. “Our immigration guys are pretty tight these days,” he says. Black Mirror has dealt with this sort of thing before, but this season has taken a bit of a stronger stand. The giant wall in “Metalhead,” for example, which fails to keep out the threat, but bars the way of an innocent struggling to survive.
For the Black Mirror addicts, there’s the story of Dr. Dawson. Based on a short story by Penn Jillette called “The Pain Addict,” it is one of the darkest, most brutal things I’ve seen in ages. It’s a return of sorts to the edgy full-black of the pilot episode, and it’s brilliant.
In large part, its brilliance lies in its self-referentiality. There’s a thread under all the blood and pain and pleasure, only just noticeable if you know what you’re looking for. Brooker is talking to us. Dawson slowly becomes addicted to pain. To horror and fear. At first, his addiction is vicarious: he sees others suffer and literally feels their pain…without consequence. When he goes too far, something in him changes, and he becomes dependent on that next-level voyeurism.
He watches people suffer, and he can’t stop. Sound familiar? I’m writing about exactly that, right now. When his addiction becomes too severe, Dawson too obviously sick and weird to be around people anymore, Rolo sends him home. “Binge a miniseries,” he says. Come on. We’re all watching the pain. We cue up Black Mirror and watch politicians forced to fuck pigs, mothers murder babies, murder whole families, watch women dig shrapnel out of their faces and rob shotgun suicides, and Netflix asks us: “Are you still watching?”
Of course we are. We’re addicts.
There’s more. My god, there’s so much more, here. Not the least of which: did you notice that the “Black Museum” is at a crossroads? That Rolo Haynes, in his snappy suit and snakeoil smile, offers people miracles? Offers to make their wildest dreams come true…for a price? Did you notice that Clayton’s “soul” (his wife’s word, not mine) is trapped in eternal torment, fully-rendered copies of one infinite moment of boundless, limitless pain distributed across the world? Suffering without end, at the hands of…other people?
Rolo may be the devil.
But Hell is other people.
Black Mirror Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix. Let us know what you thought of the series in the comments section, below – or over on our Facebook Group. And, be sure to read Part I and Part II of my review of Black Mirror Season 4, if you haven’t already.