Bleak New World
‘Raised By Wolves’ gives us space travel, monsters, androids, and a grim sci-fi pioneer story that you won’t want to miss
If you’re anything like me, your pandemic TV watching habits diverge in two drastically different directions. When the anxiety of everything happening to the world begs me to turn on and tune out, I sometimes opt for frivolous, fun shows and movies like What We Do in the Shadows or Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. You know, things that will give me a chuckle, raise my spirits, and help me ignore my troubles for a little while. Alternatively, I can just as easily choose the dark path, which leads me to places like The Walking Dead or Kingdom, shows that make me feel that, yes, things might be messy right now, but thank goodness they’re not zombie-apocalypse-messy. Strangely enough, either of these options tends to make me feel a bit better about the world and my place in it, at least for a spell.
Raised By Wolves, the new scifi series on HBO Max helmed (at least in the first two episodes) by Ridley Scott, falls squarely into the latter camp. Should you be looking for uplifting, bubbly escapism, you’ll hardly find it here, friends. But if you’re in need of entertainment so bleak that it makes USA 2020 appear cheery and optimistic by comparison, I think you might be in luck.
The series takes place in an unspecified future Earth, in which the world has been ravaged to the point of desolation by global warfare between two opposing factions: religious fanatics known as The Mithraic, and a smaller, scrappier band of atheists. Having rendered the planet completely inhospitable, The Mithraic fill a spaceship, fittingly named “the Ark of Heaven,” with a thousand of their followers, and fire it off to the planet Kepler 22b in order to save what’s left of the human race, or at least a slice of it that prays to their deity, Sol. Unbeknownst to the zealots, the atheists send a pod filled with a pair of androids and a suitcase of human embryos to Kepler in advance of the ark, hoping to get a jump on their religious enemies.
The ultimate geographical cure
In Raised By Wolves, humanity attempts the ultimate “geographical cure.” A new planet and a fresh start is just the change these troubled folks think they need. The problem in pulling a geographical, of course, is that you can’t outrun yourself, and unless you change your own nature, you’re going to have the same problems in your new home that you did in the one you left. Wherever you go, there you are…even 600 light years away. (Fun note: Kepler 22b is a real planet, by the way, and likely capable of supporting human life.)
The series begins with the androids’ arrival on 22b, literally a cliffhanger as their ship dangles precariously halfway over a chasm. We quickly come to know this pair as “Mother” and “Father,” the new Adam and Eve of this planet, as they set up camp and start the strange process of gestating six human children in little pyrex containers, fed by surgical tubes emanating from Mother. When they come to term, one of them, the runt of the litter, doesn’t appear to make it. Mother sings to and cries over her lost child, after which the baby, named Campion, miraculously survives. It seems these aren’t cold, callous Terminator models on our hands. The atheists have programmed these androids to feel.
In the ensuing years, the children and their android parents attempt to navigate life on the new planet, which doesn’t go particularly well. By accident or illness, the kids die one by one, leaving only Campion, our runt, left. As the nuclear family dwindles to three, we start to get a sense of their personalities. Mother is stern and imposing, while Father is the softie of the two, with an odd proclivity of telling jokes to diffuse tense situations. Campion, interestingly enough, develops a sense of faith over the years, praying in secret from his synthetic mommy and daddy, who he knows would angrily disapprove. It’s an odd family, but hey, whose family isn’t?
Meanwhile, back on Dead Earth
While this all plays out, we get a glimpse from the Mithraic side at the end of the war on Earth, as a pair of desperate atheists steal the identities of a couple of believers, whom they murder in order to get a seat on the Ark, even surgically altering their own faces to become “Marcus” and “Sue” instead of “Caleb” and “Mary.” In a lovely twist, they discover that these two have a son, Paul, waiting for them on the Ark and making the family reunion more than a little awkward.
