The Witness feels like an amateur attempt at science fiction. There’s an image but no imagination, nothing anchoring the initial idea into something resonant and real.
Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch
So Netflix just released a new anthology series called Love, Death, and Robots. The show, created by Tim Miller and David Fincher, deliberately evokes Heavy Metal by way of Aeon Flux. Each episode adapts a speculative fiction story into a six to eighteen minute animated short film. The animation style changes between each episode, but the quality remains high throughout. It’s clearly aimed at adults with copious gore, language, and nudity. Most of the stories are by established (and overwhelmingly male, but that’s an issue for a different essay) writers like John Scalzi, Peter F. Hamilton, and Ken Liu, though there are a few original pieces sprinkled throughout.
One of these original shorts almost made me stop watching the show.
Now disliking a piece in an anthology is hardly a reason to give up on the whole. It takes one finger to count the number of short story collections I’ve read where I found every story equally compelling (Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, if you’re curious).
Speaking from experience, I can say that good SF is hard to write and it’s only getting harder as we drift further into the disinformation age. The first two episodes of Love, Death, and Robots establish a series capable of delving the darkest corners of our collective imagination and then turning around and making us laugh at the silly antics of a trio of robots after the end of the world. It’s certainly no Expanse, but it’s good science fiction, and I was hooked.
Then “The Witness” starts, and Love, Death, and Robots expands that umbrella to include the unfortunately exploitative side of SF.
Ordinarily this would be the break in the think piece where the author warns that they’re about to spoil the episode, which I intend to do. In order to understand what’s so wrong with “The Witness,” you need to know what happens. So be advised, spoilers are coming.
Alright, so the episode opens by cutting between a scantily clad woman applying makeup and a man murdering someone. The murder is visceral, exacerbated by tight camera angles and visual distortion. The woman, who is ostensibly the protagonist of the piece based on the episode description, witnesses the murder through her window. She bolts when the man notices her, and he runs after her. Oh, and the murder victim matches our protagonist exactly.
So far it’s not so bad, though the woman’s design is over-sexualized compared to the man’s and the murder montage might be a little too effective. It’s not the most original premise, but it works, and the implications of the identical women intrigues.
The protagonist flees, hopping into a taxi heading somewhere, furiously calling someone named Vladimir and not getting through. There’s a moment when the man pulls up in an identical cab next to her that keeps the tension and the mirroring alive.
I forget the name of the Woman. It’s mentioned once in the episode but it didn’t stick and not even the spirit of journalistic integrity can compel me to watch the episode again just to figure it out. Plus she’s just called “The Woman” on imdb and the like.
Once our protagonist reaches her destination “The Witness” nosedives from “uncomfortable undercurrent of misogyny” straight into “explicit exploitation.” The woman pounds on the door, which prompts an androgynous character dressed somewhere between jester and dominatrix to emerge and berate her for “missing her show.” They then escort her inside, so she can prepare to dance.
What happens next has more issues than a comic book shop, so I want to point out the massive structural flaws before we get into gross territory. Nothing prior to her arrival indicates that our heroine is an exotic dancer (unless you count how sexualized she is, which is the worst kind of justification) or that she’s late for a show. She doesn’t even stress as she puts on her makeup in the opening scene. All we know as the audience is that she’s trying to get to Vladimir who will in some way help. The emcee is not Vladimir, nor is Vladimir inside, and our protagonist finds him without any trouble afterwards. It doesn’t even stall the woman long enough for the man to catch up. There’s no narrative reason for her to come here.
Shit rockets fanwards at terminal velocity once the emcee pulls the man inside. Turns out, the woman’s destination is some variety of fetish club populated entirely by people in gimp suits. First off, what the hell, and second, way to demonize BDSM, “The Witness.” Now I think we can all agree without kink shaming anyone that gimp suits look creepy, but the real issue is with the presentation. The camera distorts the proportions of the gimps, turning them into monsters. Now I remind you that we’re in the perspective of an actual murderer being asked to find people who participate in an alternative lifestyle unsettling. The gimps don’t do anything or serve any purpose, they’re just glorified set dressing to make the club creepier. You could replace them all with mannequins and achieve the same effect without the unfortunate implications.
That’s before our protagonist comes out to dance. Her routine is exploitative and in no way empowering. We’re not watching a woman revel in the power of her own sexuality, we’re watching a woman actively frightened for her life being forced to perform. And that’s not even the worst part! The routine ends when she runs off the stage, screaming in terror, after noticing that the man is watching her… which plays out from his perspective.
Now, allow me to reiterate that. Our female protagonist panics and runs when she realizes the camera eye is watching her dance. Because we are watching her. I don’t know how to make anything insightful out of that. It’s just bad, and it makes you feel gross.
And again there’s no narrative weight behind any of this. The emcee doesn’t berate her for running off the stage, the gimp gallery doesn’t even boo, it just means that our protagonist spends the rest of the episode with her breasts out.
Back at what is attempting to pass for a plot, the woman finds Vladimir passed out in his bed. She hunts through his things, finding a gun in his dresser drawer, and finally something in the episode makes sense. The reason the woman is so hellbent on finding Vladimir is that he offers some modicum of protection.
The cavalcade of crassness culminates in our protagonist running back to the hotel with Vladimir’s gun, seeking safety only to end up in the man’s apartment because of… narrative contrivance? I don’t know. They struggle, she shoots him, she looks up, sees a the man in her window, he panics, the cycle starts over, roll credits.
I’m sorry, what? That’s how this trainwreck ends? When we got the glimpse that the murdered girl same as our protagonist I thought we were building up to some kind of sexbot reveal. You know, since the name of the show is Love, Death, and Robots. But no, it’s just a circle… for the sake of being a circle. There’s no point, no suggestion of why this is happening, no meaning behind it. It’s the worst kind of dudebro fauxlosophy that projects an optical illusion of depth. As soon as you start to think about it, it falls apart.
Compare this to the first episode, which I think you should watch if you haven’t. While “Sonny’s Edge” is more sexual than it needs to be and certainly more violent, it at least builds to something. The reveal of what the edge is actually comments on the nature of what it means to survive and clumsily deconstructs the “rape revenge” narrative. It’s not perfect, god no, but it’s trying to have a point. And episode two splices genuine insights about the self-destructive impulses of our species into a hilarious sightseeing tour with some goofy robots. I wouldn’t get so mad at the “The Witness” if the series as a whole wasn’t so otherwise good. Recommending things sucks when you have to include a huge pulsating asterisk.
But maybe all of this is the point. Perhaps the authorial intention behind “The Witness” is to appall the viewer, to violate them and their conscience. Which still leaves the question of “why” unanswered. Why disturb the audience? What deeper meaning are they getting at? That even in the future women are treated poorly? We’re living through a pretty mediocre future and that seems to be the case, so that’s not a discovery.
I want to know. So far the episode ends with hollow dissatisfaction. I got upset, I got angry, but now that the anger is simmering out I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything or come to any revelation.
The Witness feels like an amateur attempt at science fiction. There’s an image but no imagination, nothing anchoring the initial idea into something resonant and real. Speculative fiction is the literature of metaphor, where memories become ghosts, transhumanism represents the resilience of the human spirit, and artificial humans hold a mirror up to our condition. There’s no metaphor here. It’s just shocking to be shocking and sexy to be sexy. I wouldn’t mind how provocative it is if it didn’t feel so pointless.