Netflix’s Love, Death, + Robots loves to push boundaries. Unlike anything else out there, it is a real departure for Netflix, which has not always shown a commitment to more experiential things. The animated science fiction/horror series is beautiful and deceptively smart. The Witness from Season 1 is a prime example. The overtly sexual short mixes the fear of running for your life after witnessing a murder with the distinctly disturbing unsettlingness of The Uncanny Valley. Part of what makes this episode so unnerving is the unbelievable animation which jiggles and bounces in all the right ways leaving you freaked out and confused as the bizarre tale unfolds.
A young woman looks out of her window at an apartment complex across the street when she hears a struggle. She sees a man splattered with blood and holding a gun. The man also sees her and looks surprised as he looks back inside the room. Panicking, the woman runs out of her apartment and through the streets of a neon-hued futuristic Asian city with the man chasing her. He acts confused and says he wants to talk, but the woman is terrified. She refuses to confront him. The woman hopes to lose him at her work, but he follows her inside the sex club. She dances for him before realizing how close he is to her. Finally, the woman grabs her boss’s gun and runs nearly naked back out into the mostly deserted streets.
She runs with the man still chasing her into the apartment building she saw the man in earlier. After trying several doors, she finds the same apartment she looked into before unlocked and runs inside. The man pursues, and the two struggle, with the woman eventually shooting and killing the man. She then looks across the street to the apartment that was hers at the beginning of The Witness and sees the man watching her in shock. She has become the killer, and he is the victim. The two appear to be locked in a never-ending cycle of violence and death.
Why these two are locked in this loop is the real question. Neither appears to recognize the other, so it is unlikely they were familiar in life. The nearly empty streets lead me to believe they are both dead and forced to live out this eventuality forever like a hellish Purgatory. Like The Boat or Triangle, the road to Heaven or Hell flows through an unforgiving wasteland of pain and brutality. If they will ever break the cycle is unclear, but there appears to be no end to it. They are a cosmic pair of fatalistic victims who can only be the horrible half of a terrible whole.
The Witness seems to make big assertions that inevitability can’t be avoided. We are fated to relive certain events, and those outcomes can’t be overcome, just altered slightly. Whether Love, Death, + Robots implies sex work always leads to violence is unknown, but I certainly hope that blunt metaphor is not being applied here. More likely, the vulnerability of the outcasts of society is what The Witness is exploring. We have minimal backstory on either person, so we have no way of knowing their complete circumstance. She is a sex worker, and he is with her in the first loop, so we could assume he had purchased her services, but since we don’t see the beginning of the loop we have no way of knowing if that is true.
In a symbolic sense, The Witness represents a toxic relationship. Both parties are powerless to escape and return helplessly to the same abuse and violence they tried to flee from. Like partners who simultaneously love and hate each other, they long to break free but always return to the familiar, however dangerous and unhealthy. Almost everyone can relate to this kind of bad partnership. It’s the person you don’t break up with because you are too afraid to be alone even as they ruin your life.
It could also be a visual representation of the ouroboros. The symbol appears at the beginning of the episode, lending credence to this theory. The snake who loops around to eat its own tail. Some have posited that the two characters ride the line between two different realities. Each time they cross from one to another, they begin the cycle again. The woman’s inability to give her address to the police could be seen as basic panic but also disorientation from bouncing back and forth between the two dimensions. She can’t remember her address because she lives in both places simultaneously, depending on which part of the loop she is in.
In a philosophical sense, the woman and the man are Schrödinger’s cats. They are both alive and dead, depending on when the witness across the street looks at them. Their very existence depends on the actions of the unknown witness from across the street. The thought experiment was first used to prove that many were viewing quantum mechanics incorrectly but grew into a philosophical principle still examined today. Among other things, quantum mechanics says that until a quantum system is observed, it does not have definitive properties. For the purposes of The Witness, the killer could be both the victim and the perpetrator, depending on when they are observed. In effect, the very act of witnessing their own death or crime makes them complicit.
In any case, whether you believe they are locked in a cycle of violence because of something they did in life that they are paying for in death or living between alternate realities, the visually impressive episode of Love, Death, + Robots is gorgeous and makes you think. All three seasons of the trippy series are available for streaming on Netflix right now, with each delivering something uniquely weird and mind-bending. While some of the episodes are better than others, episodes like The Witness or Season 3’s Jibaro feature beautiful imagery and thoughtful stories. Unfortunately, both of these episodes focus on toxic relationships and gender violence. Art imitates life tragically.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.