The struggle for the new Earth: a review of “Raised by Wolves”
October 7, 2020
This review does not contain spoilers — just exposition.
Religious conflict; the ethics and future of artificial intelligence; what it means to be a family; the value, or lack thereof, of religious faith; the idea of leaving Earth for a new home that we haven’t made uninhabitable — All of these relevant topics have, against the odds, been brought together to provide the foundation of one of the most unique, fascinating works of sci-fi to be brought to TV in recent memory: “Raised by Wolves”, a series created by Aaron Guzikowski, with sci-fi legend Ridley Scott acting as an executive producer and as the director of the first two episodes, premiered on HBO Max on Sept. 3 and concluded season one with its 10th episode, which was released Oct. 1.
The story begins with a pair of androids being sent from Earth, which has been razed by a devastating war, to Kepler-22b (a planet that really does exist hundreds of light-years away from Earth and has been identified by scientists as appearing to potentially be able to sustain life), with a number of frozen human embryos, which the androids have been programmed to raise and care for as their own once they’ve reached the planet, creating a settlement and finding the means to keep their adopted human children alive on the unforgiving terrain. Things don’t stay simple for long, though, as the family finds other parties from Earth arriving at their doorstep, sparking a long series of conflicts that become the plot’s central focus.
The story contains metaphors that seem to reference Bible stories, religious conflicts history has borne witness to, and perhaps some conflicts and issues we are experiencing in today’s world. It makes for events that you’ll want to see again just to be able to more closely watch what happens, and think them over continuously, wondering what messages the story is actually trying to send, and what the possible ways of following through with all the metaphors that are so prominent could be. If you like media that motivates fans to construct elaborate theories about the background and future of the story while they wait for new episodes, this series may interest you.
Speaking of re-watching, as of writing this, I’ve already started watching the series from the beginning a second time, and despite only being a few episodes in, I’ve already noticed quite a bit of foreshadowing of events that occur later in the series. I’ve watched numerous YouTube videos that have pointed out additional examples of this, and it is quite extraordinary how many “Easter eggs” of this sort people have spotted. So even if you don’t usually watch things a second time, you might want to make an exception for this.
Other remarkable things about “Raised by Wolves” are the performances. As just one example, Amanda Collin is the lead, and faces the challenge of playing an android who is already exceptionally human-like, but has been reprogrammed to become even more human-like than she was originally designed to. (I know it sounds confusing, but it won’t seem as much so if you let the show explain the whole thing instead of me.) Despite how difficult it sounds like it would be to balance out human and AI traits in a way that would make your performance in such a unique role seem natural, Collin makes it work so well that even at the character’s most human-like moments, there’s something that doesn’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley, and even at the moments at which the events of the series cause the human-ness to be pulled back temporarily and the fact that she’s an artificial intelligence is at its most obvious, there’s a tenderness, a genuineness that acts as a reminder of the unique human traits that this particular artificial intelligence has come to possess.
The other performances that stood out to me the most were those of Abubakar Salim and Travis Fimmel, who also play very important characters. Salim’s character is the other android who is sent to Kepler-22b with Collin’s character, and Fimmel’s is a human from Earth who… Well, I can’t say very much at all about who he is or what happens to him and still avoid spoilers, but what I can tell you is that the character goes through such a drastic shift in personality, beliefs, and demeanor that it’s actually kind of unnerving to watch the process depicted so convincingly. As for Salim, his character’s relationship with Collin’s evolves so much over the course of the series and is so multifaceted that I definitely think it’s the most interesting relationship it depicts. Long stretches of the plot, particularly during the first few episodes, are more or less carried by the two of them, and they worked together beautifully. His performance is similar to Collin’s in that he balances human and AI behaviors and mannerisms so perfectly that the viewer comes away not really thinking about the characters entirely as machines or entirely as people, but as something that falls into both categories. Perhaps within our lifetimes, we will have AI in the real world that we think of in a similar way.
The first of the show’s weaknesses that come to mind is the fact that so many mysteries are introduced throughout the course of it that the average viewer is helpless to keep track of them all. There are so many strange things in the show that the viewers have been expecting to be given some insight into the nature of. Surprisingly few of the questions you’ve been waiting for answers to have been addressed by the time the season has come to a conclusion. In fact, more mysteries are introduced during the finale than during any other individual episode, and hardly any of the ones that were already there have been solved on any level.
Another weakness lies in the fact that there are numerous characters who still have not been given the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the plot by the time the season ends. I’ll give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re being saved for more significant roles next season, but it does cause a decrease in one’s confidence in the writers’ abilities to keep everything cohesive while adding so much complexity so fast to a story that seemed so much simpler during the first few episodes compared to what it transformed into over the course of layers and layers of subplots and so many groups of characters being added.
The final episode of the season contains so many events that were completely out of left field and leaves the viewer so confused about where the story is going to go during the next season that it’s reminiscent of a fever dream one might have after marathoning Ridley Scott’s other projects that have had to do with robots and aliens whilst combating a coronavirus-induced fever. From surveying the headlines of various reviews of it, it is clear that it has left a bad taste in a certain number of viewers’ mouths — It left them too stricken by all the unexpected developments and burdened with too many unanswered questions for them to be satisfied. I do see where they’re coming from, and I can safely say that I wish that more of the series’ mysteries had been at least to some degree cleared up, but I actually appreciated how unexpected so many of the finale’s events were. The episode acts as a clear transition into a new phase of the story. Whatever expectations you had for the outcomes of certain subplots have probably been turned on their heads, and all the things that have changed by the end of the episode provide a solid foundation for an exciting new phase of the story — one with new conflicts and drastic shifts in the power dynamics between the parties involved in the struggle for Kepler-22b. It had never been a predictable show, not on any level, but the finale was the ultimate testament to just how little idea viewers can really have about what could be coming next, and it reassures us how unlikely it is that the next season will be doomed to feel like a repeat of this one.
I’ll enjoy speculating about what the future of the show could be and hearing other people’s predictions, but we might all be worked into a frenzy by the sheer anticipation if we spend too much time dwelling on it. Although the next season is confirmed to be on the way, it hasn’t even begun to be filmed yet. You can read more about what’s known about the next season here, but be warned that the page’s first two paragraphs contain some spoilers, albeit relatively vague ones. All things considered, it is unlikely that it will premiere before 2022. Ouch.