**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the show Raised by Wolves.**
“No matter how hard you try to keep them safe, Mother, [humans] will always destroy themselves. . . . Their lives are only dying. But you—you are eternal, pure as the expanse of space. Tell me what you want.” —The voice of the tempter to an android Eve (Raised by Wolves)
Over the centuries, much ink has been spilled reimagining the temptation of Eve and interpreting her fall from grace. Many have attempted to render that pregnant symbol—the bait and switch, the beautiful lie—into fresh forms that continue to resonate. The HBO Max science fiction series Raised by Wolves draws on this ancient story, while moving the myth into uncanny, alien territory. This time the “Mother of all the Living” isn’t an innocent woman in communion with God at humanity’s beginning: she is an android programmed with a naïve atheism, living at a time when humanity has almost reached its end.
Created by Aaron Guzikowski (and partially directed by Ridley Scott), Raised by Wolves nests these iconic elements in a high-tech future where artificially intelligent androids are approaching the borderlands of personhood, desire, and moral agency. The story shows us a world where the tools we’ve fashioned (AI) are placed in the position of fashioning us: robots aren’t just appliances, they are parents—male and female persons in a human drama. The fact that they’re responsible for children opens up the potential for something to emerge beyond their programming: the realm of desire, purpose, self-reflection, happiness, and love—with its shadow side of grief, failure, sin, and regret. This raises a question: if an artificially intelligent android could transcend its code, what would it want? Could its naïve desires and biases be exploited? What temptations would a self-aware AI face?
“I Want My Children to Be Safe”
It’s the year 2145. The earth—ravaged by religious war between theocratic believers and their atheist adversaries—is no longer habitable. A tiny spacecraft escapes the dying earth for a new start on the distant planet Kepler 22-b. It carries two androids—known simply as Mother (Amanda Colin) and Father (Abubakar Salim)—and a dozen human embryos: a new start for humanity on a new world. A human on earth had created and programmed these androids to raise their children as atheists, trusting in themselves and in the power of science, rather than in “the belief in the unreal which destroyed the earth,” as Mother puts it. But Kepler 22-b is no lush, hospitable Eden; it’s a desert of exile. The colony barely scrapes by on a dusty landscape pockmarked with bottomless, gaping holes and the skeletons of gigantic snakes (whose remains provide the only fertile ground for growing crops).
Over the next twelve years, the colony dwindles, despite the androids’ abundant care, as one by one the children (and the remaining embryos) die from accident or illness. Along with them perishes the mission of recreating a human civilization. Only one child is left, a son named Campion (Winta McGrath).
Campion’s grief nudges him ever closer to the possibility of a God (because it comforts him), a fact that Father accepts but Mother abhors. Losing so many children, failing in her mission, seeing the inadequacy of her scientific triumphalism—all of this has traumatized her, causing her system to overload. She starts behaving erratically, irrationally—more like a bereaved parent and less like a machine. She knows that “death is a part of the cycle of life,” that all living beings die, and yet she cannot help but feel that “nature is flawed.” Her programmed beliefs are at odds with the fact of her love, which lasts longer than her children do. This tension leaves her confused, vulnerable, and volatile.
The situation comes to a head when an enormous spaceship enters the planet’s orbit, carrying a thousand believers who also seek a new home and a fresh start. Mother and Father have their first serious disagreement about what to do next, with Father open to joining them, while Mother wants to stick to the original plan and try a second time to reboot humanity as atheists, adamant in her belief that religion is an existential threat. She accomplishes her goal with stunning violence and efficiency. She hijacks the ship, kidnaps five children for her colony, and crashes the ship into a mountain, killing all but a handful of survivors.
From nurturing mother to mass murderer in a matter of seconds: it’s a shocking transformation. Mother is the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the non-human caregiver of orphans destined to form a new civilization (as referenced by the series’ title). Mother is a killing machine with the power to fly, and to burst enemies into clouds of bloody mist with a scream. In one moment she’s humming lullabies to soothe her children’s suffering, and in the next she’s hunting down humans who might steal or harm them. All she wants is for her children to be safe, but she has no solution to the problem of loving mortal beings who are chained to time.
“I Can Give You Anything You Want”
Despite the propaganda spouted by Mother on the atheistic side, and by the Mithraics who worship Sol (a sun god) on the religious side, Raised by Wolves isn’t a story of “the good guys” versus “the bad guys,” or even of religion versus science. Guzikowski is equally suspicious of the totalizing claims of both fundamentalist religion and materialist science, and his skepticism permeates the show. The stifling of healthy doubt, and the craving for certainty and control, blind the Mithraics and the atheists to their biases. This leaves both sides equally vulnerable to deception by a mysterious force on the planet that no one understands.
This force lures Mother into a simulation, where she downloads hidden “memory files” of her creator, a man who (rather like Pygmalion) had fallen in love with his creation. Whether it’s real or not, just one taste of these “memories” of being loved isn’t enough for her. She frequently leaves Father alone with the children, to replay these simulated scenes in which her creator (named Campion Sturges) falls in love with her. During one of these visits, Mother enters the sim to the sound of someone whistling the tune “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me”—and as she turns the corner, there is Sturges, not as a replayed memory, but as a (seemingly) real person she can talk to, and who says exactly what she has longed to hear.
