First, I readily acknowledge that this is a pretty hot take. I have only seen one episode of Raised By Wolves (because I haven’t created an HBO Max account yet and am uncertain of why this show is not available with my HBO subscription *shakes fist*), so I am not sure how the arcs have developed in subsequent episodes. However, even if Mother somehow becomes more relatable or understandable as the series goes on, her actions in this first episode are irredeemable and to me seem the animated by a drive that is the quintessentially white supremacist. In what follows, SPOILERS will abound. You’ve been warned.
(Sidebar: For those of you who know some of my other work, you know that I am a sometime set player for various films and television shows. No, I did not work on this project (it was shot in South Africa). But I did meet one of the producers last year when I was working on a pilot that did not get picked up. In conversation, I mentioned that I wrote fantasy and science fiction, and he told me to keep an eye out for this project. His next stop, after his time on our set, was South Africa to see how the filming was going. And now, here we are. Back to the essay.)
When Mother is first introduced, she is one of a pair of androids: one (Mother/ Amanda Collin) who is presented as white and female and one (Father/Abubakar Salim) who is presented as black and male. The initial dynamic between them is one of congenial if robotic, mutual aid. Each one’s top priority is the well-being of the other. This dynamic lasts like five seconds until Mother helps usher in the new generation of humans on the planet. All of a sudden, she is shushing Father and issuing orders.
This is what made me sit up and pay attention; the shift in the relationship between the two androids. While the show is not ostensibly about race, but rather the survival of an “endangered” species, as a viewing experience, it does not exist in a vacuum. It is hard to overlook the ways that this white, female presenting android engages with its black, male presenting counterpart (imagine, for a moment, if the roles had been reversed). She reprimands him for acting outside of their programming while routinely transgressing and/or ignoring their prime directives herself.
She brushes off his attempts to rein her in as she continues to meltdown and veer further and further away from their mission of protecting the children. Finally, she destroys him for suggesting that she needs to correct course one time too many. Add to this trajectory what we know about the tendencies of AI to absorb and reflect human race-based prejudices, and the whole thing becomes inflected by race in ways that can’t be ignored.
I am not claiming that Mother is actively spouting racist hatred, because clearly, she is not. Rather, I am suggesting that through Mother enacts a kind of white supremacy described in part by Frances Lee Ansley as “relations of white dominance and non-white subordination…daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” That those dynamics are still being enacted halfway across an imagined universe by androids no less, demonstrates just how intractable white supremacy is in our storytelling and our lives.
After the death of Father, it just gets worse. Though, after Father’s death, we do not see another person of color until the very end of the episode, Mother increasingly deploys the mechanisms of white supremacy, intolerance and violence, to protect the territory that she has carved out for Campion, the last remaining human child of their brood. Mother’s myopic inability to even entertain another worldview and her wholesale destruction of an entire civilization to prevent Campion’s engagement with it feel vaguely familiar. Even Mother’s refusal to acknowledge how her actions ultimately undermine her stated aims and her rejection of all attempts to address her own deterioration, which leads to literal foaming at the mouth, fit the metaphor. White supremacy is destructive, to everyone and everything. Even itself.
By the end of the episode, Campion has come to the realization that Mother is the biggest threat to him. “I know I am not safe with her,” he says. “But I guess I never was. That part of her was always in there.” Mother’s actions threaten both his survival and the survival of the human race. The same could be said of white supremacy, which should be as much a lesson of this summer as anything else. White supremacy does not keep white people safe. In fact, it is a threat to their safety, security, and lives too. Maybe, at first the targets seem external, “Others,” but ultimately white supremacy can and will destroy even those that it purports to protect.
For those who would insist that this is a show about religious belief, I would say you can’t separate that out from how Mother presents physically. That was a choice. Mother could have been genderless and colorless, not humanoid at all. Instead, in choosing that appearance, her creator (and the show creators) intended to evoke certain responses. But you have to take the bad with the good.
Nor, quite honestly, can you separate that out from our known global histories of religious persecution and war (not just the last twenty years where we want to try and pretend that only brown people commit atrocities in the name of God). That Mother becomes symbolic of the death cult of white supremacy is, in itself, a rather neat indictment of the role that white women play in perpetuating white supremacy. So often, white men become the avatars of white supremacy, but many have noted that white women play a crucial role in maintaining and enforcing the ideology.
Perhaps later episodes offer more development that might turn this reading on its ear. Though even such an attempted recuperation would both be par for the course in the ways that our media twists to somehow make white supremacy palatable, permissible, and even sympathetic. Mother’s female presentation might even make that turn easier to accomplish. Part of the power of storytelling, especially in television, is how the image plays in the world. The imagery of Raised By Wolves is loaded and laden in ways that we would be remiss not to unpack.
Look, I said at the beginning that this is the hottest of hot takes. So, um, don’t @ me.
L. M. Davis is a YA/MG author who writes about shapeshifters, aliens, immortals, and witches. She is a scholar of African American and Native American literature and cultures, with a particular interest in the speculative production of these communities. L. M. Davis is the author of Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, Posers: A Shifters Novel, and skinless: A Novel in III Parts. Davis’s Shifters Novels, which readers call fast-paced, engaging, dramatic, and original, are the coming-of-age story of Nathanial Pantera, a shapeshifter who can change into a panther, and his fraternal twin Larissa. Forgers, the third book in her Shifters Novel series, is forthcoming.