Raised by Wolves, season 1, gave viewers a truly dark, alien, and original view of a future in which androids Mother and Father have landed on the remote planet Kepler-22B, fleeing a devastating war on Earth. The Earth conflict pitted an atheist collective, The Trust, against fundamentalist Mithraists, with the atheists on the losing end due to the adoption by the fundies of killer AI. Mithraists in Raised by Wolves worship Sol, “the light” and believe in scriptural mysteries that may point to an origin for humans other than Earth.
The gorgeously imaginative first season, dark-lit but always clear, focused on Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salem) establishing an advance foothold for the atheists on a planet with barely understood ecosystems and lifecycles. The Humankind vs Nature through-line of early episodes gave us a familiar anchor, and the daily existence of the androids — their banter and endearing quirks — elevated the foreground of season 1 with a lived-in, relatable quality as perfect counterbalance to the alien aspects of Kepler 22-B. The show’s creators introduced various vat-born children placed in the care of the atheist androids, including the boy Campion (Winter McGrath) — along with a sudden influx of surly Mithraic teens— all accomplished with exquisite timing to add complexity without ruining the iconic feeling of alienness. Also layered in: Suitably bizarre encounters with nocturnal creatures that seem to threaten the settlement, experiments with strange fruit, and awe-inspiring giant wormholes leading to the planet’s core. Many a show has floundered simply trying to introduce so many elements, let alone deploying them with such ease.
Even better, Raised by Wolves’ creators understood the bane of many a science fiction series: over-explanation. No worse feeling, usually, than seeing characters assemble around a futuristic board room table or astro-hearth to “talk it out.” It is rare that some dazzling quirk of a future room will ever make up for the mundanity of what is said within its walls.
Season 1 invested impressive thought and equally impressive execution in planetary details, but more importantly the ecosystems had their own agency and purpose that neither we nor the androids can fully comprehend. The creepy critters stalking the settlement work to their own agenda; the seasons care nothing for the settlement’s needs. Preserving a sense of areas unknown and unmapped lent depth and breadth to the worldbuilding and ensured that the planet itself became a kind of all-encompassing character.
The last episode of season 1, “The Beginning,” brought the planet’s fauna/ biotech to startling ultra-life, in the form of a winged flying serpent born of Mother’s body that conjured up the mythology of Dragon in ways useful to the Mithraic legend.
Other science-fiction shows like The Expanse, with its weirdling proto-molecule, have flirted with this sense of wonder that’s also tinged with horror and a frisson of the unknown. But it’s no coincidence that the movie Prometheus is the closest mirror of season 1 of Raised by Wolves, considering Ridley Scott produced the show and directed some episodes. Scott and his fellow collaborators, in a sense, found a way to preserve everything mind-bending about Prometheus while giving us a much better story.
A shame, then, that in season 2, the vision for the human characters doesn’t quite exist at the same high level as the extraordinary worldbuilding and seems at times not as hardwired to the character motivations. The result is a solid but overstuffed eight-episode story arc in which too many characters have too little to do (remember those Mithraic young adults?), punctuated by moments of extreme awe due to revelations about Kepler 22-B itself.
One major element that unfortunately dulls with time is the Mithraic impulse as expressed through Caleb, for several reasons. In season 1, the iconography mapped to a kind of mosaic-encrusted view of aspects of the Medieval period, along with the original, real Mithras cult favored by Roman soldiers. The Mithraic soldiers wore armor reminiscent of Crusaders (or even Conquistadores) and the use of related symbols had a resonant if garish aspect. The granularity had been scuffed up to update the attendant fundamentalism for the modern era. The flourish and detail that, for example, a French chivalrous knight of the 1400s might display, had been degraded to reflect the tarnish of Trumpism, or maybe Pat Robertsonism. The authoritarian impulse expressed through religion in season 1 frightened not because it conjured up Medieval knights but twenty-first-century zealots.
If this approach was crude that’s because fundamentalism is often crude and broad; this is part of its appeal in terms of messaging. The crudeness also existed in lovely contrast to the complexity of the planet and the inability of most of the colonists to see that complexity. So, when the atheist enclave, The Trust, with a gorgeously portrayed yet fairly unconvincing central AI, displays a similar crudeness in conception, what was intricate in the roughness of the Mithraic impulse as expressed through doctrine and design — what was creator intent — becomes undone. If everything is unsubtle, then nothing can be subtle in its unsubtlety (to disappear down one of the planet’s dragon-holes for a moment).
The Trust’s out-of-the can compound, with its retina-scan pinball task lists for generally unhappy colonists and ultra-boring regime of routine deadens the show when on screen. The Trust’s soldiers display a design aesthetic that can only be described as if Giger’s brother Billy Giger was given one hour to come up with an ad campaign for a new line of fascist Hot Topic fashion. Hovering military tanks that look like they escaped from Elon Musk’s Boring tunnel are the least-convincing part of otherwise impressive CGI, reading as black blocks that as they move across the landscape bring the landscape into doubt as well.
The authoritarian impulse expressed through religion in season 1 frightened not because it conjured up Medieval knights but twenty-first-century zealots.