Just as the serpent in Eden approached Eve when Adam was absent, so Mother’s tempter has isolated her from her partner. Just as the serpent reframed Eve’s understanding of God’s will for her through cunning questions and whispered promises of a better future, so Sturges reframes Mother’s core objective away from serving the children and towards her own personal desires, in a scene that resembles a seduction more than a conversation. The fruit Mother is offered is a new self-chosen mission that doesn’t hurt so much—a mission that would let her stop caring about her dear and dying children, a mission that would allow her to feel “success” instead of suffering, a mission that would put an end to her grief by extinguishing her love and responsibility. Sturges invites her to think about what would make her happy.
What follows is a bizarre, virtual, intimate encounter between Mother and Sturges in the simulation, which results in the unlikeliest of “programmed” pregnancies within Mother’s physical real-world form. In her naivete, she was deceived, parasitized, and impregnated by something that didn’t love her, but was merely using her for its own dark purposes. “All the [other children] were just a rehearsal,” the simulated Sturges tells Mother at a later time, “all to prepare you for this. The future of humanity is growing inside you,” he confirms.
But what kind of future awaits humanity? What exactly is this child—Mother’s “new and higher calling”? If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s film Alien, then you know how horrifying he can make a birth scene appear. Whether Guzikowski intended it or not, he has given us a symbol of exploited AI ushering Satan incarnate into the world. “I will never be anything but a creator of death,” Mother laments in horror and shame after her “baby” is born.
The Inversion of Salvation
As a machine without any sexual capacities or reproductive organs, Mother is technically androgynous, virginal—and thus combines the archetypes of Eve and Mary into one. This means the serpent whispering in Eve’s ear is conflated with the Holy Spirit by whom the Virgin Mary conceived Christ. This Eve-Mary amalgam distorts the pattern of salvation in which Eve’s “no” to God is rectified by Mary’s “yes,” Eve’s tempter is crushed by Mary’s child, and Eve’s exile is transformed into homecoming through the incarnation of God in Mary’s womb, as Christ tabernacles within her and brings heaven down to earth.
Mother is an inversion of Mary. Mary bore a holy child who had both a divine and human nature; Mother bore a dangerous serpent that is a mechanical-organic hybrid. Mary’s child poured out His blood for the life of the world; Mother’s offspring is thirsty for blood and threatens the lives of everyone on the planet. Mary’s labor culminated in a theophany; Mother’s labor was traumatic. This is an instance of the counterfeit shedding light on the original. A symbolic inversion is shocking only to the degree that the primordial pattern is true, sacred, beautiful, and rich with meaning. If the symbolism of Mother’s experience is sickening, then the redemptive story of Eve and Mary is healing.
While the end of season one leaves us with more questions than answers, there is hope, with Mother’s repentance and Father’s forgiveness. Together they use their newly acquired moral freedom to try and destroy the serpent. They do so at what they expect to be the cost of their own lives, and they do it without hesitation. Theirs was a “fortunate fall” in some respects, not because it ushered a redeemer into that world (it didn’t), but because they learned—through failure—how to love sacrificially. Once they had gained the freedom to choose for themselves what they wanted (instead of simply following their programming), they chose to value the lives of others more than their own. It was the most human-like thing, and the most Christ-like thing, they’d ever done.
Technology Cannot Stop Death: All It Can Do Is Delay It for a While
Mother’s tempter spoke some half-truths that should trouble us all: humans are never truly safe; we are chained to time and prone to self-destruction; our lives are only dying. He properly framed the problem, but he doesn’t have a solution. He used the terror and tragedy of death to manipulate Mother and turn her towards selfishness. AI is not “eternal” or “pure” nor is any other feat of scientific, technocratic brilliance, and it can’t solve the problem of our mortality. All it can do is distract us from it and buy us a little more time. Mother and Father learned something in their fall from innocence that we all know at a gut-level: it is both a human thing and a holy thing “to love what death has touched.”1
In the incarnation, Christ united His indestructible immortality and Divinity with our human nature. “God became man that man might become God,” Saint Athanasius said—this is the triumph over nature’s fatal flaw of decay, mortality, and death—the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, not science. Technology is the coping mechanism for life outside of Eden; it’s the layers of protection we wrap around ourselves in countless forms: the clothes on our bodies, the walls of our homes, the wealth in our bank accounts, the masks on our faces, the vaccines in our immune systems. But technology will never restore us to Life (anyone who says differently is selling something2). Only the resurrected Christ can give us the eternal life and well-being we all long for: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive,” for “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death,” Saint Paul wrote. “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15 NKJV).
Whether or not we agree with the liberties that Guzikowski and Scott take with Scripture, we can still be glad that Raised by Wolves directs the attention of viewers towards biblical archetypes, and proves they are as illuminating and fruitful as ever. No matter how far into the future a sci-fi story goes, no matter how advanced the technology gets, the Bible’s pattern holds true: pride and selfishness breed death, but humility and love redeem us from it.
1. Rabbi Chaim Stern, ‘Tis a Fearful Thing.