Raised By Wolves: Spoiler-Filled Premiere Breakdown | IGN

This is a spoiler-filled analysis of the first three episodes of Raised By Wolves, which premiered on September 3 on HBO Max in the US, Foxtel in Australia, and HBO Asia in Asia. Check out other release date availability here. For our spoiler-free take, check out our Raised By Wolves review.

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While the name you’ll see credited most frequently is series creator Aaron Guzikowski, Raised by Wolves is a Ridley Scott story deep in its bones. Scott directed the first two of the show’s ten episodes before handing the third off to his son Luke, and while the series is undoubtedly a collective effort, it’s hard not to picture it as the next part in a singular artistic sequence. It’s an android story set on a distant world, following in the footsteps of Alien in 1979, Blade Runner in 1982, and Prometheus and Alien: Covenant these last few years, films in which Scott explored alien and artificial life, in ways both increasingly introspective and increasingly twisted. Here, he plants the seeds for a story where nature and instinct take center stage, both as facets of humanity and as tenets of A.I. programming. The result is one of the most engrossing, unsettling, and enjoyable sci-fi shows in recent memory.

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At the center of this story are Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), androids tasked with raising human children on Kepler 22-b, a potentially habitable planet 587 lightyears away, after widespread conflict renders Earth uninhabitable in 2145. The premise sounds simple enough, and the majority of its first entry feels like an isolated, stripped-down saga about parenthood and loss. The remaining two-and-some-change episodes continue to focus on these themes, but after its grounded and emotionally heavy prologue, in which the passage of time is captured by clouds drifting over mountains, the show begins to accelerate, mercilessly throwing concept after concept at the screen, from holy wars, to virtual reality, to nightmarish aliens. At the end of its third episode, it even teases the possibility of pre-existing native people on this alien planet.

It sounds like far too much on paper for a mere trio of 45-minute episodes. But the bloat hardly matters when it’s all in service of a deeply cerebral, deeply character-driven story about what’s left of humanity after the collapse of civilization.

Who Are Mother, Father, and Campion?

The show’s opening images re-appear during the title credits of each subsequent episode: a tiny escape craft emerging through a tear in space, perhaps a wormhole, and arriving at a distant planet. It’s a premise reminiscent of the three aforementioned Alien films, all of which involve human explorers (well, truckers, scientists, and colonists, to be precise) landing on an unfamiliar world and biting off far more than they can chew. In all three cases, the humans are accompanied by an android — Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien, David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus, and Walter (Fassbender again) in Covenant — but despite evoking these familiar scenes, the show’s specifics are all shifted in intriguing ways.

Rather than mere companions, the androids are now the custodians of the human passengers — six unborn embryos, which they bring to term — a makeshift family of refugees on this uncertain world. However, the points of comparison don’t end there. Mother, a battle model repurposed to raise children, is as much Covenant’s David or Blade Runner’s Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) as she is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien sequels, and the Xenomorph itself, torn between her place as an artificial creation, her maternal instincts, and her penchant for ruthless bloodshed.

This capacity for love, violence, and painful introspection is the show’s lightning rod, making Mother a concentrated focal point of the many themes which characters around her are forced to reckon with. For instance, Father, a much more basic service model, exists for the express purpose of protection, but navigating such a base command grows complicated the more emotionally involved he becomes. Meanwhile, human characters like Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar) act as perfect foils to Mother and Father, wrestling with their own forms of artificiality and parental programming — we’ll get to them in a moment — though the show’s secret weapon appears to be Mother and Father’s youngest son Campion, played by Winta McGrath.

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Campion is merely a child, but he’s incredibly observant, and harbors an uncanny awareness of his own emotions (perhaps the result of being raised by self-aware A.I. who frequently question and deconstruct their own impulses). The only survivor of his six siblings, he’s also experienced a lifetime’s worth of anguish for someone so young, which he seems to process and deflect back out into the world as a simmering, rebellious temper: “Maybe there’s something hiding inside of me too?” he wonders, when he learns of the violent instincts harbored by his mother.

