“No one knew which came first, the hybrids or the virus, but that question would become the biggest mystery of our lifetime.”
So begins the new Netflix series “Sweet Tooth,” based on the comic series by Jeff Lemire for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, which explores the unraveling of this mystery.
In the grim post-apocalyptic future “Sweet Tooth” imagines, the world has suffered a complete societal collapse (called the Great Crumble) due to the spread of the deadly HG59 virus, also known as “the Sick.” Appearing at the same time are the hybrids: a wave of half human/half animal children inexplicably born to human parents. The first season of the series follows the human-deer hybrid Gus as he navigates this strange new world in search of his long-lost mother, with the help of unexpected allies, friends, and family he meets and makes along the way.
It’s a wild concept, and difficult to grasp at first, but the series so far really holds up. This is a story that explores important questions about the nature of freedom, family, and ultimately, love.
What is freedom?
“Sweet Tooth” is full of characters who have to navigate a world full of risk and danger — and the decisions they make illuminate the nature of freedom.
After the Great Crumble, an infant Gus is taken by his father (whom he calls Pubba) to a remote section of Yellowstone National Park, where they spend the first decade or so of his life completely isolated from the outside world hoping to stay safe from those who wish hybrids harm. Pubba enjoins Gus to “live a full life” while also ensuring he never steps foot outside the border of the park and risks meeting another human (or half-human) soul. “If I hear a voice, I will run,” Gus repeats after him. “If I see a human, I will hide.” Gus’ story truly begins when he leaves the safety of the park behind.
As a former therapist, Aimee spent the first several weeks of the Great Crumble waiting out the chaos trapped in her office in the city, where she “became a prisoner” before venturing outside to find a new home in an abandoned zoo. At some point, she felt the need to leave the security of her office prison to “live a full life” in a world full of risk.
Tommy Jeppard, a former NFL quarterback-turned-enigmatic wanderer whom Gus nicknames Big Man, prefers to keep his emotional walls high and his heart closed off for painful reasons he is not initially willing to disclose. Stumbling into Gus and Pubba’s home and saving Gus’s life, his first response is to tie up loose ends and move on as quickly as possible so he doesn’t become entangled. Rather than embracing a full life of love with the risk of being hurt again, Jeppard settles for a half-life of survival.
In providing characters who initially take on smaller lives to avoid danger, “Sweet Tooth” pushes us to consider the connection between freedom and risk. This is a vision of freedom that resonates with our faith tradition, which claims that true freedom — a full life — is nothing more or less than love.
Here’s how C.S. Lewis put it:
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
If the show demonstrates that freedom is more than being free from danger, it upends another common understanding of freedom as liberty from obligation or restriction. In the same way that a full life of love involves danger and risk, it also necessarily involves obligation and restriction. This is explored through another key question “Sweet Tooth” poses to us about the nature of family.
What is family?
Is family comprised of the people we are given by the circumstances of life, or the family we choose for ourselves?
On the one hand, the first season of “Sweet Tooth” is shaped by Gus’ journey to be reunited with his mother, Birdie, which emphasizes the importance of family of origin. But the series also examines the importance and power of the family one finds and builds along the way.
Jeppard begrudgingly becomes a kind of foster parent for Gus, despite his repeated attempts to get rid of him. As his emotional walls come down, it becomes clearer and clearer that Jeppard needs Gus just as much as, if not more than, Gus needs him. Mutual commitment makes them family.
Over the course of the season, Dr. Adi Singh, who found himself at the front lines of caring for victims of the Sick during the Great Crumble, goes to increasingly great lengths to care for his wife, Rani — even sacrificing his own ideals, and risking or sacrificing the lives of others
A young woman Gus and Jeppard meet along their journey who calls herself Bear has built her own family. After her parents died from the Sick and her younger hybrid sister was kidnapped, she gathered around her a family of teenagers united in their commitment to protect hybrids (and wear elaborate animal costumes). They become the family for each other that they all desperately long for and need.
“Sweet Tooth” reveals that the comparison between given and chosen family is a false dichotomy: our family of origin requires our continual choice to love, and our chosen family is so often given to us by circumstances of life outside our control.
And ultimately, the series pushes viewers to consider family in the broadest possible terms: is not every person — humans and half-humans, hybrids and non-hybrids alike — a rather large extended family that also deserves our commitment? If we all bear God’s image (even the fictional half-humans of “Sweet Tooth”), then our very humanity makes us brothers and sisters in the same family of God’s love.
The show also reveals the danger of forgetting this universal (or to use another word, catholic) perspective. Family — both chosen family and family of origin — can devolve into a kind of fearful tribalism, every person (or family) for themselves: as one man describes in the first episode, “Just tribes of people, scared, fighting over what’s left.”
Does this not mean we are all obligated to one another in a fundamental way — not only in how we treat each other in relationship, but also in how we care for the earth, our common home? In offering characters who wrestle deeply with the question of family — and in repeated suggestions that the wave of hybrid births might represent a kind of call to environmental justice — “Sweet Tooth” suggests that family can be as limitless as love itself.
St. Pope John Paul II said that the family is the school of love, and “Sweet Tooth” would agree: both given and chosen families are training grounds where we grow in love, in imitation of a God who is love Himself.
So “Sweet Tooth” is a meditation on love: it brings both risks and obligations and yet provides true freedom; and it stretches to include not only families of origin and chosen family, but the whole human race and all of the rest of creation.
If that sounds too far-fetched and unbelievable — even for a world full of half-animal children — I invite you to give it a watch to see where you find the humanity in “Sweet Tooth”. Because it’s everywhere.