Review of Love, Death & Robots, season 2
Miller, Tim, creator. Love, Death & Robots, season 2, Netflix, 2021.
Reviewing an anthology television series can be tricky. With exceptions, perhaps, like Black Mirror, which has a central theme (the societal and personal dangers of new technologies) around which critics and scholars can work a targeted thesis, most anthologies are too varied, too diverse in theme and tone and story and quality, for a single opinion to cover an entire production run. The Twilight Zone has been rightfully enshrined in the pantheon of great SF television programs, but any fan or regular viewer will testify that many episodes are, to put it charitably, clinkers. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of the slew of publications from the Pulp Era: certainly literary treasures could be found within their pages, often in great numbers, but for every Bradbury or Asimov or Heinlein or Lovecraft, there were examples of equal and opposite hackery, best forgotten except as curiosities. The same applies to The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, or Masters of Science Fiction: the tonal and thematic varieties are so great that it’s really impossible to consider the anthology series as a discrete object. The closest Love, Death & Robots (LD&R) might have to a thematic predecessor is the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal (as well as the groundbreaking magazine on which the film is based); it’s hardly a coincidence that the show started life as a reboot of that production. Both are constructed with a comic book sensibility in mind, marked by powerful imagery, and heavily steeped in adult themes with instances of both erotica and intense violence, love and death together. But Heavy Metal had a (thin) framing story connecting its vignettes together, whereas in LD&R and its fellow genre anthology programs there is no such narrative linkage. In that sense the series is much more like Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
However, shows like these can certainly be analyzed and judged on their ability to tell an entertaining or enlightening story, and that intrinsic storytelling quality is the essence of Love, Death & Robots. The show is best examined not for any ethical lessons (arguably, the only story in Season 2 that outright provokes moral inquiry is “Pop Squad”, based on a story by Paolo Bacigalupi—a dark tale of a future where overpopulation is countered by a special police unit tasked with killing unregistered children), but more for the visual and emotional impacts the episodes provide the viewer. The intensity of these impacts is heightened by the stories’ brevity and, I would suggest, the shortness of the second season (8 episodes, down from the first season’s 18) which encourages binge viewing and more emotions hitting the viewer in a briefer period. It appears that the show’s producers are taking their cues from Season 1, which was also marked by small-scale stories that ranged in their emotional and narrative impact from the whimsical to the action-packed to the gut-wrenching. Love, Death & Robots reflects less the Rod Serling-style of didactic, thoughtful morality and more a consciousness of the emotive and cathartic power of storytelling. There is a great imaginative power in the ability to tell a good story well, and the show succeeds in this for the most part.
There is Love; in “Ice” (story by Rich Larson), two brothers, Fletcher and Sedgewick, live on a bleak industrial colony planet covered in ice and snow. Sedge is an “extro”, a human without cybernetic mods that enhance speed, strength, and agility, while his younger brother Fletch is, like most of the colony’s population, modded. Sedge is seen as an outsider by Fletch’s friends and as a weakling by his rough father, weighed down by an inferiority complex, (“Different. That’s what the grown-ups say, but they mean ‘better.’”) He resolves to join Fletch and his friends in a dangerous race across the ice to outpace the massive ‘frostwhales’ before they breach. During the race, Fletch risks his life to allow Sedge the chance to save him, giving Sedge a new cachet with the modded teens and demonstrating a deep love for his brother. “Snow in the Desert” (story by Neal Asher), also set on a hostile planet—this one a desert—brings together a widowed hermit named Snow, who is being relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters for his genetic immortality, and the mysterious Hirald, carrying her own secrets and her own key to long life. The two form a romantic bond centered on their shared loneliness and on being mutually set apart from the rest of the universe around them. And in the aforementioned “Pop Squad”, parents’ love for their children drives them to break the savage anti-overpopulation law that mandates those children’s deaths. When Squad investigator Briggs traces one mother to her home, he is struck by her fierce commitment to her daughter, who “makes everything new and gives [her] life.” Briggs’ realization of the strength of this love, combined with his growing PTSD caused by his legal murder of children, results in his death at the hands of his squad partner.