The plot doesn’t really kick off until Marcus and his tribesmen arrive on Kepler toward the end of episode 1 (after Campion contacts their ship). But in the forty-ish minutes preceding this inciting event, Scott zeroes in on the lurking doom surrounding the makeshift family and their rustic dwellings, even in the rare moments when they feel comfortable and at home. With no external threats to speak of just yet, Mother and Father concentrate on raising their children, and are forced to reckon with the cruelty of nature as they learn the pain of being human.

One child is robbed from them when she falls into an enormous crevasse in the ground. Four others die of a mysterious illness. Before long, the world itself begins to feel deadly. The giant dinosaur jawbones that once playfully littered the scenery are now used to physically frame characters at their most emotionally volatile, and the planet’s scenery is filmed and scored like some lurking beast, waiting to pounce on its prey. As the show goes on, this new homeworld feels bound to Mother. Its terrain is nurturing in one moment, but harsh and unforgiving in the next, littered with dark canyons and monstrous mysteries.

Like with Mother, it’s hard to pin down the planet’s true nature.

What Is a Necromancer?

We don’t begin to see the extent of mother’s abilities until the end of the episode, and we don’t witness her terrifying final form until much later, though we’re given confirmation, in the second episode’s opening flashback, what similar “Necromancer” models look like when they soar through the air. However, the first time any such image appears on screen happens to be in one of Mother’s dreams in the opening chapter, in which she pictures her gilded form, gliding over a futuristic city.

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The show certainly knows its sci-fi history; it appears, in this moment, to pay homage to both the golden-bronze Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s foundational sci-fi film Metropolis (1927) and, more pertinently, to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the basis for Scott’s Blade Runner. The latter, however, is much more than a winking Easter egg; Raised by Wolves, like Dick’s novel, appears to question the interiority of these androids and how authentic it actually is. This dream speaks to Mother picturing and tapping into her own intrinsic nature — her own root programming — before she’s ever actually had to take on this terrifying façade. In truly Blade Runner fashion, it feels like a memory of something she hasn’t experienced, but something that defines her regardless.

Mother is, at once, killer and life-giver. She rescues the newborn Campion from probable death merely through her embrace, and she eventually flies into monstrous fits of fury, attacking anyone who comes near her son using radioactive screams that reduce people to dust (a deliriously enjoyable ability that yields blood-spatter galore). She may as well be Mother Mary and the God of the Old Testament rolled into one. The show certainly has no shortage of Christian imagery — when Mother glides, she spreads her arms out like Christ — though in the case of the show’s ostensible antagonists, the Mithraic, this imagery does end up slightly confused.

Who Are Marcus, Sue, and the Mithraic?

The opening scenes of episode 2 offer a rather unconventional rug-pull: the idea that Marcus, an antagonist introduced late in the first episode, isn’t really Marcus at all. In fact, he and his wife Sue are members of a rival faction of atheists who merely took on Marcus and Sue’s appearance through plastic surgery so they could find a place on The Ark, a ship ferrying a thousand Mithraic disciples off a dying Earth. The ship’s name, of course, conjures more Christian imagery, only it swaps out the deluge in the story of Noah for human destruction, with seemingly no hope of rebuilding — as if humanity, which now builds androids to do its bidding, has supplanted God both as destroyers and as creators.

It is, admittedly, a little strange that the cult in question seems drawn from real-world Mithraism, an ancient Roman religion inspired by the Zoroastrian deity Mithras, when it bears all the hallmarks of Western Christianity through the ages. Christianity and Mithraism do have a fair amount in common — from myths of miraculous birth around the winter solstice, to ritualistic cleansing with water — but the Mithraism seen in the show is merely Christianity with a few specifics swapped around. Were it not for the solar insignia on the robes worn by their priests, you’d be forgiven for assuming the show’s Mithraic attend Church every Sunday, given how often they mention “sin.” Their general cadence and conversational shorthand are downright Evangelical — they often speak like colonial missionaries, especially when they arrive on Kepler — and their warriors even drape themselves in medieval garb evoking The Crusades (a la Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven).

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This decision to swap Christianity for Mithraism feels uncanny, since the show is set a mere 125 years in our future (rather than in the past, or in some fantasy realm that might benefit from a Christian analog). Even more bizarre is the thus-far unexplored idea that the extremism which led to nuclear annihilation was not a case of two opposing religions, but of Mithraism vs. atheism, with both sides seeming just as fanatical. Perhaps it’s my impatience speaking, but three episodes into the show, this vital background premise doesn’t seem to fully click — what were these factions fighting over? And how did Mithraism come to be the world’s foremost religion? — but despite the apparent holes in its narrative framework, captured neither as mystery nor point of central interest, the show’s clash between stern religious zealotry and lack thereof sets the stage for a perpetual state of conflict for Marcus and Sue.

