The Horrifying Morality of Netflix’s ‘Bodies’

Emily Chambers
Emily Chambers has very strong opinions on very unimportant things and will fight you on those things for no reason. She’s been known to try to make friends by quoting Brockmire and John Oliver at you. She’s from Chicago and will remind you of that fact early and often. Do not feed the Emilys.

When I say “horrifying morality,” I’m somehow not talking about the naked, dead man in the header. Not exactly. I’m speaking more about how and why the man ended up naked and dead. But let me back up a second.

Bodies is the new(ish. It came out in October 2023) series from Netflix based on the graphic novel of the same name. The plot surrounds four London police detectives while they investigate the same murder across different times (1890, 1941, 2023, and 2053). By “same murder,” I don’t mean a detective in our present is trying to solve a cold case from the Victorian era. I mean, at four periods spanning one hundred sixty years, a body seemingly drops out of the sky, naked, landing in a London alley. Or four bodies actually. It gets complicated without giving away too much.

So before getting into the more serious spoilers, if the premise is at all interesting to you, I’d suggest you watch it. The production value and acting are great, the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic without trying to be likable, and despite watching the entire series in one sitting just before Christmas, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the show for the last three weeks. Was I internally yelling a lot of the time I thought about this show? Yes, but I’d have been internally yelling about something, so it might as well be this. If you want to watch the show unencumbered with the knowledge of why I scream on the inside, you’ll want to duck out now.

Spoilers!

As with most time travel shows, Bodies has its share of “wait, what now?” moments, so for clarity, I’m going to introduce you to the characters and then tell you what they do:

DS Hilinghead (1890)

DS Hilinghead (played by Kyle Soller) is the detective assigned to the 1890 version of the murder. He’s got a wife, a daughter, Polly, and is seemingly a stand-up man with nothing to hide (seemingly).

DS Whiteman (1941)

DS Whiteman (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) finds the body in 1941, and is as shady as his mustache would indicate. Since it’s 1941, he isn’t the worst guy alive, but he’s a dirty cop. He runs errands and covers up crimes for an anonymous voice on the phone who ends every call with “know you are loved.” It’s weird that he isn’t more creeped out by that.

DS Hasan (2023)

That’s right, women can be cops now! That’s not false women empowerment, I mean this is the first time in the show when women are allowed to have jobs that sort of pay equally to men and earn respect and stuff. It’s cool. DS Hasan (Amaka Okafor, who is amazing and I’d like to see more of, thank you) is also most instrumental in solving the murder so maybe if we hadn’t been sexist assholes back in 1941 we could have avoided a lot of this.

DS Maplewood (2053)

Bad news is that the show depicts a nuclear bomb detonation in London. Good news is that it was supposed to happen in 2023. Great job on clearing that very difficult hurdle. DS Maplewood (Shira Haas, who is also amazing and I’d also like to see more of, thank you) originally finds the body, is taken off the case when it appears to be outside her jurisdiction, and is then secretly put back on the case by Commander Elias Mannix. Who is not a detective, but who will need his own introduction so . . .

The Commander Elias Mannix (2053)

Thirty years from now, in the wake of that destruction and the deaths of half a million people, a new government called The Executive, led by Commander Elias Mannix (Stephen Graham, who also played Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and is shockingly British), has taken over. They’re . . . bad? Ish? The show gives the vague idea that they’re a dystopian dictatorship oppressing its citizens, but we don’t actually see a lot of that. Maybe it was budget issues, but the only real indication there’s something amiss is when we hear from a few different people that they don’t like the government. Ordinarily, I’d let this slide since I don’t mind shows short-handing dystopian futures, but this time it’s central to the plot and underdeveloped. We don’t really know much about Mannix’s government except for the fact that he states he wants to take care of as many people as possible and their slogan is “know you are loved.”

Wait, what now?

More Spoilers!

How does the sign-off of a random voice on a call from 1941 become the mantra of a dictator more than a century in the future? Let’s start with Elias Mannix in 2023. He’s a fifteen-year-old kid DS Hasan comes across during her investigation. After being abandoned by his birth parents, he’s adopted by a couple who belong to a cult that believes he, teenage Elias Mannix, is the future savior of the country. They believe this because they have a record from 1941 where a nearly one-hundred-year-old Elias tells them so. The recording is actually used to convince 2023 Teen Elias that he’s the person who sets off the nuclear bomb which leads to the creation of The Executive and his rise to power. Old Man Elias tells Teenager Elias that even though they’re sacrificing 500,000 lives now, it’s the only way to save the country and guarantee Elias’ own happiness. It’s a lot.