There is Death; the largest example of this—literally so—comes in the season’s final episode, “The Drowned Giant” (story by J.G. Ballard), in which the corpse of a giant naked man has washed ashore on the English coast. The story is an extended meditation by an academic investigator named Stephen on the realization of mortality and inevitability of change, as well as the frivolous nature of humanity. The giant corpse quickly becomes a tourist attraction and a spot on which people pose for pictures, skate, and scrawl graffiti. Stephen is nearly alone in his respect and consideration for the sheer presence of the giant, while workers systematically cut the body up and haul it away, popular interest dimming in the body as it decays and becomes smaller. In time, the giant is forgotten about or misremembered, leaving only Stephen with a memory of this vanished colossus. In “The Tall Grass” (story by Joe R. Lansdale, in one of his typical thoughtfully creepy tales), a train passenger, stopped in a lonely prairie, encounters a herd of ghoulish, demonic creatures that try to kill him. They are driven off by the conductor, who posits that in this little lonely section of the world, “it’s like a window opens up out there, I figure it leads to some other world”, one populated by people once alive, now lost and become savage terrors.
And there are Robots; in the comedic season opener, “Automated Customer Service” (story by John Scalzi), a woman and her dog reside in “Sunset City”, a retirement community where robots do all the menial work. The woman’s robot vacuum is accidentally set to “Purge Mode”, pursuing her and the dog across her house and attempting to eliminate her. While this death hunt is going on, the woman frantically tries to connect to VacuBot’s customer service line, where an automated voice takes the woman through increasingly nonsensical levels of options and useless advice on how to stop the rampaging bot (including hurling her dog at the bot as a distraction). The final conflict ends with a cheery recorded “Congratulations! You’ve stopped the unstoppable killing machine that is VacuBot!” from the customer line, followed by the unwelcome (though delivered equally cheerily) news that all VacuBots have now been signaled to attack the woman. Rather than pay for an upgrade that will add her to the do-not-kill list, the woman, newly determined (and royally angry), flees town with her dog in a commandeered golf cart, pursued by countless robots.
In a more serious tale, “Life Hutch” (story by Harlan Ellison), a space fighter pilot crash-lands on an airless planet; reaching an automated shelter, he must also battle a malfunctioning robot intent on murdering him. Trapped in a small space by a robot that tracks by sound and movement, the pilot has to call upon his own deepest resources to survive (the episode bears some resemblance to Season 1’s “Helping Hand”, in which an astronaut cast adrift faced a likewise intense kind of mental and physical challenge in a hostile environment).
Even when the stories themselves are a bit thin dramatically, or rushed (some, like “Pop Squad” or “Life Hutch,” would benefit from a longer runtime), the animation is detailed and nuanced, which helps capture the viewer’s eyes and imagination. (“Ice”, from Passion Animation Studios”, is particularly lovely in its spareness and starkness.) In an age of popular cartoons marked by cheap-looking or outright unpleasant animated stylings, LD&R has a certain rich aesthetic to it that helps set it apart from other televised SF.
In the end, what Love, Death & Robots does well is to reinforce the nature of science fiction as story, as a tale to be told. It more than adequately fulfills SF’s traditional function of using fantastic settings as stages for telling and retelling the classic stories about humanity and the ways with which we engage with each other and the universe around us. In small and easily digestible doses, it asks the same universal questions about our existence that we have asked since we began telling each stories long ago, in new but still recognizable ways. And, to my mind, one of the deepest and most existential questions comes at the conclusion of the show’s shortest and most frivolous episode. In “All Through the House”, two children are awoken on Christmas Eve by noises coming from downstairs. Hurrying down to catch Santa Claus, they discover that “Santa” is a hideous, clawed, Xenomorph-like monster, that vomits up wrapped presents and departs with an ominously hissed “Stay…Good.” Back upstairs, now gifted but traumatized, one child asks the other “What would have happened if we weren’t good?” Indeed.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.