Netflix's new dystopian fantasy series "Sweet Tooth" has sparked discussion about its blistering, not-so-subtle commentary on sustainability, disease, humanity, and power. The series, based on Jeff Lemire's comic book of the same name, is unique from the typical dystopian story, presenting post-apocalyptic horrors amid a backdrop of stunningly beautiful nature shots. And it's precisely this beauty that's convinced some of the series' characters to justify an apocalypse that's wiped out vast swaths of the human population. "Nature is healing"...but at what cost?
The premise of "Sweet Tooth" is horrifying, fascinating and achingly familiar. A deadly virus called H5G9 arrives seemingly from out of nowhere, and at the same time, every baby being born is now a hybrid of a human and another animal. The pandemic and disruption in human births lead to what's called the Great Crumble, after which nothing is the same, and society largely descends into lawlessness, all while nature thrives and becomes more beautiful than ever.
Gus (Christian Convery) is a hybrid deer boy – and the only hybrid who can talk – who sets out with a man named Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) on a quest to find Gus' mother. Yet, Gus ends up discovering so much more. Throughout their travels, Gus must try to hide his identity as a hybrid from a militant group called the Last Men, who serve the mysterious General Abbott (Neil Sandilands) in his quest to capture and experiment on the vulnerable child hybrids.
By the end of the season, we discover Abbotts' ultimate goal is to create a cure to H5G9 that he can weaponize to choose who lives and who dies, with the help of Dr. Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), whom he is holding hostage. And we discover something else: H5G9 and the hybrids didn't come out of nowhere, as those who see these phenomena as nature's retribution believe — instead, they appear to have been created in a lab, most likely by the woman Gus thought was his mother.
This stunning "Sweet Tooth" twist throws off all of its main protagonists: Gus questions who and what he truly is; his travel companion, Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), who leads a hybrid-saving group of warriors called the Animal Army, begins to rethink everything that once motivated her. Bear had made saving hybrids her life goal, believing they had come from nature to replace humanity and heal the Earth.
No, nature is not healing by destroying us
Over the course of the series, many characters romanticize the apocalypse, and the rise of the hybrids and end of human births, as nature's "punishment" for humanity's mistreatment of the Earth. This thinking mirrors many real-life social media posts from early in the COVID-19 pandemic, offering beautiful shots of clean rivers, clear skies and empty roads, as a result of less human activity. These posts were often captioned with adages along the lines of "nature is healing." Both on "Sweet Tooth" and in real life, this thinking veers close to eco-fascism, implying all of us are equally to blame for the destruction being inflicted on the planet, and climate catastrophe can be reined in by population control.
This is, of course, provably false, ignoring vastly important inequalities by class and race in who is contributing most to climate change, and who is more likely to suffer the consequences of it. For most of the show, "Sweet Tooth" makes you think the characters who hold this point of view are onto something, that all of this devastation and the violent purging of mankind really is Earth's natural way of healing itself — until the unsettling twist is revealed.
The plot twist seems to offer a sharp rebuke to the idea that humanity deserves to be punished, or that wiping out the population is a natural way to offset climate change. In "Sweet Tooth," the pandemic and hybrid births didn't happen naturally — they're manmade and devastating.
Poverty, climate change, and human suffering aren't the result of "overpopulation" — they're a result of vastly unequal distribution of resources, stemming from capitalism and colonialism. The poorest half of the world's population produces just 10% of all carbon emissions. The wealthiest 10% produce half of all emissions. The wealthiest 16% of the world population consume 80% of all natural resources. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions.
Yet, at the end of the day, it's poor people of color who are hit the hardest by the climate catastrophe for which the wealthy and powerful are disproportionately responsible: Black communities are exposed to 56% more pollution than the amount of pollution caused by their consumption; Latinx communities are exposed to 63% more. Those who are most likely to suffer from poverty and the toxic impacts of climate change are those who consume the least — yet real-life eco-fascist idealogues, and those in the post-apocalyptic world of "Sweet Tooth," have convinced themselves that all of humanity deserves to be equally punished.
It's also worth noting those who hold the misguided belief that climate catastrophe can be addressed by reducing the population are not necessarily evil, or overt eco-fascists. In the real world, many environmentalists and some reproductive rights advocates, often from white-led institutions, promote access to reproductive health care as a means to fight climate change. Yet, everyone should be supported in planning and building their family however they choose, and cracking down on oil corporations is more likely to address climate change than cracking down on pregnancies. Characters like Bear and the warriors of the Animal Army, or Gus' original father figure, Pubba, are similarly misguided, doing all they can to protect the hybrids, while also believing the Great Crumble was justified.
"Sweet Tooth" also portrays the unfiltered reality of how the wealthy will do whatever it takes to protect themselves, and are desensitized to the tremendous violence required to maintain their way of living. When Dr. Singh's wife Rani (Aliza Vellani) contracts H5G9, the couple must go to great lengths to hide her illness from their neighbors, who had formed a mob to kill anyone in their wealthy community who contracts the virus by setting them and their house on fire. In real life, wealthy households and corporations have often lived off harming the poor and vulnerable, exploiting their labor or polluting their living environments. With many of the lower classes wiped out by the Great Crumble, the wealthy instead begin to turn on each other.
"Sweet Tooth" isn't the first time eco-fascist concepts have powerfully shaped film and television storylines. The Marvel Cinematic Universe's legendary big bad, Thanos, was arguably an eco-fascist himself, snapping his fingers to eviscerate half of all living things rather than equitably redistribute wealth, land and resources. But "Sweet Tooth" is especially compelling as many of us move toward some form of post-pandemic normalcy, raising questions about what new world awaits us after such tremendous, collective loss, and whether it's at all possible for nature and humanity to heal and thrive together, not at the other's expense.