Netflix’s latest season of Black Mirror has arrived, featuring six new standalone science fiction tales that fantasize a macabre glimpse into the future of modern technology. The series’ fourth episode, Metalhead, is one of its more frightening entries, depicting a post-apocalyptic world in which a depleted human population is hunted by robotic machines. Metalhead deviates from the typical dialogue-heavy scenes and narrative twists and turns we’re used to experiencing in Black Mirror. Instead, its story is told through action and expression, one that at times feels more like a slasher flick than a Black Mirror episode. What is familiar, though, is the way in which it builds a world with an unknown backstory that the audience is left to piece together, and its grim ending invites interpretation as to its meaning. So here, we’re reviewing the plot and themes of this terrifying episode, as well as explaining the meaning of its grim final scene.
Why is it Black and White?
Black Mirror ‘Metalhead’: Story and Ending Explained
The first question you’re likely to ask yourself when watching Metalhead is: why the monochromatic black and white effect? The Quentin Tarantino-esque design choice by director David Slade is intended to highlight several themes within the narrative. First, the grittiness of this uncivilized, hostile, and technologically barren environment (batteries are later implied as a premium commodity) look all the more stark and macabre painted in bland shades of grey. Given that the episode takes place in rural England – a lush, green, and damp setting – the darker tone of the black and white filter does well to highlight that this isn’t a typical romp in the countryside.
In a recent interview, Slade spoke of the decision to use a black and white filter:
“I just said to them (the cast and crew), ‘Look, this world should look as if it was made out of metal. You know, the whole thing, it’s called ‘Metalhead.’ There’s a very stark nature to it all… it just seemed to make sense thematically, as well as tonally and atmospherically.”
Slade has also spoken of another reason why the episode was shot in black and white: Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR). LIDAR is the imaging process that autonomous drones and self-driving vehicles use to navigate. LIDAR cameras shoot multiple colorless 2D images and then blend them together to create a topographical map of the terrain. Slade, therefore, wanted to use black and white so that the audience could get a sense of how the robots perceived the world.
Black Mirror ‘Metalhead’: Story and Ending Explained
Right from the off, the world of Metalhead is depicted as a rather desperate and hopeless one for our three protagonists. The early exchanges of banter between them suggest a close bond, as does the nature of their mission, which the dialogue suggests is one of a mutual concern to ease the suffering of a loved one. Their mission is to raid a warehouse for a special item, which we understand is an extremely dangerous undertaking. Yet, only when the mission goes wrong do we comprehend exactly why that is. Hiding beneath the package Bella (Maxine Peake) and Anthony (Clint Dyer) are looking for is a “Dog.” Keen observers would have noted that “Dogs” were actually referenced in the very early dialogue exchanges between the protagonists in relation to the lack of wildlife (pigs), and it’s immediately obvious why there’s no longer an abundance of farm animals here. “Dog” is the moniker given to the machines that have hunted and killed the human population in Metalhead, and they’re absolutely terrifying.
After awakening, the Dog launches an explosive ball containing scores of sinister, sharp-looking tracking shards, which pierce Anthony’s face and strike Bella in the leg. It then quickly dispatches Anthony before turning its attention to the other fleeing protagonists. A car chase ensues, and after the Dog catches Clarke’s (Jake Davies) van, kills him, and then resumes chasing Bella (this time from the van), Bella is forced off the road and almost off a cliff. The Dog uses the tracking shard stuck in Bella’s leg to quickly locate her position, and though she’s able to cunningly trap the Dog within the vehicle and jump out before it rolls down the cliff, the Dog isn’t defeated. Importantly, though, one of its arms is ripped off after being caught in the twisted metal of the wrecked car.
Meanwhile, Bella puts some distance between her and the Dog, using the time to forcibly remove the tracking shard by painfully cutting it out of her leg. By placing it in a plastic bottle and floating it downstream, she hopes to deceive the Dog and its ability to track her. Unfortunately, her radio call home to explain the disastrous outcome of the mission and her attempt to return is immediately picked up by the Dog. Notably, during the radio call, Bella is unable to determine whether her allies can actually hear her and simply asks them to make a sound to acknowledge her. We hear a whistling noise that she assumes to be a response. But was it her friends back home or the Dog tricking her? It isn’t clear.