Grown-Up Elias in 2053 then uses the power he’s amassed to locate a naturally occurring time travel portal (uh-huh) that’s been named The Throat (uh-HUH). He uses The Throat (phrasing) to travel back to 1890 and assume the identity of Sir Julian Harker, a nobleman who died at war and whose mother is willing to accept a surrogate son. Then, using his knowledge of the future, Julian/Elias becomes wealthy and powerful, forms a cult to himself, and marries a detective’s daughter named Polly. Polly and Julian have a son who carries on the cult to his father with the understanding that one day, his great-great-great-great-grandson will have a little boy named Elias Mannix. That’s right, he time-traveled to bone his great-grandma. Knowingly and willingly. UH-HUH.

Hey, everybody? I’m not even to the part that I find horrific yet.

Because as much as I don’t like a lot of the choices made (the bombing and the grandma-banging), I really didn’t like the choices that were changed. In 2053 DS Hasan has continued to track Elias Mannix, determined to find a way to stop him from setting off the bomb. I should point out, even though she witnessed him pushing the trigger on the nuke in 2023, she doesn’t seem that interested in bringing him to modern justice. She’s spent almost all of her time trying to undo what’s been done. Which sets up for the audience:

Time Travel Trolley Problem!

I’m going to assume everyone here is mostly familiar with the Trolley Problem/has seen The Good Place, and not spend too much time on that. What we need to imagine instead is how the time travel aspect of Bodies has impacted that thought experiment. Teenage Elias is told by his future self that to secure his own happiness and finally know real love, he has to blow up London. But he’s also told that the bombing will, over time, save more lives than it takes. The show doesn’t get into a lot of details on how that is, but it’s presented to Elias that the future will be a kinder, more caring society if he destroys a chunk of it. It’s selfish, but not entirely. Future Elias is arguing emphatically that action must be taken now to prevent future deaths. DS Hasan in 2053 is working with a group who believes emphatically the opposite. (Does the fact that Hasan’s son died in the blast impact her personal involvement in stopping the bombing? Show doesn’t have time for that.) Regardless of the outcome, you cannot morally sacrifice a life.

Here’s the problem with Hasan’s case: Mannix already threw the switch. In this version of the trolley problem, Hasan and her team are standing down the track of Elias. They see him throw the switch, but don’t bother checking who’s down track of them. It doesn’t matter if, on the original track, even more people would die. Their belief is that because the trolley was originally on the bottom track, it has to continue that way. It does make a certain amount of ethical sense. They could argue that even though their inaction does have consequences, it would be wrong for them to interfere with what would have “naturally” occurred (listen, I said the case could be made, I didn’t say I agreed with it). They’re unwilling to even weigh the possibilities because for them, above all else, murdering someone is wrong.

Unless of course that someone is a fifteen-year-old kid who’s spent his life being brainwashed by his culty parents. In the last episode, the horror of the nuclear blast is undone when DS Maplewood follows Mannix through The Throat (still don’t like it) into 1890. There she meets DS Hilinghead in a jail cell and explains to him everything that happens in the future, including the fact that Elias Mannix/Julian Harker will marry Hilinghead’s daughter Polly, live a long and happy life together, and leave behind a son/great-great-great-great-grandad and cult. Hilinghead uses this information to essentially mess with Elias causing him to lose the trust and love of his wife, and leading to him being miserable. So miserable in fact that shortly before his death, Elias records a second album for his younger self where he describes how terrible his whole life has been. Instead of urging Teenage Elias to set off the bomb, thereby creating the future where Elias finally knows joy, he tells himself everything always has and always will suck so he might as well give up. Teenage Elias decides not to go through with the bombing, never rises to power, never goes back in time, never falls in love, and never eventually sires himself. His last act is to disappear right in front of us.

That’s right. The moral side in this show wins by telling a kid that he should end his life now because things will never get better. The protagonists of the show are unwilling to consider if half a million deaths right now are worth saving hundreds of millions of lives in the future because sacrificing people is wrong, but sacrificing a person seems fine. Plus it’s not like he died. It’s more like his entire existence disappeared forever. Don’t get too sad though, because you’re forgetting that his mother didn’t love him so it’s not like anyone will miss him. It’s okay for one child to die to save five hundred thousand, you just have to make sure what little life he’s had was terrible. These are good ethics. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stare into the void.

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