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‘Raised by Wolves’ Is the First Pleasant Surprise of the Fall

At a time when most fantasy series are going as big as possible, the Ridley Scott–produced HBO Max series gets back to the basics of science-fiction storytelling, and is all the better for it

HBO/Ringer illustration

At the moment, Southern California is coated in ash, covered by ominous, gray clouds of smoke overseen by a pinkish-orange sun. By comparison, Kepler-22b doesn’t look so bad. 22b is both a real planet and the fictionalized setting of Raised by Wolves, the postapocalyptic space drama that launched last week on HBO Max (and drops its fourth and fifth of eight episodes on Thursday). Harsh and barren during the day and positively freezing at night, 22b is an unlikely site for the rebirth of human civilization. But with our own planet on fire and in the grips of a pandemic, this particular postapocalyptic world isn’t any less foreboding than our own.

A conceptual, minimalist work of science fiction, Raised by Wolves has a predictable set of references: 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its sleek design and ominous use of artificial intelligence; and the Alien franchise, with its first two episodes directed by Ridley Scott, who also serves as executive producer. Raised by Wolves has its share of action sequences set on close-quartered spaceships, but creator Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Papillon) seems more influenced by the mythological parts of Scott’s famous saga—the ones that deal with the dawn of a new civilization from the primordial ooze, or an ancestor drinking a potion, or the chest cavity of some poor human on a routine space mission. Except in Raised by Wolves, humanity isn’t at risk from some external, toothy, acid-blooded threat: It’s at war with itself.

Raised by Wolves is a somewhat awkward fit for HBO Max’s original programming, which otherwise aims to complement HBO proper by marketing itself more towards streaming-native younger women. Raised by Wolves is sandwiched between the reference-laden satire of Search Party and the can-do quarantine cooking show Selena + Chef, and its desaturated mix of far-future and quasi-medieval aesthetics stands out like a human settlement on an empty tundra. The contrast makes more sense upon learning Raised by Wolves was first ordered to series at TNT in 2018 before getting tractor-beamed into WarnerMedia’s new digital flagship. But the odd fit is also not especially relevant, except to owners of Roku and Amazon devices who won’t be able to stream the latest Ridley Scott space epic on their actual TVs. Slipped into the second wave of a fledgling streaming service and sans star power except behind the camera, Raised by Wolves is the first pleasant TV surprise of the fall.

The plot of Raised by Wolves expands and contorts as the episodes go on, but the initial setup is sparing. After a civil war renders Earth uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future, two androids named Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) escape to 22b with six human embryos; only one, named Campion (Winta McGrath) survives to early adolescence. After a dozen years of isolation, the small family comes into contact with the remnants of the civil war’s opposing faction, including their children. What follows prompts the kind of sweeping, big-picture questions you’d want from any speculative work about rebuilding society from scratch. Who gets to decide what this new version of humanity will look like, and who deserves to? What role do parents play in shaping the kind of people their children grow up to be? What happens when children grow up and can choose values—and see parents’ flaws—for themselves?

With multiple major characters named after basic nouns, Raised by Wolves doesn’t bother to hide, and in fact wisely leans into, its allegorical approach. The predictable deluge of jargon terms and multisyllabic names comes soon enough; Mother and Father are the product of the atheist, pro-science side of the civil war, known as the Atheists, which has no problem assigning androids to gestate and raise its sole remaining progeny. Back on Earth, the Atheists lost out to the victorious zealots known as the Mithraics, who escaped the planet on a massive ship known as—what else?—the Ark. But because so many of Raised by Wolves’ characters are actual children, all this exposition gets conveyed more organically than it could be if the cast were all adults. Kids have to be taught how the world works, and in any alternate-reality setting, so does an audience.

Better still, what we learn from all this explaining dovetails with Raised by Wolves larger themes about what our parents teach us and what we eventually choose to question. When we actually meet the Mithraics, they’re shockingly not as monstrous as Mother and Father have taught Campion to believe; the same holds true for the Mithraics and the stories they’ve heard about the Atheists. World-building is hard to pull off without resorting to info dumps and didactic screeds. Raised by Wolves neatly makes didacticism part of the point. Characters are given reams of semi-reliable information, then allowed to discover the truth for themselves alongside their audience.

Raised by Wolves is saddled with the same handicaps as other works of science fiction, particularly the kind constrained by the realities of a sub-Westworld production budget. (Even Scott’s eye for eerie moonscapes can’t distract from how Mother and Father’s skintight jumpsuits make them look like the Lube Man from Watchmen.) But, as with exposition, Raised by Wolves doubles down on its circumstances until it works to the show’s advantage. There are few crowds and even fewer convincing bits of CGI, but austerity is baked into Raised by Wolves’ very concept. The more the show zooms in on intimate settings like the family unit or the religious congregation, the more it can explore existential questions about child-rearing, free will, and ideology. The smaller it gets, the bigger it goes.

Not that the show finds a way around every obstacle in its path. Sci-fi as a whole tends to put story over character, and given that most of the protagonists in Raised by Wolves are either robots or adolescents, the show never gives its ideas a vehicle as compelling as the ideas themselves. That said, Collin and Salim do admirable work making Mother and Father more than the various clichés the show is riffing on (unfeeling android, secretly malevolent AI, chipper assistant). Mother and Father are stilted and clearly inhuman, but they also have emotions and a devotion to their charges that—much like our own parental instincts—is no less sincere for being preprogrammed. As their mission grows more complicated than just keeping their kids alive, they’re sometimes scary, but always sympathetic.

Raised by Wolves is not the sort of show that will convert genre skeptics in the way that Game of Thrones became a fantasy epic for fans who don’t typically love fantasy. But for those already invested in sci-fi, Raised by Wolves is thoughtful, engaging, and streamlined stuff. The race to find the next Thrones, amplified by the Streaming Wars, has made most TV sci-fi go larger and louder. Raised by Wolves, on the other hand, has found its way back to the basics.