Meanwhile, the ant-mound-like order of the outpost has little to do with the idea of “atheist,” except to make an obvious point that extremists on the Left and Right may sometimes wind up in the same place by backing up into each other. By deadening difference — atheists worse than we thought, Mithraists better – the show creakily moves toward the idea that some future centrist coalition could better understand the planet.
This is quite a ways down from the heights of grandeur that Season 2’s opening episode, “The Collective,” hinted at. Unmoored in time, we see a heavily damaged Mother unearthed by Mithraic prisoners of The Trust. For several stunned and breathless moments, I sincerely believed a much greater period of time had elapsed since the events of the first season — evidenced by Mother’s deteriorated condition and the eagle’s eye view of the planet transformed, as the atheists escort her body to the boring atheist enclave. For one glorious instant, I thought the creators had solved the problem of continuance by leaping forward 20, 30, 50 years — maybe even a century. That the winged serpent rising at the end of season 1 had devoured all so utterly that nothing remained but some far-future moment of salvage.
But no: We’re stuck in the atheist enclave, which, unfortunately, is a holding pen for the plot to bring Mother and Father fully operational again and to serve as counterpoint to Caleb holed up in an alien fortress, Mithraic-ing like a motherfucker.
Except, Caleb holed up in a fortress by an acid sea proves to be not that interesting. All the lovely tension from season 1 as he concealed his atheist past and gradually became a true believer dissipates the way the acid sea spray must, since the ever-present deadly spray never injures any character standing on a rock right next to that flesh-destroying sea.
Why? It’s no fault of the actor, but like all true-believers, Caleb is deadly boring in his purpose and his speechifying. Nothing now will ever change about this character and thus little he says will ever surprise us again, except, perhaps, that he has new strange powers (hint: ‘ware the eyeballs of the spleen). The only thing that surprised me about his scenes is how informal his dialogue has become. “Too old to be playing with dolls, lady,” he tells Decima, a Mithraic believer he’s freed and who will become a convenient partner and romance.
The trappings of prophecy that manifested through more formal dialogue in season 1 are gone and what replaces them could certainly have found some middle ground between, say, “how ya doin’” and “for thee shall wander forlorn this wilderness for lo these many decades.”
For one glorious instant, I thought the creators had solved the problem of continuance by leaping forward 20, 30, 50 years — maybe even a century.
Thankfully, other threads and the second half of season 2 contain more of the planet revelations and less atheist and Mithraic angst. Many unique and bizarre moments of beauty and horror occur that lie beyond the human as we understand it. A winged serpent atop a mountain peak, Caleb confronted by the regeneration of some fossilized alien warrior (or human — who knows), and Father’s patient restoration of an ancient Necromancer similar to Mother, using his own milk, are moments that restore Raised by Wolves’ amazing vision and originality. Even Father fist fighting for MOAR MILK to rejuv lord-knows-what has a charm, and in general Father’s storyline is quirkier and more interesting than Mother’s, this time around.
This second Necromancer, in fact, provides the true sense of the ecstatic alien that The Trust’s AI failed to provide earlier in the season. “She” (?) has the kind of intense, iconic feel, in full operational mode, of ancient visions sustained by saints after vast deprivation of food and water. A kind of bracing and rarely seen brilliance that seers an image and secret message into your optic nerves. Perhaps the funniest moment of Raised by Wolves season 2 is when Mother just pulls the plug on The Trust AI, easy-peasy, but no one will ever pull the plug on this AI regenerated from Father’s bar-brawl-earned milk.
It becomes easy to overlook some of the more mundane elements of season 2 precisely because, after watching, I only remembered the stunning moments of transcendence. The world keeps worlding on, ignoring the purely human attempts of teleplay writers to bind it to their will; the world keeps worlding on so supremely that I still love season 2 even as I didn’t like parts of season 2. That world remains such a unique creation that, along with Caleb, I now receive subliminal signals from Kepler 22-B about season 3 that make my eyes radiate happiness.
Yet, the drag on season 2 created by the lack of momentum in early episodes hamstrings other moments of surprise. Through no fault of the acting, the large cast jammed into too small of a narrative space often feels less than three-dimensional. Too much back-and-forth by Campion between Caleb’s hiding place and The Trust seems forced, or even calls into question character motivation, while also creating an oddly teenage-sitcom feel to some scenes. The pregnant character Tempest (Jordan Loughran), for example, was a significant character in season 1. But in season 2, she’s reduced to a vague cipher whose main story purpose is to give birth next to the acidic ocean just in time for one of the acid-loving webbed freaks that lives in the water to leap out and steal and store said baby in a way that reveals even perceived fiends can be more like a cabinet of curiosities than we might expect.
And so we must live with the lovely genuine shock of the moment wedded to the awkward way we got there.
In the end, the most enduring image of season 2 might be the winged serpent sadly caged in an underground cavern after being thrillingly free and unpredictable in the early episodes. Uncaged and rampant at the end of season 1, this winged serpent behind bars is surely only there because the writers, with too many elements to juggle, could not also handle a huge serpent flying around.
What an amazing mess that would’ve made.
Jeff VanderMeer is an author, editor, and literary critic.