Pursued once again, Bella climbs a tree to evade detection but is quickly located. Luckily for her, the Dog isn’t able to climb the tree with its damaged arm. It powers itself down and opts to wait it out, but Bella seems to know this is likely also a tactic to conserve its energy. To waste its batteries, she throws candy at the robot, fighting her own exhaustion to constantly wake it up and force it to burn power. Eventually, it’s so depleted that it enters a sleep mode. Having determined it is safe to move, Bella climbs down and makes a run for it.
Bella’s path leads her to an abandoned house with a car outside that looks to be in serviceable condition. She’s able to use a metal pole (an antenna?) to reach through the catflap in the door and grasp the keys inside the house. Though they aren’t the car keys that she’s after, Bella is able to take refuge inside, where she discovers the tragic and gruesome suicide of its owner. Battling the trauma of witnessing (and smelling) the gory demise of the house owner – who is laid on a bloodsoaked bed, gun in hand – Bella grabs his gun and pries the car keys from his coat.
Unfortunately for Bella, though, only a little while after her escape from the Dog, it has recouped enough power to switch back on and resume its chase. Using the trail of blood dripping from Bella’s wound, it tracks her location to the house and easily overcomes the locked gate and door by jacking into its computer. As Bella begins to make her way out, she realizes she is not alone and hides in a room that is being refurbished. After being sprung, she uses a can of paint to cover the Dog’s onboard camera. The Dog – now clutching a knife in place of its broken arm – attacks the walls blindly as Bella flees the building toward the vehicle outside. But the car won’t start. Using the car’s stereo to attract its attention, Bella baits the Dog to attack the car. She then shoots the Dog twice with the shotgun, destroying it in the process.
However, the Dog isn’t quite done yet. In one final attack, it launches another explosive bomb full of tracker shards, which, just as they did to Anthony earlier, score hits directly to her face and neck.
In the final scene, Bella is seen in the house considering whether to try and remove the shards. But there are far too many lodged in her, one of which is in her throat and likely too difficult to remove. Furthermore, as Bella radios to tell her friends that she won’t be coming home and to pass on one final message of love to her family, we’re suddenly made aware of another terrifying truth: dozens of Dogs are on route to her position. Bella likely knows this and realizes that an attempted return would jeopardize the safety of her friends back at camp (wherever that is). She chooses to sacrifice herself, using her knife to end her own life and keep their location a secret.
As the camera pans away from her suicide, we’re shown a brief glimpse of the robots investigating Anthony’s corpse back at the warehouse. And as we do, we see the contents of the box the group was trying to locate is spilled onto the floor. It contains teddy bear soft toys.
Themes and Ending Explained
Black Mirror ‘Metalhead’: Story and Ending Explained
We’ve already mentioned the effect of the black and white filter enhancing the grim post-apocalyptic thematic setting of Metalhead’s world. It’s also crucial in that it relates to the core themes of the episode. The grey colors mimic the matte, lifeless metal of the robotic “Dog.” An animal in nickname only, it has destroyed all life within this dark world, turning lush countryside into bleak nothingness.
On the surface, the title Metalhead relates to the explosive shards that lodge into the faces of both Anthony and Bella. Our final image of Bella is of her looking into the mirror and examining her wounded face, full of metal shards. But perhaps the title of the episode is trying to convey more than just this irony. Director Slade explains:
“Metalhead doesn’t have a happy ending, but there’s something in the lead-up to Bella’s sacrifice that makes it more than just a grim outlook on the future. It’s wrestling with how we treat all of these qualities in the present… If we get to the point where we have military robots guarding our merchandise and killing people, it would seem to me that we have a great lack of humanity. The theme, if there is one, was to do with how important it is to hold onto our humanity. I feel like the most important thing is that you feel it.”
Notably, too, Bella, unlike the soulless robotic Dogs that hunt and kill life, possesses a humanity that differentiates her. Bella decides to take her own life rather than risk her friends being discovered (by inadvertently leading the Dogs to their camp). Moreover, in the final scene in which we see the teddy bears, we realize that Bella and her friends have risked their lives to ease the pain and suffering of someone else. As the advancement of military technology in our own world sees autonomous drones doing the killing for us, Metalhead encourages us to remember that, as humans, we’re responsible for remembering the value of human life.
As with so many Black Mirror episodes, Metalhead hits home because it portrays a scenario that is frighteningly imaginable based on the projection of technological advances.