Creepy children usually make for good visual horror stories. That principle was already a trope back in the 1950s, with the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” and it’s been a staple of horror cinema ever since, from the 1960 movie Village of the Damned to 2019’s unsettling The Hole in The Ground. All it takes to make kids deeply unnerving is an unchildlike solemnity or a grim, inhuman stare. But stories that lean on that same kind of simple, eerie, not-quite-right inhumanity in adults are comparatively rare. Adult characters, the thinking usually goes, need a lot more complexity of motivation and behavior to make them intimidating, instead of just the slightest push into the uncanny valley.
HBO Max’s heady new science-fiction series Raised by Wolves, produced by Ridley Scott and created by Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, is obsessed with parenthood, and it returns again and again to different aspects of parent-child relationships. But the creative team gets a lot of their subtlest and most memorable horror out of just reversing the roles from the eerie-child playbook. Part of that reversal means finding the humanity in the kid characters, whether they’re traumatized and suffering, brash and bullying, or wise beyond their ages. The children don’t have narrative space to be unnerving. Their parents have taken on that job for them.
The 10-episode series opens with two androids, Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) landing on an inhospitable planet and setting up housekeeping. They’ve been programmed to gestate a series of human fetuses and raise them to start a new colony, and as their early interactions show, they’ve also been programmed to respect and support each other, and to work together to provide the children with a loving home. At the same time, like the many other androids in Ridley Scott’s filmography (from Alien to Prometheus), Mother and Father aren’t quite human. They’re certainly capable of emotion — over the course of the six episodes provided for initial critical viewing, the androids experience longing, hope, jealousy, rage, fear, and a lot more. But those emotions are blunted and noticeably artificial. Collin and Salim play their roles with a compelling but uncomfortable remove, as though they’re feeling their hurt and horror deeply, but still laboring to make their plasticine faces communicate those emotions effectively to others.
Their inhumanity is part of what makes Raised by Wolves feel like an unexpectedly complicated and rich attempt at hard science fiction. Spec-fic is often obsessed with what “humanity” really means, particularly as people either try to create artificial versions of it, or risk losing it to technology or other huge changes. In Raised by Wolves, Guzikowski doesn’t waste time on having his androids discuss humanity and whether they’re capable of it, but the way the directors and actors portray Mother and Father as just outside it, and doing their best to copy it, raises all the right questions when coupled with parenthood. Can something inhuman teach an infant to be human? Can a child raised by machines exceed those machine’s capacity for empathy? And when the machine’s programming takes it in lethal, terrifying directions, are human emotions enough to act as useful counterprogramming?
Given the pace of the story, those questions mostly slither under the surface of everything else that’s going on. The androids are part of an initiative to reseed humanity across the universe after the Earth was all but destroyed by a high-tech religious war. Seen in flashbacks, the planet looks like something out of a Terminator-movie flash-forward: battle-androids, portable energy-packs, and sleek hover-ships enable large-scale devastation as the factions collide. The atheists seem to be on the losing side: they’re the rough-and-tumble street fighters, while their zealous Mithraic foes have better technology, uniforms, and iconography. They also have a more sterile and hierarchy-driven society, packed with doctrine revolving around the sun god Sol. The doctrine they preach sounds enough like Christianity to make the metaphorical underpinnings of the religious war clear, but the symbols they wear are all stylized suns.
In the opening arc — the first three episodes, now available on HBO Max, with subsequent episodes on Thursdays — Mother and Father begin their young colony, but face a threat from a Mithraic group that discovers them. The Mithraics consider android-raised children an abomination. Everything that falls out from there is better discovered than described, given how much Raised by Wolves bases all its character development and story reveals in action, and given how rapidly the storyline evolves. But along the way, it brings in two more parents, Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar), who are as invested in protecting their son as Mother and Father are in protecting their charges. And by the end of the fourth episode, there are two new potential parents in the mix as well, either of which could seriously change the dynamic.
Raised by Wolves is a chilly, unforgiving series in its design and its bitter worldbuilding. The colony planet, Kepler-22B, is a forbidding place that only supports the hardiest life, and the desaturated palette doesn’t offer much but dull browns, greens, and grays, to the point where the Mithraics’ pure white uniforms feel like a visual relief. As in so many other Ridley Scott-derived worlds, this one seems somewhere between hostile to humanity, and utterly indifferent. (Like so many other Scott worlds, it’s also full of dramatic particulate matter. Scott directed the first two episodes here before passing the baton to other folks, starting with his son, Luke Scott. But even the episodes he didn’t direct are full of drifting dust and falling snow, or billowing smoke and haze. Stuff in the air is a longtime Scott signature, and while it’s often pretty and forbidding at the same time in Raised by Wolves, it also feels like a running in-joke.)
The series’ unrelieved grimness and greyness may drive some viewers away before the story’s scope even becomes apparent. The scale of destruction in the opening episode is startling, but it comes before viewers have really had a chance to settle into what this world is like, or get any meaningful sense of who Mother and Father are. That opening certainly raises far more questions than it answers. But after the explosive opening, Raised by Wolves settles into a more careful pacing, exploring a wide variety of ideas around parents, children, and how they relate. One arrogant young Mithraic keeps trying to define his role in society by his father’s rank, even after his father is gone. Another teenager, raped by an elder in the church, has to contend both with feeling betrayed by the generation that was meant to protect her, and the prospect of having an unwanted child herself.
Marcus and Sue face more complicated parental roles, as they try to relate to a son whose expectations of them complicate their lives in interesting ways. And Mother and Father have to navigate a variety of small, testing attempts at rebellion from their son Campion (Winta McGrath), about everything from religion, which he tests out like a toddler trying to stand up for the first time, to killing for food, which he refuses to do even for survival. Their programming, oddly, doesn’t seem to extend past the earliest days of childhood, and while they’re dealing with a variety of external dangers and their own surprising development, they’re also trying to figure out how to be parents when that means guiding children as well as guarding them.
None of which would be particularly interesting if the series’ action wasn’t compelling. The bigger plot movements are alarming and even exciting, but the pacing is erratic, with abrupt action alternating with long, quiet tensions. Raises by Wolves is often more imagistic than textual: Recurring images like Mother soaring through the air, naked and sexless and bronze-skinned, with her arms extended in crucifixion position, evoke religious iconography without actually doing much to justify the series’ religious arc. The Kepler colony originally draws on Edenic ideas, with a man and a woman raising their children in a garden, surrounded by the echoes of past snakes — giant “serpent pits” in the ground, huge serpentine skeletons buried around the androids’ camp. But it all feels like shallow iconography, with little to justify the striking images. The series does periodically feel like a surface-level gloss over a series of ambitious and creative ideas.
But at least it isn’t telling an old, familiar story. More than halfway through the initial run of episodes, Raises by Wolves still doesn’t feel like it’s entirely cohered into whatever it’s going to wind up being. It’s still about discovery and surprises, and about finding endless new variations on the parent-child “Who’s leading who to maturity here?” questions. The series can be opaque and baffling, or sometimes even arbitrary. But it also feels like it’s trying to tackle a whole lot more than the usual coming-of-age story, or the usual underdogs-vs.-autocrats story, or the usual escaping-parental-control story. Like its horror-movie androids, with their weird jumpsuits, stiff expressions, and not-quite-human behaviors, Raised by Wolves is intriguing because it feels so far away from the usual run of science-fiction TV. It’s uncanny, but at least it isn’t predictable.
The first three episodes of Raised by Wolves are now on HBO Max. Subsequent episodes debut on Thursdays.