On a lonely, fog-drenched mountaintop, as a flying snake the length of a train car circles a speargun-toting android, only one thought crossed my mind: Parenting is basically impossible.
Of course, today’s guardians are already well-aware. Having navigated nearly two years of a deadly pandemic, anyone in charge of a youngster under five is likely struggling to find sustainable childcare, while those responsible for adolescents old enough to get vaccinated still have to deal with added responsibilities like remote learning, breakthrough cases, and furious debates about every institutional policy decision that could affect their children’s lives. Some call these ongoing challenges “insurmountable.” Others can only find solace in primordial expulsions.
But for those parents with enough time for a TV break — and please, parents, take any reprieve you can — “Raised By Wolves” Season 2 offers an otherworldly remove from your worries and, quite possibly, catharsis to boot. The HBO Max series is absolutely batshit science-fiction, with weaponized screams shrill enough to burst entire bodies and airborne snakes long enough to devour small civilizations. If an escape is all you seek, this should do the trick. But the eight-episode second season is also about the heavy burdens placed on parents. Framed by the dangerous setting of an uncivilized planet and all the perils lurking within, “Raised by Wolves” could provide just the release mothers and fathers need from the real world’s mounting anxieties. If two robots programmed to properly raise their children can’t always get it right, then maybe, just maybe, it’ll take a little pressure off we humans.
The first season of Aaron Guzikowski’s green- and blue-tinged adventure-drama was shaped by discovery. Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubaker Salim) arrived on Kepler 22-b and had to learn to care for their infant charges, to respect, if not also adopt, aspects of humanity, and to develop enough trust to co-parent effectively. Inspired by Ridley Scott’s sci-fi ideas (and directed by Scott for the first two episodes), “Raised by Wolves” unearthed its characters’ interior emotional realities while shaping the literal world around them. Endless pits, regressed human beings crawling on all fours, and the possibility of a higher being were discovered, all while Mother and Father tried to do what’s best for their children.
Season 2 picks up shortly after the last episode’s cliffhanger ending. Mother and Father survive their suicide mission to the planet’s fiery center and end up in the long-coveted “tropical zone.” After spending last year surrounded by the faithful Mithraic few, suddenly they’re working alongside a society of their atheist peers (introduced wearing medieval armor, in what may be another nod to the crusades). All decisions are made by a machine called The Trust, which dishes out daily assignments via gumball-sized silver balls and decides The Collective’s collective fate via an algorithm. At first, Mother and Father are thrilled. Finally, these are people who listen to reason over religion.
But soon enough, letting another entity decide what’s best for Mother and her children becomes more than the necromancer can stand. Part of the problem stems from No. 7, the soaring serpent she puked into existence at the end of Season 1 and failed to kill when it was still just a shimmering little demon. Once she learns of its survival, Mother storms off to destroy No. 7 — she has to, in order to protect The Collective as well as her kids. But isn’t the snake her child, too? She carried it, she birthed it, and her lactating stomach signals this growing viper needs her care, as well.
Father, meanwhile, grows interested in his own risky side projects. Some old bones require reassembly and study, while the materials needed to mend them send the service android into a sporting contest. None of these activities have any obvious benefit to his prime directive — helping his children — but… he likes them. Is that OK? Can he have his own interests, on his own time, that could put him in harm’s way, and still serve as the responsible, attentive, and loyal adult his pseudo-offspring demand?
Much like the first season, “Raised by Wolves” doesn’t wrestle with these questions so much as it acknowledges them, and further hang-ups keep the sturdy series from reaching that next level. The sunny, botanic tropical zone offers a distinct visual palette from the snowy, sparse terrain of Season 1, but Ridley Scott’s striking world-building is missing. (After helming the two-hour series premiere, the “House of Gucci”/”Last Duel” director doesn’t return for Season 2.) Learning the atheists’ societal rule-book makes for an entertaining start, but what’s bound to go wrong are so glaring it’s hard to believe no one in The Collective thought to address them. (Huh, do you think some people are going to tire of taking orders from a machine?)
“Raised by Wolves” often enjoys dealing in absolutes: You’re either a religious fanatic or renounce any semblance of faith. Rather than mine the middle ground, characters are pulled to one side or the other, back and forth, and that black-and-white mindset applies to our two leads, as well. Watching Mother and Father grapple with human emotions is only intriguing when the humans watching can draw any meaning from their development. Too often, “Raised by Wolves” simply summarizes each situation as its presented, rather than push its characters to draw conclusions from life’s unavoidable gray areas.
Still, stopping to perceive them may be enough when the plot careens through so many bonkers events. I won’t spoil them here, but Season 2 never risks becoming boring — the minimum requirement for any hourlong series. Collin and Salim alone should hold your attention. Within the subtle shades of progressing personalities they bring to each android (a slightly wider smile, an extra beat of gratitude), there’s also a fundamental change tied to their role as caregivers.
Early on, Mother and Father worry they’re becoming “too human”; that by giving in to their learned emotions, they’re unable to make the tough calls required of experienced adults. Yet when their judgement is questioned by another machine, The Trust, any lingering doubts are brushed aside. They are the parents. They know what’s best. No one can tell them anything different. For as often as “Raised by Wolves” forces its characters to ascribe to one ideology or the other, their identities as parents shift from moment to moment, hardship to hardship.
Perhaps just as important: Those decisions aren’t judged, either. Mother and Father, not to mention the other parents, are stuck in an impossible scenario. What they expect of their children and what the world demands of them are immense, even when they diverge. Guardians can only do their best, and then do it again, and again, and again, every time a new challenge arises. That’s life, and if that attitude sounds reassuring, dear reader, perhaps it’s time for a trip to Kepler 22-b. Stay as long as you want. You deserve it.
“Raised by Wolves” Season 2 premieres two episodes Thursday, February 3 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.