Now that sufficient time has passed since the season one finale of the HBO Max science-fiction series “Raised By Wolves” was first made available to stream, I feel reasonably free to explore some of the deeper themes raised by the show, which is executive produced by “Alien” and “Blade Runner” creator Ridley Scott. First, my two-cent review of the series so far is 3.75 stars out of 5.
“Raised by Wolves” is visually gorgeous, original, ominously soundtracked, presented in a suspenseful and propulsive narrative, and well-written and acted. One or two of the child characters in the show did grate on me at times, and some of the story is a bit too “Lost”-like in its lack of explanation (at least so far), but maybe those issues will resolve themselves in season 2. Let us hope, because overall, I found the show to be great, and I am excited for more.
The premiere season centers around two artificially intelligent androids (“Mother” and “Father”) who are programmed by a mysterious creator to take a number of human embryos to the planet Kepler-22b, where they can be raised free from the destructive force of a war between organized religion and atheism, which has led to the ravaging of the Earth. Mother and Father are seemingly the perfect parents, although each is revealed to be more complicated as the show goes on.
Lots of drama and hardship befalls our android and human protagonists once all the players arrive (or are revealed) on Kepler-22b, most of which I will allow to remain unspoiled here for the sake of those of you who have not seen the show. Suffice it to say, events unfold in a manner that no Ridley Scott fan would find at all surprising. And that is mostly a good thing.
Beyond the plot’s simple points, there are a number of deeper themes that play out throughout the first season, all of which viewers may ponder beyond merely what is transpiring with the characters on the screen. In particular, the below five themes were constant companions of the plotline throughout the first season.
The destructive nature of organized religion
I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that the show’s creator (Aaron Guzikowski) appears to have a poor opinion of organized religion. In the series, a war on Earth between atheists and a seemingly fanatical religious sect called the Mithraic is what leads to the destruction of the planet and drives the creator of our two android protagonists to send them to Kepler-22b with their embryonic cargo. While the atheists are depicted as neither blameless nor completely virtuous, the viewer is nevertheless prodded to conclude that it is ultimately the fanatical religious sect to blame for many of the series’ tribulations.
The Mithraic worship a God called Sol, and they are an order similar in belief, dogma, superstition, and even dress to the darker aspects of medieval Christianity. They use killer “Necromancer” androids to wipe out atheists en masse, they believe in a cruel, vengeful Old Testament deity, and they are ruled by an infallible clergy. They raise their children to perpetuate this hierarchical belief system, which has apparently contributed in large measure to the destruction of a habitable Earth.
The war between the atheists and the Mithraic also kicks off the nightmare on Kepler-22b, where the religious struggle shows no sign of abating. It is as though religion’s power to infect human affairs does not rely on Earth to thrive. The showrunners depict the Mithraic religion as a type of disease, infecting everything in its path and necrotizing all the humans who succumb to it. It’s heavy stuff, and an examination of actual human history makes it hard to argue against the notion that humanity has done barbaric, awful, unforgivable things in the name of organized religion.
The seductive nature of faith
Related to the first theme, but standing apart given its individualistic focus, is how we govern our behavior as humans under the influence of faith in a deity. Specifically, we see one character in the show slowly come to believe in the Mithraic god, Sol, whose perceived intentions just so happen to coincide with those of the human in question, which makes the seduction of faith all the more powerful in his case.
In a Pauline turn of events, the character is struck by a sudden galvanizing faith and begins to hear voices in his head that might or might not be Sol talking to him and guiding his hand. The power of this belief drives him to act in ways he would have previously abhorred, including malevolently against his own loved-ones. The man does it all because he thinks he is chosen, as evidenced by both the voices and the procession of events that seem to buttress his newly-elevated status.
In other words, it is once again an illustration of how faith can drive humans to do all manner of things — good and bad — in the name of serving the object of that faith. One need only look at the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael to see this theme underlying and reverberating throughout humanity’s three major monotheistic religions. Faith has more often than not guided the foundation and evolution of Earth’s numerous civilizations, again, for both good and bad. “Raised by Wolves” illustrates this neatly in its microcosm of a newly-forming human (and android) civilization on Kepler-22b.