The Mithraic believe, among other things, that androids ought not to raise human children, placing them at odds with Mother and Father (a conflict exacerbated by the presence of a savior prophecy, believed to be about Campion). Marcus and Sue don’t actually believe any of this, but their survival depends on blending in — however, their plans for escaping Earth are complicated further when they discover that the original Marcus and Sue, whose identities they stole, have a young son named Paul (Felix Jamieson). They’re forced to blend in not only as devout believers in Sol, the sun god, but as willing parents.

On their journey in search of outer worlds, the passengers on the Ark are placed in stasis, but are allowed to share a neurological space — a virtual reality which they walk and live through for thirteen years. During this time, their shared dream allows Marcus and Sue to become accustomed to the idea of parenthood; they’re hesitant at first, though by the time they wake (no older than when they went to sleep), they’ve experienced over a decade of life and joy with Paul, and have come to love him as their own.

This shared dream of joy and play offers a potent contrast to Mother, who dreams of destruction. Both dreams reveal and shape each character’s true nature; Marcus and Sue, who leave behind a life of war and violence, come into their own as caregivers, while Mother, a character reprogrammed for nurture, taps into her destructive instincts. Both sets of characters have also been forced to switch allegiances in the process (Marcus and Sue, members of an atheist resistance, now unwittingly fight for the Mithraic, while Mother, built to be a Mithraic Necromancer, now protects her children from them). But while these characters seem like polar opposites, they’re all telling the same story, caught between instincts for love and violence, and fighting against different kinds of programming. For Mother, it’s the ones and zeroes in her coding. For Marcus, it’s the militaristic violence beaten into him as a child.

Violence of Body and Mind

As much as Raised by Wolves is an atmospheric show about being at war with one’s own mind, it’s set apart from its TV contemporaries thanks to occasional trips into the realm of body horror. The show’s dryly humorous opening scenes, which establish its sleek, retrofuturistic vibe, focus only on Mother and Father as they acclimate to each other, but before long, they’re pushed to enact their programmed biological functions. For Mother, this means bringing embryos to term, though biological motherhood isn’t something she’s capable of in a traditional sense; rather, she engages with the act of motherhood mechanically, feeding the embryos through external tubes until they’re ready to be birthed from their pods.

She is, at once, both mother and machine.

Father, too, attempts to follow his protocols, and nearly feeds the dying Campion to his siblings (until Mother holds Campion close and brings him back from the verge of death). Over the next several years, he fulfills the functions of protector, of teacher, and, perhaps most amusingly, of “dad joke” generator, tossing out riddles and conundrums that tickle his own intellectual funny bones (and no one else’s). He also needs to feel useful to feel alive. There’s a winking approach to biological essentialism across the entire premise. Mother is forced to fulfill a distinctly maternal role while her instincts compel her to be destructive, directives seemingly placed at odds, making her question whether she can be a mother at all until she begins to reconcile them. Meanwhile, Marcus and Sue are forced into the traditional roles of parenthood as well, though they come into their own by leaving violence behind. Which begs the question: is the act of protection akin to violence, or akin to rejecting it?

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These instincts have been explored through Scott’s work before, but the likes Roy Batty in Blade Runner (or the humans in Prometheus) struggled to understand their place as creations by confronting their creators. No such dilemma has arisen for Mother and Father yet — their creator, whom Campion was named for, hasn’t shown up yet — so their dilemmas feel more akin to David, who begins to understand the horrifying nature of being created only when he, himself, becomes a creator. The difference, of course, is that while David created murderous aliens, Mother and Father were tasked with creating human life — or rather, substituting for the embryos’ biological parents, the way Marcus and Sue did. Whether or not each pair partook in the act of creation itself, they bear the responsibility for it. Even if they don’t create the child’s body, they help create his mind; they shape his emotions, his intellect, his relationship to the world. (If we do indeed end up exploring Mother and Father’s relationship to the original Campion, one can assume a similar dynamic might come into play, since they were both existing models, and their minds were merely reprogrammed for a new biological purpose).

