First, an exclamation: Holy shit.
Second, an explanation: I had low expectations for Raised by Wolves. No, scratch that: I had no expectations for Raised by Wolves. You have to understand that I went into this show almost completely cold—no trailers, no advance reviews, nothing. All I knew is that it was an android show directed by Ridley Scott…and that’s where my expectations started to crater. Android-based science fiction is, for me, a big fat zero; I’ve never understood the compulsion to examine What It Means to Be Human over and over and over when we all experience exactly what it means all day every day for our entire lives. Love, joy, fear, suffering—like, we get it. I don’t need Alex Garland to serve me a sexy robot to figure this shit out.
More specifically, I’m deeply indifferent at best to the work of Ridley Scott, the big-time film director and now fairly frequent television producer who directed the series premiere from a script by creator Aaron Guzikowski. With very few exceptions (primarily Alien) I find Scott’s style simultaneously fussy and flaccid, its slovenly storytelling overcompensated for by strange aesthetic flourishes (think of his shaky frame-rate action/horror scenes from the likes of Gladiator and Hannibal) that convey no useful information or emotion. He’s had his name on some stuff I like a great deal, executive producing the masterful first season of AMC’s extraordinary survival-horror show The Terror for example, but that’s about it.
So. A show from one of my least favorite sci-fi subgenres, from a director in whom I have no faith as a rule? I’ll be honest: If I hadn’t been getting paid to watch it, I would have given this one the proverbial hard pass.
Boy, am I happy to be wrong.
Featuring exquisitely precise acting by leads Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim, a disciplined command of empty spaces and pointed silences by Scott, and one of the most startling, horrifying, exciting end-of-the-pilot-episode swerves I can remember seeing in years, the premiere of Raised by Wolves knocked me flat on my ass. It got me hitting up friends telling them to watch it. It made me a believer.
The story is a simple one, nearly to the point of mythology (which it very consciously echoes). In the distant future, after a war between atheists and sun-god worshipping religious fanatics called the Mithraic destroys all life on earth, a craft carrying two androids and twelve human embryos crash lands on a far-away planet, one capable of supporting human life. But only just barely: The androids, dubbed Mother (Collin) and Father (Salim) successfully bring only six of the twelve embryos to infancy, and the surviving children succumb one by one to the perils of their new homeworld, including massive craters (that may or may not be inhabited by equally massive serpents) or some kind of cough-inducing disease.
Mother and Father’s purpose, as they explain to the children as part of their education in both history and ethics, is to continue the human race via the belief structure of the atheists, whom we learn were the losing side in the big war. (Not that a war that eliminates the hope for life on Earth has a winner in a sense we’d recognize, but still.) But as the children die off—leaving only the youngest, named Campion after the androids’ creator—it becomes clear their mission to restart the human race has failed.
For reasons that are kept welcomely opaque, Father appears to adjust to this new reality, going so far as to attempt to contact the Mithraics’ space-faring “ark,” which arrives at the planet years after the ‘droids and their precious cargo did. Mother, on the other hand, hews to the atheistic creed and the need to extirpate the “fantasy” of religious belief, even when it would appear that this final battle, too, has been lost. Whether for this reason or some other technological explanation, she begins breaking down around the time Campion loses his last sibling, bleeding a white liquid that will be familiar to fans of the Alien franchise, having bizarre dreams of flight and warfare, and manifesting new abilities, like visual shapeshifting and levitation. Amanda Collin is excellent throughout all of this, portraying a being who is literally incapable of dealing with her present situation, becoming more and more brittle and less recognizably human as she goes.
Everything comes to a head when Campion, who’s begun to pray despite Mother’s objections, sneaks down into the crater where their landing craft has come to rest and triggers the ship’s communication mechanism, alerting the Mithraic ark to their presence. Shockingly, Mother executes Father for initiating this transgression, then lies to Campion about the nature of his death, saying they’d kept his breakdown a secret until the end to avoid worrying the boy. When the Mithraic arrive, dressed sort of like medieval-fantasy LARPers, she instructs Campion to lie about her true nature, too; there’s a religious shibboleth against androids raising humans, apparently.
But it’s a moot point. The Mithraic, who include a servile warrior android among their number, suss out her ruse instantly, and make plans to kidnap Campion and take him aboard their ship, using their android to kill Mother if she objects. Mother, it turns out, has other plans. Specifically, she beats their android to death, uses some kind of death gaze to burn the Mithraics’ faces off, steals their landing craft, boards the mothership, uses some kind of death scream to liquify the Mithraics’ bodies in big huge red gouts of blood, tears off a Mithraic pilot’s eyelids to gain complete control over their ship, and crashes it into the planet’s surface after abducting all the children she can fit into an escape craft.
I say again: Holy shit.
There’s a lot of credit to spread around for this pilot episode’s success, and I hope I spread it everywhere that deserves it. For starters, there’s the script by series creator Guzikowski, which worldbuilds with seemingly effortless ease in just a handful of dialogue lines and visual effects. There’s Scott, who seems to appreciate the quality of what he’s working with to largely stay out of its way, keeping calm and creepily serene until the time comes to blow the doors off the thing. There’s the acting by Collin and Salim, who do the android bit so convincingly that it’s easy for the humans, like Vikings alum Travis Fimmel’s sole-survivor Marcus, to stand out like sore thumbs by comparison. There’s the design of the effects of Mother’s telekinetic attacks, memorably disgusting and quite convincing by CGI standards. There are the hints at perils to come, like the snatch of molted serpent-skin Father finds in the supposedly extinct beasts’ burrow. (Not for nothing is he killed in part by Mother impaling him on a fossilized serpent skull’s teeth.) There’s the voiceover narration by young Winta McGrath as Campion, who drops Anti-Christ–worthy knowledge bombs like “The world doesn’t care if we’re happy and doesn’t get sad when we die. We don’t really matter to it at all.” There’s the knowingly campy costume design—sleek silver body condoms for the atheistic androids, self-aggrandizing Game of Thrones Kingsguard cosplay for the Mithraic, a full-fledged Metropolis makeover for Mother’s war-droid incarnation. There’s probably much more than I’m missing out of sheer enthusiasm for the end result.
Normally this would be the part of the review where I insert caveats and reservations and to-be-sures. And, well, to be sure, it’s entirely possible that the thing falls apart after this knockout first hour. After all, it’s about to become a very different show: Father is gone, Mother is in charge of children she hasn’t indoctrinated from birth, and there are still a handful of surviving Mithraic stranded planetside after the destruction of their ship (and the massacre of those on board), looking to survive or seek vengeance. That’s an awful lot of variables to handle at a time when most shows are still establishing what they’re about in the first place.
But, but, but, but: What an opening salvo. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a pilot since Nicholas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker’s near-perfect Too Old to Die Young launched last year. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about android-based science fiction since…I dunno, Terminator 2? This thing is beautiful and berserk and out of control, and I hope it stays that way.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.