Soon enough, the Ark makes it to Kepler, and the androids decide to contact them, seeing as a single child has a better chance of carrying on his genome if he’s with other actual human beings, even if they are religious types. When the Mithraics arrive and attempt to abduct Campion into their own ranks, the tension simmering throughout the first episode explodes dramatically. Mother, it turns out, isn’t any base-model android. Unbeknownst to Father, Campion, or even herself, she’s a necromancer, a weapon of mass destruction that can fly, change shape, boil people’s heads, or even make them explode using a terrifying banshee scream. Not satisfied with gruesomely dispatching the greeting party, Mother flies up to the Ark, kidnaps five Mithraic children (including Paul) to replace the ones she’s lost, and sends the ship on a crash course to the planet’s surface.
With that, Raised by Wolves is off and running. In the ensuing episodes, we have a number of plotlines keeping us engaged, despite a relatively slow pace. There are the two opposing camps trying to survive and outwit the other on a new, desolate, and very alien planet, and within both arise serious issues of trust and doubt. Marcus and Sue need to keep their ruse over the remaining Mithraics convincing, which proves more difficult than they’d imagined, all amidst petty infighting amongst the religious hierarchy.
My weird android parents
Simultaneously, the androids have unsurprising difficulties incorporating the Mithraic children into their ranks, as Mother and Father wrestle with their own emotional states and how best to raise the children. Above all looms the daunting task of simply staying alive, finding food that won’t kill them, an inhospitable climate, and other basic pioneer issues. As they discover the planet’s leathery inhabitants and an enormous stone polygon clearly created by intelligent life, the Earthlings find that they have a lot to learn about their new home, and about whoever might already be there.
There’s a lot to love and a lot that might turn people away from this show. In a word, it’s bleak, both visually as well as narratively. The whole thing looks like Scott has sent it through an Instagram filter called “Joyless Washout” that sucks all vivid colors from the frame. You can call few if any of the characters “heroic,” and it’s often difficult to find someone for whom to root.
Mother and Father have their problems, with him experiencing toxic confidence issues and her being an utterly horrifying death machine, and the Mithraic side isn’t doesn’t exactly overflow with what you call “virtue,” either. Caleb/Marcus and Mary/Sue seem to be the most agreeable and worthy of our investment, but then again they murdered the real Marcus and Sue in cold blood just to be here in the first place. So despite moments of tenderness for their adopted son, Paul, these two aren’t exactly wholesome.
Our real hope for humanity seems to be Campion, who might also be the messiah prophesied by Mithraic scripture. I’ll be eager to see how that works out, but in the meantime, he does seem to be perhaps a bit too well-adjusted for his circumstances. From a developmental standpoint, you have to think that any kid raised by androids would be more than a little odd. He doesn’t appear to mimic his parents’ speech or mannerisms at all, and then there’s the trauma of losing literally every human he’s ever known until the Ark arrives. He does tend to be rebellious…all that’s missing in a scene when he clashes with Father is the line, “Yeah, well you’re not my real dad! I never asked for androids to incubate me on an alien planet in the first place!”
But Raised By Wolves clearly means for us to identify with and root for Campion, the moral beacon of the show, and that’d never happen if he was the kind of weirdo who actually acted like a pair of machines, one of whom also happens to a genocidal monster, raised him.
Ultimately, Raised by Wolves is bleak, dreary and violent, but it also has me utterly rapt. Part of this, I’m sure, is because of the show’s unique aesthetic, the largely brilliant acting work by a cast of relative unknowns, and its boldness to be original in an entertainment landscape overstuffed with reruns and reboots. For that reason alone, I’ll commend it, and it will definitely keep me coming back, at least until the end of this season. It will be interesting to see how long the showrunners can keep a story so melancholy this compelling.
On the plus side, after an hour of Raised by Wolves, my life–even in the midst of everything 2020–feels positively bursting with color and delight. Sometimes I guess you need a little medicine to make the sugar taste sweet again. And when it’s Ridley Scott administering the medicine, I’ll be more than happy to take it.