Why Black Mirror Didn't Dive Into Metalhead's Backstory

When people talk about season 4 of "Black Mirror," they usually talk about "U.S.S. Callister" or "Hang the DJ," or maybe even "Black Museum." Those are the big ones, after all, the ones with the big twists and concepts that got everyone talking. Less discussed is "Metalhead," the episode with a deceptively simple plot, filmed in black and white, following only one character throughout most of its runtime. We don't learn much about the world this episode takes place in; all we know is that the characters are living in a dystopian world where evil robot dogs are out to get them. 

It's an episode that raises a lot of questions. How did this state of the world come to be? Is it only one particular country or area that's been invaded by these dogs, or is it the entire world? The answers to these questions exist in the mind of writer Charlie Brooker, but it was his intentional choice not to give you any of them. "We sort of deliberately decided not to flesh out a lot of the backstory," he explained in a 2017 interview

Brooker described how in an earlier version of the draft, there was a scene revealing that the dogs were in fact controlled by a person in some far-off country. "There was a bit I liked where he leaves the [control unit] while the robot is watching her while she's up in the tree and he goes and gives his kids a bath," he said. It sounds like a neat bit of worldbuilding and social commentary, but for Brooker it felt "too on-the-nose." In the end, he decided the episode was better without all the explanations: "We deliberately pared it back and did a very simple story."

An underrated gem

On first watch, "Metalhead" initially feels like "White Bear," another episode that drops us in the middle of a confusing apocalypse. The difference is that here the terrifying world turns out to be exactly what it seems, and the episode has no tricks up its sleeve. The closest thing to a twist is the closing reveal that the box our main characters all died trying to get was filled with teddy bears, not anything valuable. 

The reveal that they've chosen to risk their lives just to replace a sick kid's lost teddy bear might not be a particularly shocking twist, but it's also a strangely optimistic note to end on, especially for a show so often accused of being too cynical. Most apocalyptic shows seem to take it for granted that humans will turn into selfish savages the moment civilization breaks down, but here "Black Mirror" takes the opposite approach. 

As we wait for "Black Mirror" season 6 to be released sometime next year, "Metalhead" serves as a nice reminder of just how much variety the show is capable of. Sometimes — well, most of the time — it makes an episode exploring the ugly side of humanity, but sometimes it gives us an episode about how brave, resilient and compassionate people can be, even after all hope is lost. 

It's a message that would've been undercut by the reveal that the dog was controlled by a person, another reason why Booker made the right choice in cutting the scene. Even in a strange world where going outside can get you killed by an evil robot dog, where there doesn't seem to be any hope at all that things can improve, the bare-bones "Metalhead" argues that people will still be kind, no matter the cost.