The evolution of sentience (and what it means to be “human”)
The nature and origin of humanity, and its intersection with artificial intelligence, is well-trod ground for Ridley Scott, who has explored both the creation of humans and the “humanity” of androids in previous films, including “Blade Runner” and the “Alien” series (including, specifically, “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant.”) Can artificially-intelligent beings become sentient, thinking, and feeling organisms, akin to humans? Would that make them less than human, or altogether different, but equal? Are humans always meant to be superior to artificially-created intelligence? What if that AI becomes self-aware?
The show forces us to ponder these questions primarily by way of the androids Mother and Father and how they evolve throughout the season. These two characters are possibly the most “human” of the series, in what was clearly no accident on the part of the creators/producers. We see all kinds of paternal/maternal instincts exhibited by the pair, and they increasingly act in ways more and more human as the show goes on. This results in acts of heroism, virtue, betrayal, and treachery, just as it does here in the real (human) world. By the conclusion of the first season, you are meant to be asking yourself if they are altogether new sentient beings and if that is a good thing.
The theme is carried further by way of what befalls Mother toward the end of the season, though I will refrain from discussing it for fear of giving away too much.
The role of parenting in building a civilization
Perhaps less grand a theme than the impact of religion and faith, but surely no less significant in human affairs, is how the show makes us think about the role of raising children and the role parents play in the formation of both the individual and the larger society of which each individual is a constituent part.
The androids Mother and Father — our AI versions of Adam and Eve — are programmed to bring the human embryos to Kepler-22b and to birth them, raise them, and make them self-sufficient. In other words, they are programmed to be parents, but parents with a farsighted and seemingly worthy goal of raising pacifists who will create and live in a new society based on peace and harmony (this is supposed to be achieved by raising them as atheists). Again, like all parents, they have a grand vision of how they will raise their children, only to smack face-first into the invisible wall of reality once those screaming infants enter the world.
The androids struggle from the get-go to keep their charges safe, to mold them into their pacifist-atheist ideal, and to shape them according to a preset ideology that they expect their children to adopt without question as they mature. Does that sound familiar? It does, I am sure, to every single parent who has ever lived and had to struggle through raising children. Rarely do things turn out exactly according to plan. Nor do they for our androids in the show.
We see play out in season one a classic nature versus nurture debate, only with the added complication that the parents are androids with programming that might or might not limit how they raise the children. Human parents face the same limitations (programming) in that we can only do what we think is best in instilling in our children values and beliefs, but they must ultimately go their own way and live their own lives. It just so happens that in “Raised by Wolves,” the choices that the parents and children make will have a foundational impact on the future of humanity and this new civilization.
The trials and challenges of marriage
Finally, believe it or not, the first season of the show is an adroit and satisfying depiction of the trials and tribulations of a married couple. It just so happens that that “married” couple is Mother and Father; the two androids whose coupling was pre-ordained by the creator in an arranged marriage reminiscent of those seen in so many cultures throughout human history.
Of course, there are some surprising and plot-twisting variations on the “traditional” norms of marriage on display — not least of which is that the couple are both artificially intelligent androids. Beyond that, each is programmed to fulfill a role and serve the other and the children in their own way. Over time, these programmed directives begin to wear down like the outdated software they are, and conflict results within the relationship. The androids begin to disagree over how to raise the children, what direction the family unit should take, and even over jealousies both petty and profound.
Again, the writers deftly weave a hell of a lot of humanity into this android tapestry. One finds him or herself at times identifying with Mother and her need to protect her children at all costs and to truly know her own creator, and at other times identifying with Father. Specifically, in terms of the latter, the viewer can’t help but sympathize with his (at times) inferior role, and his need to feel useful to the family unit.
Again, without giving too much away, the end of the first season climaxes in a truly and deeply human expression of fealty and love between a married couple, demonstrating that even through the hardest of times, despite being separated at times by a seemingly endless expanse of emotional distance, the bonds of marriage often overcome the most trying ordeals. And sometimes, they fail miserably, also illustrated over the course of the show’s first season.
So, there you have it. Season one of “Raised by Wolves” provides both a compelling story filled with intriguing characters and some deeper issues to ponder while you waste your time streaming TV programs. Enjoy.