If you have not yet seen “Raised by Wolves,” you will probably not understand it when you first start watching. Don’t worry; that’s why I wrote you this article. But you will not understand “Raised by Wolves” after you read this article either. You will not understand it by the end of the first season, nor the second, which ends Thursday on HBO Max.
And I am here to tell you that’s all right. I have watched all 18 episodes hungrily, read the fan theories and watched the commentaries, and I still don’t entirely get this drama about (deep breath) child-rearing atheist robots and religious fundamentalist humans struggling to survive on a hostile planet strewn with relics of its former inhabitants. Think “Alien” meets the Book of Genesis meets “Land of the Lost.”
But if you let go of the need to understand “Raised by Wolves” and give yourself over to experiencing it, this is one of the most entrancing series TV currently has on offer. It may not be coherent. It is not even, strictly speaking, always good. But in an era of stultifying TV competence, it is something better than that: A wild, eye-popping big swing.
The series is created by Aaron Guzikowski (“The Red Road”), who has sketched out a back story that owes as much to ancient myth as to science, and executive produced by the director Ridley Scott, who contributes his outlandish design sense and his penchant for fierce mothers, body horror and robots who bleed milk.
A century and change into the future, Earth has been destroyed in a war between two groups of people: the theocratic Mithraic, who worship a deity called Sol, and the technocratic atheists. In the waning days, the atheists launch two robots on a probe with a cargo of human embryos, with a mission to populate the habitable planet Kepler-22b.
After the probe lands, the android Mother (Amanda Collin) gestates the embryos (plugging their amniotic containers to her abdomen with tubes, as if she were a multi-port USB charger), then devotes herself to keeping her children godless and alive. She’s aided by Father (Abubakar Salim), a gentle and guileless “service android” programmed with an endless supply of ice-breaking dad jokes.
The forbidding landscape is their first challenge. The next is the arrival of an “ark” of Mithraic colonists, led by Marcus (Travis Fimmel of “Vikings”), a former atheist who, with his wife, Sue (Niamh Algar), hid their identities to flee Earth.
Like many a convert, Marcus takes to his new role zealously, and he and his holy warriors size up the androids as the enemy. Mother has a secret edge, however; she is a reconfigured Necromancer, a robotic W.M.D. who can morph into a gilded Art Deco figure like something from “Metropolis.”
She flies with her arms held crucifix-style and can make bodies explode with a scream. In a transfixing scene from the pilot, she strides through a Mithraic ship, the gooey remains of her foes floating in strands around her.
From here, things get weird. The further I watched, the more my viewing notes looked like the ravings of a madman. (If you want to avoid even perplexing, out-of-context spoilers, skip the next paragraph.)
But here we go: Kepler-22b has a native population of primitive humanoids who live underground and beneath an acid sea. They may be the ancestors of Earth’s humans; a mysterious signal broadcast from the planet may be the “voice” of Sol. A character turns into a tree, whose fruit contains a delicious, bloody pulp. Mother becomes inexplicably, biologically pregnant and births a flying serpent from her mouth. Later, her snake-child eats the person-tree, a clause I am pretty sure has never before been typed.
The series’s visual imagination is spellbinding. The religious metaphors are abundant; you do not need a doctorate in theology to note the serpent and the tree of life. All of it unfolds in a phantasmagorical reality that could come straight off a 1970s prog-rock album cover.
But “Raised by Wolves” is more than eye candy; it’s a deeply emotional story about the volcanic force of parental love. Mother carries herself like a cult leader, ideal-driven and devoted to her family — which grows to include a group of Mithraic children she liberates from the enemy — but she loves ruthlessly.
Beatific and terrifying as an archangel, Collin is giving one of the best performances on television right now; she’s TV’s greatest radical mom since Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings on “The Americans.” Like Russell’s Soviet spy, she feels a tension between nurturing her children and serving her larger mission. She sees her children drawn to a faith that she rejects — “Belief in the unreal can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it” — and risks driving them away by pressing too hard to control them.
And Salim, with his C-3PO rectitude as Father, makes an excellent foil. At a low moment in the pilot, he argues for surrendering to the Mithraic, unsettling his militant partner. “I thought we were in sync!” she tells him, and impales him on the tooth of a giant fossil. (Oh, did I not mention the giant fossils?) But they move past it, as couples do.
Much like parenting with a killing machine, watching “Raised by Wolves” requires the willingness to overlook certain flaws. The writing tends to be stylized and stilted, which works for the android leads but leaves the humans more flat. The twists and shifting alliances are whiplash-inducing, and the quasi-scientific explanations are just this side of “A wizard did it.” (A major story line, which the Season 2 finale leans heavily into, involves “de-evolution,” an idea with a questionable history in actual science.)
But you can find consistency anywhere. “Raised by Wolves” is the kind of fever dream that takes an act of faith to watch. You need to strap yourself into the probe, free-fall into its molten core and trust that you will come out on the other side. I cannot guarantee that future seasons will not fall apart. But good TV should not be safe.