There are no wolves in Raised by Wolves, but the ambitious HBO Max series from writer/creator Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) raises a handful of kids, plenty of hell, and the bar for meaty sci-fi TV. Starting simply enough—with two factions of survivors, whose religious war has demolished Earth, landing on the only other inhabitable planet the species knows about—Raised by Wolves builds out an in-depth sci-fi world through the language of a survival story and the inherently human question of the soul. Even if Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) only directed the first two episodes, his maverick touch is felt throughout the confident show.
Over the course of the first six episodes, I watched as the refugees of the apocalyptic conflict—ragtag atheist embryos parented by Mother and Father androids (Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim) and the fervent devotees of an assimilated world religion known as the Mithraic, including Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar)—floundered on the hostile new world while holding old grudges. The ideas are big but the stories are small, grounding everything in family units.
Mother and Father try to raise their batch of kids as best they can—their only directive being the success of the colony and the atheism of their wards—building a shelter, farm, and more for Campion (Winta McGrath) and the others. The vast rocky, dry landscape gives the DIY base a Castaway feel and The Martian problems: What to eat, where to sleep, how to stay healthy long enough to trek to the tropical region of the planet. Collin and Salim are wonderful to watch work through it all; I love how the actors move (they carry themselves with hard angles and straight lines, with Mother’s more advanced model a bit more lithe and human) and how they speak. Salim’s enunciation has such a specific yearning inhumanity, without veering into cartoonishness, that makes Father immediately sympathetic. Collin contains multitudes. Fierce, loving, and cruel—not out of emotion, but like the upgraded version that she is—her delivery drives home the tragic farce of parenthood they’re replicating while cementing our idea of this world’s varied androids. Plus, Collin’s got robo-veins in her forehead that can carry whole scenes. Their relationship conflicts, like a Marriage Story between a Game Boy and superpowered Siri, are uniquely delicious in their logic.
Then there’re Marcus and Sue, with their own secrets and history. Boasting fun space mullets and Templar tabards, their ensemble’s medieval/sci-fi hybrid aesthetic is just as entertaining as the duo’s complex backstory—and they bring children of their own. The child performers find varying degrees of success, but pregnant, unhappy Tempest (Jordan Loughran) is the most compelling. Watching these details unfold from the relatively simple premise (it’s not like Westworld where it’s telling two [or more] stories at once and at least one is a secret) feels elegant even when the results are blow-your-hair-back bonkers.
Each new development, nicely metered-out in doses of mystery, plotting, and payoff, is a natural occurrence cropping up as we run our hands through the series’ dense texture. That doesn’t necessarily apply to everything, as my main problems with the show have to do with its more outlandish threads (maybe there are ghosts?!) and its tendency to fall back on “we’re sitting down and having a chat about something Big” scenes. Secrets are massive and planetary in scale: Giant Star Wars worm-in-the-asteroid holes, big snakey skeletons, secretive third parties to this war’s second act. Don’t worry, that’s all part of the Scott/Guzikowski vibe: honestly-performed, slow-burn devotion to themes nestled into a pulpy shell.
Raised By Wolves has plenty of interest in humanity’s place in the universe and its destructively colonial nature: The opening credits sequence’s spacecraft-to-planet arrival mimics sperm-to-egg impregnation. Guzikowski is no stranger to parenting extremes, nor questions of moral limits. Mother, for example, embodies the mom-under-pressure trope. Some mothers lift cars when their kids are in danger; Mother flies through the air and blows up people’s heads. The series also wages its own ideological wars between zealotry and science (and the ethics of each), and creator and creation. The latter power imbalance (be it enforced by gods, programmers, or mothers) breeds toxicity and misdirected love. Through them the series explores betrayal and loyalty, parentage and lineage; basically, all the fucked-up relationships that have caused human drama since humanity first started telling its stories.
There might not be a bloody battle or alien confrontation in each episode, but the drama is compelling and built of character-driven moments. That makes the action, when it does happen, intensely exciting and anxiety-ridden. With such finite scope, each moment of possible loss is heavily weighted and gorgeous to look at. While rustic and detailed in its production design, the variety of visuals go from Tatooine’s desert starkness to hyper-glitchy simulation interfaces to war-torn Earth cities in flashbacks. And, like Scott’s most ambitious spacey works, we climb aboard dilapidated spacecraft with flashlights in hand. It’s often gray and washed-out (I know, I know, join the club), which helps with the bleakness and horror—even finding some gorgeous contrast shots in its grades of white—but can sometimes undermine the cool things on display. Things like over-the-top, inventive sex scenes that make Brave New World’s orgies look like sex ed PowerPoints.
Smart and crunchy rather than sleek and slick, Raised by Wolves won’t be for everyone. It’s tragic, thought-provoking sci-fi that works through its problems rather than relying on big flashy twists. But for those itching for something unabashedly weird and devoted to its own rules, the show won’t disappoint. Deceptively intimate, the story of repopulation—and the war for humanity’s future—is a family drama living inside a honed genre universe. It’s a world built to last and a show built for fans of Scott’s particular brand of imperfect, muscly fence-swings.
Raised by Wolves premieres Thursday, September 3rd on HBO Max with three episodes; new episodes will air weekly after that.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.