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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An excellent new Raised By Wolves delivers on the show’s potential

Amanda Collin
Amanda Collin
Photo: Coco Van Oppens (HBO
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In an earlier episode this season, Mother expressed sadness that she would never be able to have her own child. In “Mass,” she discovers a tumor growing in her abdomen that appears to be some sort of human-android hybrid fetus, born of her sexual experience with her creator. When she finds out what is actually inside her, she is furious, feral, her body transforming into something that smells blood and craves the taste of meat.

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“Mass” is a triumphant and horrifying return to the kind of dynamic storytelling that defined the first few episodes of this season. I could barely watch the first dream sequence, where we see Caleb slash his own face open, removing the skin to try and find what is underneath. Throughout the episode, milk and blood are abundant, flowing out of body parts and onto the ground. The collapsed ark stretches across the landscape as if it were just another pile of animal bones. It already looks like evidence of a war that nobody can win.

Do the human beings who are colonizing this bleak planet have any more choice about what they do and who they become than the creatures that roam the forests, desperate for food and a chance to protect their young? Or is everyone simply operating on instinct, no matter how maladaptive and terrible many of these tendencies are? There is little light on Kepler-22b, save for Dad’s jokes, which Campion repeats in an effort to soothe himself. In a landscape with this little charm, I was delighted to meet the medic android that peppily made self-deprecating jokes (“I’m a doctor, not a bloodbag!”) and tried to support Mother through the process of healing. Even though these simpler models are clearly not human, there is something tender about their basic ability to care. The more advanced models get (whether human or android) the more they seem capable of cruelty, destruction.

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In the world of Raised By Wolves, technological advancement and innovation is not seen as an avenue for escape from the horrors of human cruelty. In fact, the series seems to suggest that new technological tools can actually exacerbate human frailties, priming us for selfishness, greed, lust. Certainly, this is true for the Mithraic, who use miraculous technological tools and yet follow a faith that is as merciless as it is hierarchal. When Marcus behaves more and more erratically towards his son and wife, the Mithraic look on concerned, but then actively help Marcus to destroy his family. They may be skeptical, but they also seem powerless to question their sick leader’s judgment.

This vision of humanity often seems to flatten the human experience into a dystopian hellhole. At least the Mithraic’s lives revolve around religious texts, but the atheists they fight don’t seem to have any common cultural reference points, aside from the odd “Three Little Pigs” story and Sue’s strange exclamation of “Jesus Christ” in the previous episode. What happened to other aspects of their culture? What unites the atheists? What traditions or beliefs do they share? Mother and Father teach their children survival skills and not to pray to Sol, but it’s hard to see what other values they actually believe in. The atheists are portrayed are consistently portrayed as entirely generic underdogs.

Perhaps this lack of a precise cultural identity makes the revelation of Mother’s true mission all the more unsettling, as it implies that Mother’s atheist creator was simply interested in creating a future selfishly centered on his own progeny. Like Tempest, Mother was violated and impregnated against her will by someone who thought he was doing so in order to create a better future for mankind. And like Tempest, this new knowledge triggers a crisis of faith and a question of whether Mother will also revolt against the ideals she fervently believed in.

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As I looked at Mother’s transformation, I started to wonder if the creatures we’ve come across all season are themselves some sort of hybrid android-animal as well and whether Campion’s desire to not eat these animals is based on some sort of primal connection to Mother. He was the only child that survived Mother and Father’s first mission and one reason why he seemed to make it was that he was baptized in his Mother’s tears.

Raised By Wolves is at its best when it allows viewers to sit in creepy discomfort and one of the reasons that “Mass” is so successful is not just because we get so much momentum with Mother’s story, but also because we get to focus on her development without as many distractions. The show is always trying to bite off more than it can chew and I think the series is most interesting when it delves deeply into the more modest goal of exploring the wonderful and terrifying reality of what it means to be part of a family unit.

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Stray observations:

  • Evil Marcus/Caleb gets less interesting the meaner he gets. The medic robot has a more compelling personality!
  • We got to learn a little more about Sue this episode, but the atheists have such a generic backstory that it wasn’t particularly meaningful information.
  • I found it fascinating that Mother included Father when she explained to the medic that “My partner and I sometimes suffer from impulses not dictated by programming.” Does this mean that Father has just as much of a soul as Mother does? Is Father still alive or is his hand simply typing out morse code?
  • For a few episodes I’ve also wondered if the references to “the creature” are a possible allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which case it’s quite possible these animals that taste like pork may be less animal than they seem.
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I write about TV, film, art, empathy, culture, and our digital lives.

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