This post contains spoilers for Love, Death + Robots.
Picture it: A dystopic future where the society as we know it has crumbled due to overpopulation. A police force has been created to eradicate any traces of children left in the world. Parents, or “breeders,” found harboring children are prosecuted. To further encourage restriction of the population, biomedical advances have made immortality possible through regular “rejoo” treatments. The catch? People on these treatments can no longer procreate.
This is the world imagined in episode three of Netflix's anthology series Love, Death + Robots, entitled "Pop Squad." The morbidity of the episode is made clear from the start, with protagonist (antagonist? anti-hero?) Briggs carrying out his police duties by shooting a small child at close range. This was jarring for the obvious reasons, but also because it violated one of the rarely-broken rules of visual media — no murdering children. After the killing, Briggs begins to have conflicted thoughts about his duties. He becomes even more confused about his stance on children when his girlfriend, who was taking rejoo treatments like him, made a joke about letting him impregnate her. “Pop Squad” explores the palpable tension that exists in the question of having or not having children at a time when both choices have significant sociopolitical indications.
The timing of the Love, Death + Robots episode’s release, however, is ironic considering American politicians are currently fretting about the birth rate dropping and the subsequent effect this will have on our future economy. To put it frankly, they are concerned that there may not be enough worker bees in two decades to sustain our late capitalist productivity. Turns out, if a country slowly exposes itself as unwilling to provide livable resources for its citizens to survive, especially for working parents, people will either reconsider or fortify themselves in the decision to not have children. This, as well as a misguided fear of overpopulation, makes the setting of "Pop Squad" more of a fantasy than speculative fiction.
But what isn't speculative is society's disdain toward children. The Love, Death + Robots episode does excellently explore one central question: Why continue having children, when the world is hostile in every way to their existence?
It’s a valid question at face value. With climate change and a deteriorating ozone, it is a real possibility that our planet will become unlivable in some parts of the world within our lifetimes. If a child is feminine, Black, Brown, gay, trans, and/or disabled, they are born at a societal disadvantage that unfortunately shows few signs of being corrected anytime soon. In the larger picture, the world isn’t a great place for most of us to live in, let alone children too young to grasp the nuances of all of these injustices.
Even still, in the most basic sense, we collectively look at children as second-class citizens. Regardless of whether you have or want children, it is fairly normalized to view them as primitive, annoying, and burdensome to adults wanting to live their lives. At least here in the U.S., we sarcastically refer to them with mocking terms like “monsters,” “demons,” “spawn,” or “gremlins.” We hit them, yell at them, talk down to them, invalidate their emotions if we don't feel like dealing with them, and if they outgrow the rigid expectations we set for them as children, sometimes we'll even withhold care from them. Too many parents see children as extensions of themselves, or an opportunity to control or dominate in ways they can’t in their everyday lives. On the flip side, some childfree people see children as distractions from the liberated society we could have in their absence. Indeed, Love, Death + Robots simply took the latter perspective and carried it to its logical conclusion. In the episode’s setting, people were able to have elegant parties every night where they could drink and be merry without the burden of childcare looming in the background.
Love, Death + Robots took a swing at the child(free) dilemma with a head-on discussion between Briggs and Eve, a mother he tracked down at her home in the woods. In the climax of the episode, Briggs discovered a child at her home, and as such came prepared to execute with his partner waiting outside. But, his cognitive dissonance got the best of him. In his hesitation, he asked Eve why she chose to have children. First, she irritably responded by saying that she could never love herself so much as to want to live forever. Sure, in the context of their dystopian world, the impulse toward immortality is very self-serving, especially since children are sacrificed to further this end. In our reality, the idea that not having children is a “selfish” choice is a common and insulting refrain women of childbearing age have heard for decades. Thus, Eve implicitly echoed our world’s suffocating moral imperative to procreate to give meaning to our lives. Be that as it may, the rest of her answer was charming in its wholesomeness.
She told Briggs that she simply loved seeing the world through her daughter’s eyes. Having already lived 218 years, she explained that she found joy in watching Melanie learn and make the mundane aspects of life new again. Love, Death + Robots shows the care and unconditional love Eve showed Melanie in those few moments was enough for Briggs to spare the little one — but not without consequence. Upon exiting the house, Briggs had to answer to his partner as to why he didn’t execute the child. In a standoff, a shootout ensued, and the episode ends with both people fatally wounded. In a world where people exchanged compassion for children for eternal life, Briggs ultimately lost his immortality because he allowed himself to be vulnerable to a child’s innocence.
In the end, Eve put into words the romance of contradiction in choosing to have children against all odds. Yes, the world is crumbling around us. Yes, the U.S. in particular makes childrearing needlessly difficult while still pressuring adults to commit to doing it. Despite it all, it is also true that a holistic society needs children. No matter where you stand in terms of wanting or not wanting kids, we must accept that we all have something to learn by having them in our lives, even if they are not our own. A world where children are not allowed to be free is a dystopia none of us should want to live in.
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