The show in this way explores the nature of the mind, as something malleable, something that can be nurtured and shaped by faith and radical belief. Mother and Father forbid religion in their household, while the Mithraic seem to force it upon their children, and by the time the third episode is underway, the focus falls entirely on faith as a catalyst for action, with characters cunningly twisting the boundaries of each other’s belief — in religion, as Marcus manipulates the Mithraic priests into going on a rescue mission, and in social order, the way Hunter (Ethan Hazzard) begins to turn Campion against his parents, filling his head with doubts.

However, Scott, now 83 years old, also returns to his ideas of looming impermanence from Blade Runner and Covenant, in which the body and mind are things that can betray you from within, and rapidly deteriorate. Mother and Father not only have a limited physical lifespan, but they begin to question their outbursts as products of programming, and an inevitable loss of control, rather than the result of human irrationality.

And, in true Scott fashion, the physical innards of these androids are coated in a white fluid, most visible when Mother begins re-building herself and Father from the pieces of other androids, like some Frankensteinian jigsaw puzzle. Rather than the nauseating slime of the Alien films, the liquid here is far more akin to milk, a life-giving substance that runs through Mother and Father’s veins. Each time it pours out of them, it’s a reminder of their proximity to life. Although, when a young atheist soldier has a seizure in Marcus’ flashback, the foam pouring from her mouth is a reminder not only of death and disease, but how similar to the androids we humans really are — how fallible and fragile, a mass of tissue housing fluids so easily spilled.

The Raised By Wolves Cast’s Secret Weapon

Raised by Wolves juggles a lot of themes and ideas, but even if absolutely none of them worked, the show would probably be worth watching for Amanda Collin.

I love Mother, and I fear Mother. I love Father too; Abubakar Salim brings poise and kindness to the role, sprinkling it with hints of doubt and urgency; both performances live and breathe through the tiny details each actor brings, like the way they swing their arms (or rather, the way they don’t). But there’s something deeply chilling about Collin’s performance. She projects an inhuman vacancy on the surface, but one that hides and occasionally reveals the self-inflicted wounds of a mother’s gnawing self-doubt, along with familiar, unspoken questions about her place in the world. Not only as an android (though there’s plenty of introspection about her emotional authenticity) but as a being crafted for one purpose and reprogrammed for another, as if she can’t decide between two conflicting parts of her nature, and it’s tearing her apart.

In one moment, she’s terrifying. In the next, she’s warm and welcoming. The lighting goes a long way to setting these dueling moods, growing increasingly harsh as she becomes more protective, and more fiercely volatile. More animalistic. Mother is fully aware of this bipolarity, and fully attuned to the impact it has on those around her, especially in moments when she feels stuck in her emotions, unable to process them and move onto the next task, the way a machine would. Strip away with the A.I. specifics, and you’re left with a deeply wounded matriarch who’s forced to go to terrible lengths to keep her family safe — like some twisted, sci-fi version of The Americans on FX, which brought the Cold War into the American home.

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The show’s acceleration, which begins toward the end of episode 1, results in a constantly shifting status quo, an idea matched by Mother’s own physiology. Rather than being fully aware of her abilities at the outset, she seems to constantly evolve and discover them, adapting like a living organism, from her primal radioactive screams (activated by her eyes) to her ability to transform and impersonate human voices and faces, like those of her deceased children.

But can she replicate a human soul?

This appears to be the question Collin is tasked with debating, with her every glance and her every movement, as Mother enacts violent judgment and justifies it as love. Is it morality, or mere programming? Is she truly a mother, or merely impersonating one? (For that matter, are Marcus and Sue merely impersonating parents, or have they, too, been “reprogrammed”?)

The third episode leaves off with more questions than it answers, opening the door to humanoid inhabitants on Kepler’s surface. But these questions also are ever-present in the narrative conflict. There are a million directions Raised By Wolves could take as it moves forward; each possibility feels more exciting than the last, as the show’s ideas are anchored by sharply-written characters, whose drama arises from the deep need to feel human, whether or not they truly are.

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What do you think of Raised By Wolves’ first three episodes? Share your predictions and reactions below.

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