Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Metalhead" and the Mood Piece

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains heavy spoilers for Black Mirror season for, especially the episode "Metalhead." If you have not seen it and are concerned about spoilers, please do not read on.

Many fans of Black Mirror -- myself included -- felt that "Metalhead" was an odd sore thumb in the midst of a season building upon concepts of memory, individuality, sentience, and free will. We'd just come off the bait-and-switch romance of "Hang the DJ," and now we had... Terminator but with doggos?

In such a message-heavy show, where nothing is ever as it seems and technology is always a metaphor for something else, we were having the tables turned on us once again. The tech of "Metalhead" isn't a stand-in for human hubris, or the abuse of victims, or our need for approval. The tech is simply tech. The humans are on the run from it. And it's, for perhaps the first time in Black Mirror's history, truly just an episode where robots hunt people.

Sometimes a Robot Is Just a Robot

As someone who spends a lot of time pulling apart science fiction and genre entertainment for deeper messages, I've loved Black Mirror because it's happy to provide. So "Metalhead" left me baffled after viewing. The message seemed simple: humans fought to survive in a tech-ravaged wasteland, and they were willing to give their lives for something as simple and human as the happiness of a child.

Was there really no more to it than that? Was Charlie Brooker truly not giving us a quiet subdermal about Brexit or helicopter parenting? The more I looked over it, the more convinced I became: this was finally an episode of Black Mirror that was, in fact, what so many people believe the series actually is. That is, it really was an episode about a very specific piece of technology and how it could, under certain circumstances, destroy us all.

Not believably, of course. Brooker's tech is unbelievable enough to put us at ease, but believable enough to get us to suspend our disbelief. Sure, Robert Daly can scan a sentient digital copy of you off your Starbucks cup, but it's gonna take 19 hours to render. Sure, you can implant a Big Brother chip in your daughter's brain, but most countries are gonna outlaw that shit because seriously what are you doing.

The robot dogs of "Metalhead" are awkward looking, but also fearsome. As doofy as they look at first, it doesn't take long to realize that they really are effective killing machines who probably could destroy the human race.

And once I read an interview with Brooker on the inspiration for the episode, I remembered why they seemed so familiar.

These Absolute Bastards

If you live on the Internet enough to know who I am, you have seen Boston Dynamics and their foray into building and kicking over robot dogs. For the most part, they're pretty funny. And you do feel at least a little sad for them when they get kicked over.

Then they hop up again, and that ain't cool.

Now, I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, the same way I predict our doom when I see a squirrel outsmart a bird feeder. Boston Dynamics is doing some truly rad stuff with their experiments that could make great strides in engineering, hospice care, and whatever the hell else you might be able to dream up.

But I'm not gonna pretend that it isn't a little freaky to see a headless robot that's more agile than I am.

So is "Metalhead" really a case of "What if Boston Dynamics but too much"? Well... yeah. I think it really is. I don't think it's lacking as an episode for that. But, just as the Netflix move has allowed the show to take risks -- with happy romantic episodes like "San Junipero" and "Hang the DJ" -- it's also allowing space to strip the show down to basics.

With a three-episode BBC run, "Metalhead" would potentially have been a waste of space when there's a lot to say. The flexibility of Netflix and the roominess of six whole episodes (!!!) means that it's okay to play more. You won't be losing valuable air time to something that doesn't fly.

So Does It Fly?

It was interesting to me that the extremely on-the-nose "Metalhead" got a great deal of side-eye from the very demographic that expects Black Mirror to be a Luddite's Almanac in the first place. We're awash in interpretations of the show saying it's cursing everything from Instagram to Star Trek, which couldn't be further from the truth.

Then an episode comes along where it's exactly what many expect of the show -- a new yet familiar piece of tech taken to a dangerous extreme -- and there's a disconnect.

Was Brooker going for that when he made "Metalhead"? I don't think so. I'm not sure anyone is that passive-aggressive towards their audience save for Hideaki Anno. I genuinely do feel that "Metalhead" was a shoulder-stretch, a mood piece, a bit of playtime and experimentation.

There's no lesson to be taken away from it, except that humans are sentimental and that sentimentality both sets us apart from the tech we use and gets our dumb asses killed quite a bit. But even that's not a "lesson." More a quiet takeaway that we probably all already knew.

And the placement of it was, all things considered, extremely wise -- because the season finishes out with an episode that is nothing but lessons, call-outs, and morals for the State of Things in the modern age.


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