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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In Raised By Wolves, empathy is a problem and a potential vehicle for change

Amanda Collin
Amanda Collin
Photo: Coco Van Oppens (HBO Max
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Throughout Raised By Wolves, human civilization is presented as unwaveringly brutal, so much so that Paul’s first response when given a pet mouse by his father is to recoil in horror because he thinks he is going to be asked to kill it. In “Nature’s Course,” we’re asked to consider whether violence is inevitable in a world where it often seems that your only choice is to kill or be killed. Is it possible to make truly ethical decisions when every option brings some kind of suffering? Is part of growing up learning to cope with the uncomfortable reality of the food chain?

For the Mithraic, faith in all-knowing, all-good Sol provides a moral compass, but one that is fragile and vulnerable to various kinds of abuse, especially from clergy who are given an exalted status and free rein to make questionable moral choices, as long as they can back up their selfish desires with scripture. Likewise, the values the atheists hold don’t appear to be any less self-interested. While the Mithraic feign godliness, Marcus and Sue attempt to look out for their own little family—the longer that Marcus plays at being a believer, the more he seems keen to use this knowledge in order to achieve his own interests.

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When the group stumbles on a gigantic structure that emanates warmth, a debate ensues between those who want to continue to look for the children vs. the ones who want to stay to see what they believe is Sol’s message, “We can’t jeopardize our holy mission because we’re too weak to sacrifice the things we love,” a female cleric tells Sue when she implores the leaders to abandon the structure. Later, Marcus proves to be more effective at the skills of persuasion as he uses the Mithraic mythology as a way to gain power for himself.

In contrast, Mother begins to learn there is strength in compassion, while Father struggles to figure out how to be a useful helper to the family unit. They both know that Mother is stronger, more intelligent, and better equipped to deal with complex situations. Father feels helpless in his inability to protect or provide, while Mother feels alternately frustrated at Father’s limitations, as well as disappointed that their relationship has now become a hierarchal one. Still, she is quick to defend Father to Tempest (“He’s quite amusing at times,” has to be the most lukewarm, yet honest assessment of Father’s talents. I guess she really does like his jokes!).

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Mother is interested in reconciliation rather than violence in “Nature’s Course.” She saves Paul. She apologizes to Father. She uses the scalpel she crafted out of the children’s religious pendants to remove their tracking devices. As she does so, she urges them to go to sleep so that she can do so without causing them fear or pain. Throughout the episode, she’s concerned about the children being exposed to violence, especially Campion, whom she notes has a natural drive toward empathy. Likewise, she actually listens to Tempest, fixing the device used to grow the original embryos so that Tempest doesn’t have to suffer through a pregnancy she never wanted, one that is a constant reminder of her rape. When Father tells Mother that she should let nature run its course, she responds plainly that, “Nature has no course.”

By this point in the series, it’s clear that the decision the creators made to have one male and one female android to raise human children was based on the culture of the atheists more than any strategic goal. After all, the mission could have been designed in any number of ways. Why not have one machine that was sent along with more embryos? Why give either machine a gender at all? While their genders seemed incidental in earlier episodes, the more we get to see Mother and Father interacting with each other, the more it’s hard to not read a gender dynamic into their behaviors, especially in the way that Father has become threatened by Mother’s strengths. After all, he was the one with the primary directive to protect her.

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Of course, the more monstrous elephant in the room is the fact that Mother killed Father once before and he is terrified of her doing it again. When Mother moves to try and get close to Father, he backs away. He tries to shore himself against his own limitations by giving the children some tough love, demanding that they kill the creature so that they can learn to feed themselves. The children are all repulsed by the violence and even Father feels a sense of unease as he sadly, stiffly tells the creature that it should be grateful it isn’t intelligent, clearly thinking back to when Mother deactivated him.

While Father frets about his ability to parent, Mother is starting to think more critically about her primary directives and what it means that she is a caretaker to these children. Is the mission she’s been given to help the children learn to take care of themselves, or to shield them from the horrors of the world around them? Moreover, once the children are no longer children, what will she and Father’s purpose ultimately be? She hooks herself up to the Mithraic machine and enters a simulation not meant for androids, where we see her watch herself interact with a much younger Campion who is protecting the other children from the knowledge that they killed six embryos.

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“You are a creator,” Mother tells Tempest, “whereas all I’ll ever be is a creation.” In “Nature’s Course,” we begin to see Mother really contend with her identity as a highly sophisticated android, one who is not only aware of her limitations, but who is also acutely cognizant of her ability to think outside her original primary directives. Meanwhile, the humans are shown to be far less flexible. When confronted with the huge towering object, they attempt to make sense of it the best way they know how, giving meaning to its sudden warmth and cold, to the fact that Ambrose catches fire and dies. “Sol has shown himself to us today,” Marcus exclaims, though to a nonbeliever there is no concrete evidence of divine intervention.

In the final powerful scene, we watch as a starving Tempest kills the creature with the knife that Mother made, only to find out that the creature that had been hunting them was also carrying a child. Tempest’s violence, as well as her intense grief, are both shown to be entirely natural responses to a world that appears completely indifferent to suffering.

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Stray observations

  • I know some viewers aren’t crazy about the android dialogue, but I actually think it’s really great, especially because both actors do such a phenomenal job portraying the subtle emotions of their stiff android characters.
  • I was very charmed that Campion wanted to call one of the foods they discovered on Kepler-22b, “pizza.”
  • Mother must have been so happy to get a nice white dress in the simulation after wearing a bodysuit for three episodes.
  • What did everyone make of Mother’s experience in the Mithraic machine? 
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I write about TV, film, art, empathy, culture, and our digital lives.

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