Animal Kingdom is a TNT television drama based on a 2010 Australian movie of the same name. The series follows the Codys, an Oceanside, California crime family. The Codys plan and execute their crimes with meticulous attention to detail, and their crimes pay very well indeed. The fruits of their criminal labors include homes by the ocean, luxury cars, world travel, lavish parties, and unlimited lines of cocaine. The family consists of matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody, her sons Pope, Baz, Daren and Craig and her grandson Josh. The Codys are beautiful and (except for Pope) charismatic, and the writers use these traits to beguile us into cheering for them as they pull off their latest “Mission Impossible” criminal escapade.
That said, Animal Kingdom is not just another action story playing on the “glamourous criminal” trope. The writers draw back the curtain to reveal the dark current of evil that runs through the Codys’ lives, and remind us that “glamourous” is derived from a word that means “illusion.” Like Breaking Bad, Animal Kingdom gazes into the abyss, and while Walter White was a Millean consequentialist, the Codys are disciples of Frederick Nietzsche.
A lot of ink has been spilled about whether Nietzsche was a nihilist. The conventional wisdom is that he was. After all he spoke of the meaninglessness of traditional morality and the death of God. Others contend that the conventional wisdom is based on a superficial reading. Far from embracing nihilism; Nietzsche feared and warned against it and conceived of his work as a battle against the nihilism he believed was inherent in the Western philosophical project. He was not amoral. He was attempting to create a new foundation for morality after the collapse of the Christian consensus based on the a natural aristocracy in which the strongest man (the so-called übermensch) would set his new standards and values of their own making. In Beyond Good and Evil he wrote:
The noble type of man regards HIMSELF as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: “What is injurious to me is injurious in itself;” he knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is a CREATOR OF VALUES. He honours whatever he recognizes in himself: such morality equals self-glorification. . . . one may act towards beings of a lower rank, towards all that is foreign, just as seems good to one, or “as the heart desires,” and in any case “beyond good and evil”
Nietzsche diagnosis of the main current of Western philosophy correct. It was indeed bounding headlong down the road to nihilism, but his attempt to change course served only to accelerate the descent. As David Bentley Hart explains, Heidegger understood this very well.
For Heidegger, the last metaphysician was Nietzsche because in Nietzsche’s thought the will to power was elevated to a position of ultimate truth; it became the principle of principles. In that moment, metaphysics became somehow perfectly self-aware. It had discovered its deepest essence by having achieved its nihilistic destiny.
Nietzsche’s failure is not surprising. The nihilist asserts that life has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Objective meaning, purpose, and intrinsic value exist if and only if God exists. Thus, Nietzsche’s atheism doomed his project before it had begun, and Nietzsche’s elevation of the will to power as the ultimate good, far from checking the descent into nihilism, entrenched it more firmly than ever.
Which brings us back to Animal Kingdom. The Codys never engage in philosophy-speak and doubtless have never reflected on Nietzsche. Nevertheless, they are the perfect embodiment of his übermensch. They recognize no conceptual limits on their will to power. For them, neither right nor wrong exist. The only limit they recognize is a prudential one – i.e., what can they get away with. This is clear from the very first episode of the series in which a heist goes wrong, and they inadvertently kill a security guard when they run into him with their getaway car. So they murdered a man. Too bad for him. They never shed a tear. After all, the guard’s death is in the natural order of things in their Nietzschean world where the strong make their own rules and dominate the weak, and the weak get hurt (or die) if they resist. As Nietzsche said, the strong “may act towards beings of a lower rank just as seems good” to them.
Animal Kingdom explores what it is like to live in a milieu where all restraint has been cast off, and the metaphor of the show’s title illuminates the inevitable result of the Codys’ worldview. The metaphor is only implicit in the series, but it was made explicit in the movie, in which there is a scene where a policeman attempts to convince Josh to accept his protection and give evidence against the family. He tries to convince Josh that he is not safe, because he lives in a world that is “about super-efficient animals and hard thorny plants and everything knows it’s place in the scheme of things. Everything sits in the order somewhere. Things survive coz they’re strong . . .” The dynamic described by the policeman in the movie plays out in the series. Nietzsche’s premises lead to the jungle, a nihilistic bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”), and not even familial bonds ensure loyalty or even survival.
We see this war playing out as the series progresses. In season three a crescendo is reached when Baz learns that Smurf has been skimming the proceeds of their jobs. In retaliation he tries to frame her for murder, which in turn leads Smurf to hire a hitman (hitwoman actually) to gun down her own son. As Nietzsche should have known, if life is not sacred for everyone, it is not sacred for anyone.