How do I review a show like Raised by Wolves? HBO Max's sci-fi series is a strange experience to witness, at times befuddling and at other times beguiling. It's both hard sci-fi, AND hard-to-watch sci-fi. It is a show that pulls you in with its eccentricity, holds you captive with unpredictability, but leaves you at best fascinated and at worst utterly confused. It may even have you doubting your own opinions. After checking out the six episodes (of 10 total) that HBO Max sent in advance, I still don't know if it's a masterpiece of modern science-fiction or if it's a messy misfire that we should meme into oblivion. What I do know is that I can't wait to watch more. Raised by Wolves -- whether it is good or not, and as a fan of daring shows, I lean former -- has me under its eerie siren howl.
Raised by Wolves is set far in the future (is it our future? or an alternate future? I do not know) following the destruction of Earth's habitability through what is apparently a massive civil war between a deeply religious sect known as the Mithraic and rebel atheists. A pair of non-believer androids, known simply by the names Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), rocketship off to the planet Kepler-22b where they raise six human children in an effort to save humanity, while a massive Mithraic spaceship, known as an Ark, houses holy humans and also heads to Kepler-22b to start a new society.
But honestly, the first thing that will catch your eye is the sartorial surprise of Mother and Father, who look like they've been Saran wrapped in grey latex garbage bags, or, as a coworker of mine described it, dressed up like the Human Being mascot from Community. That's an example of the constant tug-of-war that Raised by Wolves is in: odd creative choices pulling from one side while fascinating sci-fi themes yank from the other. Babies are born from goo inside Tupperware containers, bandages are slimy white mesh draped over injuries, the Mithraic look like they raided the wardrobe of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Mother... boy, I cannot WAIT until you see what Mother becomes, and the absolutely bonkers abilities she has. (All I will say, which is shown in the trailer above, is that she flies around in a Christ the Redeemer pose and it's f---ing awesome and hilarious EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. which is fortunately a lot.)
It takes a bit of time to get used to Raised by Wolves' world, but for the open-minded and patient, that quickly becomes one of the show's greatest assets. Ridley Scott, who served as a hands-on executive producer and directed the first two episodes, visually constructed the universe of Raised by Wolves with a stripped-down approach that's effective in enhancing the sci-fi-ness of it all without bombarding it with the unnecessary bells and whistles that dampen other modern tryhard sci-fi series. Kepler-22b is almost barren, with sparse alien foliage sprouting from desert sand and large, rocky hills dotting what's essentially a blank slate, a choice that underscores the humans starting over from scratch. The same can be said of the android's threads, which are reduced to their simplest state in order to strip as much humanity as possible from them to delineate them from the children, who wear medieval-ish rags. The choices are initially odd, but once the shock subsides, clearly intended to enhance the story. There's an admirable courageousness to the whole thought process of putting Raised by Wolves as far out there as it can go. But some may squirt milk out of their noses from laughing so hard at the sight of of people wearing rubber pajamas. With Raised by Wolves, your mileage may vary.
Thematically, Raised by Wolves attempts, mostly with success, to dabble in several tried-and-true themes. Parenting is at the forefront, with Mother and Father trying their best to fully understand humans while also following their pre-programmed directives of raising these children as atheists. They're not always successful, even at something as simple as keeping the children alive, as the kiddos mature and discover their own way of thinking like some marooned planet version of The Blue Lagoon. But I can't blame them for striking out on their own when Mother says things like, "Keep your eyes closed, children. I'm weaponized." Complicating things even more, a pair of human Mithraics who land on Kepler-22b, including one played by Vikings' Travis Fimmel, also have a connection to one of the children -- it's only sort of what you think; like I said, the show is wildly unpredictable -- presenting an argument about who is better suited to raise a child: a robot programmed to do so or a community committed to a backward religion following a hokey deity?
As you can guess, religion is also frequently poked at by Raised by Wolves, and from what I've seen, creator Aaron Guzikowski and Scott are no fans of the pious. The Mithraics are portrayed as warmongers who set out to crush atheists in the name of Sol, their god, and are essentially holy crusaders from space, right down to their knightly armor. Their faith is cultish and infectious, presenting discussions about religion's place in humanity, and though they espouse virtuous living, they contradict their beliefs with self-preservation and violence (Scott's familiar milky white android blood from the Alien franchise oozes out by the bucket). Let's just say it's not a good look, but compared to the stiffness and ignorance of the androids, it's presented as a viable option.
That's a thing Raised by Wolves does well. Philosophical questions aren't posed through preachy monologues, but by the actions of the characters and what the options, intentionally limited on a barren planet, allow. While that doesn't consider the varying factors that influence how we behave today, it's consistent with the show's stripped-down approach of examining behavior -- both human and non-human -- at its most basic. Raised by Wolves is almost a retelling of Adam and Eve, and there are more than a few obvious references to that story, with Kepler-22b its troubled Eden and problems reduced down to primal needs. It's not so much a reflection of our world today, but of humanity rebooted in a vacuum. That's refreshing if you need a break from our current world (and who doesn't?).
Collin is fantastic as Mother, who looks over her adopted brood with gentle kindness and ruthless tyranny, wavering between light family drama and horror. Mother's clearly the star of the show, a complicated character with a sympathetic backstory that's revealed at the midpoint of the season, yet who's also an absolute terror to anyone who stands in her way. Fimmel's a good choice for the role of Marcus, a Mithraic general with a lot of baggage that I don't dare spoil here. His unique cadence and quirky facial tics mesh well with the strange tone of the series. And, for their part, most of the kids are tolerable as well, which is my way of signaling approval.
Raised by Wolves is an experiment as much as it is an experience. It's an unpredictable, unusual, and unrelenting watch that's created its own odd space in science-fiction television. Or maybe it's an overwrought jumble of ideas and visuals. Whatever it is, I've never seen anything like it, and that's why I want more.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The first three episodes of Raised by Wolves are now streaming on HBO Max. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly.