Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Season One of Raised by Wolves amazes with its boldest ideas, provides lots of fuel for debate, and retains a solid emotional core, thanks to the refined performances of Abubakar Salim and Amanda Collin.
I am not the kind of person who minds so-called "plot holes" or suspending disbelief in service of a good story. There are a lot of movies and shows with such interesting concepts and atmosphere that I really don't care if I can defend a fictional chain of events logically, in an air-tight way.
There are things that happen every day, which I can't explain -- not usually important things, but things that, were they captured for television, I guess there'd be an army of wonks armed with an infallible perception of the natural universe and its laws, ready to take me down for the broken continuity of my life.
I probably won't ever watch a "What's Wrong with Twin Peaks" YouTube video. I didn't consider the Blair Witch Project a letdown, etc.
That doesn't mean that I believe no interestingly premised fiction can fail.
THE BRO-METHEUS EFFECT
My boyfriend and I speak about Prometheus these days with an amount of frustration. We bonded on our first date over the fact that we both liked the film, despite that it's been all but formally condemned by the press and its own fan community.
When we first discussed it, our memories were full of strong images, and the emotional gravity of the core issues explored by the film. That brutal, impossible landscape captured so beautifully, to give us a sensationally interesting "Ancient Astronauts" creation myth. Noomi Rapace's excellent portrayal of a character with a strong will, a deeply personal religious conviction, and believable fragility. Michael Fassbender's excellent turn as the polite but wickedly amoral android, David.
Prometheus was one of those top-ten kinds of movies for us. Then, we re-watched it together, and there it was hiding in plain sight -- The derp.
That useless, frozen-stiff latex on Guy Pearce's face, and his college theater version of playing an old man. The way we're made to watch a commanding character like Meredith Vickers get flattened in the manner of Wile E. Coyote in the first movie of a planned trilogy. Elizabeth Shaw's incredibly stupid lover, Charlie Holloway, described by his actor Logan Marshall-Green as being like "an X Games-type Scientist" who behaves in the manner of a self-obsessed frat boy for the entire film until he's dispatched by alien-hell-virus-plus-fire, which is only a relief because of how hard he's been riding our nerves. And what about that improbably filthy crew of deeply wounded assholes and murderous-convict-types who have been sent on what seems like it should otherwise be one of the most rigorously controlled, well-funded, and important missions ever undertaken by mankind? Just recruit that team from the bus stop near the Methadone clinic, I guess?
Dang it; there I go. Just like those geeks I was hating on.
Our subsequent attempts to re-watch Prometheus have resulted in our current stance: Prometheus is a movie we remember well, based on the striking atmosphere, themes, production, and the acting of a few good actors.
Prometheus also has a lot of distracting narrative and character issues that make it too much of a chore these days. It has that annoying Titan AE / Xtreme Sports "bro" vibe right when you don't need it. We still like it, but we also remember its foibles to protect ourselves from attempting to re-capture the magic.
Our memories of Prometheus are indeed an excellent movie.
SEND IN THE WOLVES
Raised by Wolves aired to HBO Max's 4.1 million subscribers at what I'm sure by now you've been informed has been an "unprecedented" and "challenging" time.
The show has turned out to be a headlining series for the platform. Its pitch-black apocalyptic tone, eerie atmosphere, genocide, planetary destruction, willful ignorance, and religiopolitical issues are a spectacular fit for the world we now face. In other words: Samesies!
My initial reaction to Raised by Wolves was relief. I watched the first two episodes with a friend who brought it over, and was texting while we watched to spread the word: this was the show. It was as if someone had been screaming at me in another language for months, and was suddenly interrupted by a calm, rational voice. I watched those first two episodes, as fantastical as they were, and still felt within my core, "Yes, this reflects truth."
I can't even force myself to watch any of my old favorite TV shows these days. They all land like a fart in a broom closet. Cheers? Ally McBeal? Deep Space Nine? The Anna Nicole Show? No, none of it. Those depictions of the world, those jokes, that music, and those people's problems just rub salt in the wound right now. But I can watch Raised by Wolves, because this is a show that meets the moment.
EPISODES 1 - 2
Directed by Ridley Scott, episodes 1 and 2 establish a massive amount of lore, character, and intrigue. The premier starts with the less-than-elegant arrival of Mother (played excellently by Amanda Collin), and Father (acted equally well by Abubakar Salim) on Keppler-22b, where they land precariously close to one of many seemingly bottomless holes in the planet's barren crust. Mother and Father exchange pleasantries as they extract themselves from their small craft while it pivots on the rocky precipice, moments before it ricochets down the pit. Mother, herself clinging to the ledge takes a moment to regard the shuttle's new position as "retrievable" before Father hoists her to safety. This is all excellent and efficient character development. These carefully measured android personalities and the faint glimmers of emotion are a striking contrast to the hellish environment of Keppler-22b and the challenge it will present. Mother and Father walk away unfazed, toward the land they'll create a fledgling Atheist settlement on.
We see them setting up some basic structures and commencing a gestation period during which Mother will provide nine months of life-support externally, but organically, to the six frozen embryos they've brought with them from a long-destroyed planet Earth.
After the children are born, Mother and Father do their best to inhabit their namesake roles, and plenty of personality comes through in the endeavor. Both Mother and Father's behaviors remain rooted the logic of their programming, but after giving birth, we see Mother starting to break some rules for her offspring, and we see Father letting her do so, out of an apparently natural sense of empathy that he‘s developing toward his mission partner.
Mother gives birth, first, to a stillborn child. Father informs her that they're supposed to "break down" any stillborns right away, to be used as nutrition for the other infants, but Mother wants to hold the lifeless boy to her nipple-less breast for an emotional moment while father looks on, allowing her to break protocol out of consideration for her unexpectedly tearful state. Against all odds, the baby then begins to coo and wriggle, full of life. Mother names the boy Campion, after her creator. I have some wild theories about what’s going on here, based on later developments, but I don’t think a review is the place to fully expound.
Eventually only one child, Campion, survives. He seems impervious to the disease that has claimed his brothers and sisters, and he's the one most drawn to faith. In one scene, we see him holding his hands over some vegetables in a storage shed. Father's voice from offscreen scolds, "Don't let your mother catch you praying, Campion." So it's not a surprise that Mother isn't pleased to learn that the devoutly religious worshipers of Sol, the Mithraic, have arrived in their ark, and are orbiting Keppler-22b.
Taking a practical stance toward his son's survival, Father plans to unite Campion with the orbiting Mithraic, because they are human and Campion is the last of his kind on the surface. However, learning of Father's plan, Mother (who has been steadfastly portrayed as the most vociferously anti-religious) engages Father in a shockingly brutal fight before impaling him on a giant serpent tooth. (Those holes that perforate Keppler-22B are discovered to be the boroughs of an ostensibly extinct species of giant serpent.)
This is one of the first times we learn that Mother is a bit... dangerous? She lies to Campion and tells him that Father was malfunctioning and had to be discarded, telling her son that Father's battery would become radioactive immediately after deactivation. One of the most interesting debates the viewer must engage in, throughout the show, is to evaluate whether Mother, Father, or both, are malfunctioning. It is always admirably ambiguous.
Everything the androids do could be classified as a malfunction, or a miracle, depending on one’s own moral compass.
Try as Mother might to avoid them, the Mithraic send scouts to the settlement, and Campion pleads with her to help them. Mother finds herself politely but indignantly providing hospitality to the enemy. I had a sense that Campion's desire to host the travelers of faith was partly due to a deep longing for human contact, but also on a deeper level, his burgeoning interest in things not-so-Atheist.
However, the Mithraic visit turns into a terrible betrayal, as they pillage the Atheist's food supply, and attempt to deactivate Mother, who they have incorrectly identified as a "lower level" android.
She's actually a modified Necromancer -- a weapon of war originally used (but not created by) the Mithraic to purge the Earth of atheists. It seems that the original Campion, Mother's creator on Earth, trapped a Necromancer and hacked her to become the loving "Mother" we have known, as an attempt to seed Atheists into the galaxy during the last days of Earth.
Her physical conflict with the Mithraic unlocks some deeply unfortunate (for them) programming. Some form of instinct kicks in, and she uses a terrifying battle scream and weaponized eyes to nuke their heads into giant scabs, before stealing their landing craft, infiltrating their Ark, the Heaven, vaporizing every human she sees. She melts through a door to the bridge, rips off a dude's eyelid to use his retinal ID, overrides the ark's security and sets it on a collision course with the planet before kidnapping a few Mithraic kids for her son to play with. This whole sequence has basically already gone down in history as peak Ridley Scott. Everybody watches it at least twice.
However, this is also where my criticism begins. Much like the killing of Meredith Vickers in Prometheus, the immediate destruction of the Heaven is a waste. There could have been several extremely exciting episodes, if not an entire season, built around the asymmetrical war between the insanely powerful Mother, defending the Atheist settlement, and the fully armed and capable Mithraic aboard the Heaven. Were there not supplies and tech on board, that she could have used? I was disappointed to see her win so decisively, quickly, and destructively in the first episode, lowering the stakes and rewards for both sides. Perhaps this was a budgetary decision?
After destroying the Heaven, Mother’s last line is given to her son, Campion.
"I want you to do your best to make your new friends comfortable. I still have a few chores I need to attend to."
The second sentence of that dialog leaves an impression like the a morbid punchline at the end of an Adams Family episode, and breaks the mood. I'd have preferred it cut.
In Episode 2, we get to know the Mithraic children (henceforth referred to as The Mithy Mouse Club, or Alvin and the Shipmonks) better, witness Mother's attempts to polite the religion out of them, and learn more about Father's inferiority complex after Mother boots him up again. We learn that there is at least one other humanoid form of life on the planet (spoiler: it tastes like pork). We witness Mother use her Necromancer capabilities to defend the pregnant Mithraic teen, Tempest, from two such life forms, which earns Mother some temporary cred. With Tempest, at least. It’s the start of their rocky bond.
An intriguing flashback introduces us to two atheist refugees, Caleb and Mary, who steal the appearances and identities of two Mithraic, Marcus and Sue, bound for the Heaven ark. The atheists unwittingly also inherit the couple's young boy, Paul, because they've killed his parents and assumed their appearances. Paul doesn't notice too hard, for a reason I can accept.
Fake Marcus and Sue wrestle with the sudden burden of parenthood. As a viewer I find their struggle hard to invest in, so I'm glad the show doesn't spend a long time here. Travis Fimmel and Niamh Algar do well in their roles and are emotionally believable during these early episodes, but they are also not likeable characters, and it's hard to care whether they will be good parents, or enjoy their new faces. Because of the fact that we only meet them immediately before they take the identities of other characters, it's very hard to bond with the two, as they proceed directly from stolen identities into total psychological meltdowns. So who ever were they, really?
To me, the most interesting part of this prolonged flashback is instead the highly believable portrayal of the apocalyptic situation on Earth in 2145, the remnants of human infrastructure, glimpses of late-stage human culture, and the boarding process for the Heaven ark. It all has a sort of Medieval Blade Runner tone and I love it. This is why I'm really here, rather than all the overtly birth-phobic topics that Ridley Scott enjoys so well.
Honestly, eggs, fetuses, impregnation, gestation, complications, and birth are all over the place in Raised by Wolves, and I really wish they weren't. But to "fix" any of that, it'd be a different show. Scott likes to explore the origins of humanity, life, and faith. He paints viscerally violent pregnancy tableaus the way Bob Ross paints happy trees: a lot. I can respect it because of his skill, but even as much of a Ridley Scott fan as I am, I'm also bothered at the frequency and means by which these themes come up, over and over again in his work. He's been banging that drum pretty hard since 1979. Suffice it to say, these are the things Ridley Scott loves, and I love Ridley Scott, but these are not the things I love about Ridley Scott.
EPISODES 3 - 4
Luke Scott directs the next two episodes (as well as the finale). His work fits, however, I do think the budgetary decline is pretty evident. This span of Raised by Wolves felt mired in child drama, and to make things worse, that child drama is built around the mostly unsympathetic Alvin and the Shipmunks. Campion also loses his "faith" in Atheism and becomes a full-on brat trying to fit in with this new peer group.
The narrative thrust outside of the kids getting sick and bothering one another has to do with Fake Marcus and Sue attempting to convince the survivors of the Heaven crash to mount a rescue of the Mithy Mouse Club from the Atheist settlement. That there are survivors from the Heaven crash at all, and/or that they happen to be central character types is goofy.
Maybe there was a special radioactive-explosion-safe crash landing compartment for the dudes with the coolest hairstyles on the Heaven. Maybe they had escape pods. It's not discussed. I would have liked one shot to settle how they made it out. All I know is that when Mother blew up the Heaven, it illuminated the entire sky, so those fuckers had some excellent seatbelts.
These episodes are also where the anxiety-provoking endangerment of Paul’s pet mouse begins.
My boyfriend and I talk about Paul's mouse pretty often. We agree that the mouse is likely not entirely real. It seems robust against everything, in the most inhospitable environment imaginable. It was given to Paul by his counterfeit father "inside the sim" where Mithraic travelers basically hibernated and interacted with one another in a sort of shared-consciousness VR space during their years-long journey to Kepler-22b. How could such a mouse be real in this narrative?
The mouse issue is really cool and interesting. Funny how Campion is also a lot like that mouse, in that he shouldn't really be alive at all, and he's seemingly impervious to the threats of the planet. There are other characters who will also later exhibit these traits, but they're chalked up to miracle and the show otherwise minimizes the events. I think there's something major going on with this theme.
In the last of the first four episodes, all written by Aaron Guzikowski, the Mithraic party discover a large twelve-sided, decoratively carved rock structure out in the middle of the desert, and decide that it is part of an important prophecy. The shape of it is like several other Mithraic objects, so I can understand why they think so. If I'd been there, I'd have been in the "probably not" camp, but it turns out that the structure intermittently emanates heat, and can be used to burn the arms off liars through a process nobody really understands.
The Mithraic decide they will set up a rudimentary camp against the rock until something happens, instead of rescuing their children, but fake Sue and Marcus get fed up, and confront the ranking leader of the group, Ambrose, played by Steve Wall a bit like Prince John from Disney's Robin Hood. One thing leads to another and fake Marcus incinerates Ambrose using the geometric boulder's arm hole, proving that Ambrose wasn't a true believer, or something. This is ironic because fake Marcus and Sue are still decidedly Atheist, though Marcus gets a big head from the miracle of turning Ambrose into charcoal and begins to privately feel he might have a legitimate role in the Mithraic prophecy.
After that, he basically becomes intolerable for the remainder of the season, stacking his visions and voices three layers deep, and generally being a destructive asshole to his family and crewmates while he's tripping out.
Maybe I don't have to tell you, but episodes 3 and 4 are my least favorite. The drama here is often uncomfortable but not often interesting, and everyone feels so handicapped that it's a rough comedown after the explosive start of the show. I'm glad I stuck with it, through these. They were definitely the "stop watching" episodes.
EPISODES 5 - 6
Sergio Mimica-Gezzan handles episodes five and six. He's the Oscar-winning Director responsible for Schindler's List, Minority Report, and Independence Day, as well as six episodes of Battlestar Galactica, and one episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, among many other credits. In other words, he does great work.
Adventure and more interesting conflict return, as Mother discovers a semi-functioning sim pod among the Heaven wreckage and begins using it, against the pod's auditory humans-only warning. We are introduced to the idea that Mother might be interacting with the sim in a dangerous way, perhaps creating a sort of artificial intelligence feedback loop. This undermines our trust in what she's experiencing during these segments, which is narratively smart.
Mother is using the sim to explore her origins, seemingly gaining access to memories of her time as a Mithraic Necromancer on the battlefield, and of being captured and re-programmed by Earth's Campion to undertake her mission with Father to Keppler-22b. These scenes provide a kind of melancholy love story between a doomed creator and his desperate creation, which is beautiful, and unsettling.
But is Mother really "remembering" these things, or is she manifesting them? Is she being manipulated by something? It's hard to know.
I get really strong Sarah Connor / Galactica vibes from these episodes, and tonally it's a welcome shift after all the Shipmunk antics in episodes 3 and 4.
Of course we're not out of the woods with the youngsters. Mimica-Gezzan's episodes put them on treacherous terrain, with an extremely ill-advised escape scheme, and also introduce a betrayal storyline that creates some room for greater emotional development down the road. So hopefully we start liking these kids.
EPISODES 7 - 8
Directed by Alex Gabassi (The ABC Murders, The Frankenstein Chronicles), episodes seven and eight deal with the subjugation of Father to the Mithraic, and an attempt to convert Campion to the faith, at a moment when both Mother and Father are unavailable to protect him.
The Mithraic have taken over the Atheist settlement and have constructed a rudimentary temple on the grounds. They’ve beaten and restrained Mother, and wiped Father’s memory, reverting him to his service model state.
Fake Marcus has a series of encounters with Mother during her imprisonment, during which she attempts to reason with, and persuade him to join her side. When that doesn't work, and he keeps ass-holing it up, she reveals that she can detect his true identity and his Atheism, and proceeds to fuck with his head enough that he gets an entire slow-mo montage scene about wanting to kill her.
Hallucinations continue to haunt him. The Whisperthing is telling him not to kill Mother, and that he will be "King" if he lets her live. Marcus gets freaked out, punches his kid, and hauls off with Mother tied to a sled. He intends to ditch her in the wilderness, but she escapes.
She finds medical assistance from an entertainingly proper android surgeon aboard another chunk of the Heaven wreckage, and seeks guidance about discomfort in her abdomen. Upon examination, it appears that Mother has some form of life growing inside her which is triggering her caregiving instincts. She’s unable to remove it, and chooses to instead feed the thing to buy herself time.
We also get a cool Earth flashback, where we see fake Marcus and Sue, surviving a young suicide bomber's attack on the boarding of the Heaven. Fake Marcus assures Sue, "No matter what happens, all that matters is you and me!" It's an example of their bond, given to us to justify the amount of shit Sue puts up with from her maniac lover later on. It also contrasts the pair with members of their own true side, the Atheists, showing fake Marcus and Sue are traitors from hell, compared to a young boy willing to blow himself up to take out a few Mithraic.
Episodes seven and eight cover a lot of ground, hang together well, and carry good tension. It’s infuriating to watch both Mother and Father so incapacitated but it does pay off, at least for Father, in episode nine.
Directed by James Hawes, this episode deals with the central development that Mother is carrying a baby, supposedly conceived in the sim pod, via some sort of virtual data-based copulation with her vision of Creator Campion. Father is very upset by this and threatens to wipe his memory banks of all his prior images of Mother and the children to protect himself from jealousy.
Father’s “jealous android” shtick is believable, emotionally honest, and interestingly naïve, however, based on the ways he has always reacted to trauma in past episodes (like getting impaled on a giant serpent tooth by Mother) I find this a really jarring update to his personality. I'm willing to accept that he's developed the capacity for this emotion, but I have to jump through some hoops to make it work.
Mother’s pregnancy continues to evolve quickly, and she finds herself needing blood donors from the damaged android medical crew of the Heaven, before switching to more sustainable nutrition from one of the pork monsters, and the blood of Tempest's captured rapist.
I'm sorry I haven't mentioned this guy before now (Surprise! A rapist!), but he's kind of a dead end. Everybody hates him because he raped unconscious women on board the Heaven, claiming he was directed to do so by Mithraic deity, Sol. As punishment, he’s been assigned an android guard he's not allowed to wander further than ten feet from, and a bucket helmet that will crush his skull if he tries. People usually call him "the rapist" or Buckethead.
He's not actually very interesting outside of his predicament. I've speculated with my peers, and we wonder if there's some identity reveal that will give him weight posthumously in Season 2, but I hope not.
In any event, in Episode 9, Mother uses him as a blood bag a la Mad Max: Fury Road, dragging him all over the desert until he's depleted, to feed her fetus with nutrition from the rapist's “outflow” port on the back of his prison helmet. (This prison helmet seems to have three blood flow modes -- Out, In, and Regular, or who knows; I find the concept weird.)
By this point, the rapist has decapitated his guard and carries the head in a bag, giving him his mobility, as long as the guard’s head remains strapped to his back.
Mother is exceptionally proud that she’s pregnant with a fetus of her own making. A tense encounter with Sue and the children in the desert eventually results in Sue administering medical care to Mother and the unborn, after initially holding them at gunpoint. Mother informs Sue that she is able to detect her stolen identity. The two form an uneasy bond as Mother agrees to guard fake Sue's secret.
The rapist reverses the blood flow from Mother via the convenient control panel on the back of his helmet, and instigates a confrontation that leads to Tempest snatching the guard’s noggin out of Buckethead's bag while the he's distracted by her sister. She tosses it off a cliff, instantly killing her tormentor as his un-removable helmet crushes his skull like a cheap can of soda.
Knowing that she survived a rape at this guy's hands, it's good that Tempest was able to arrange the end of him in such a pleasantly brutal way. Again, I hope the show’s writers don't double back and make us regret that she did this, later. It’s a trashy fad in modern storytelling to make us regret or feel guilt for the consequences that befall the unpitiable, for no other reason than to provoke us. I’m ready for that trend to be over.
There’s also a sub-plot about Hunter unlocking Father from his wiped-clean service model state that the Mithraic had trapped him in. This precipitates a touching interaction with Father, and Hunter’s only redeeming moment as a character thus far.
Luke Scott returns to direct the Season One finale, ramping up slow, with everybody still as stuck in their handicaps as ever, before accelerating at breakneck speed in the last few minutes to totally upend the season's context. Whee!