My older child is doing online kindergarten, and it is not going very well. Online kindergarten takes place in two or three discrete chunks between the hours of eight-fifteen and two-twenty, and the schedule is different every day of the week. The teacher is heroic, but the fact remains that the main event is twenty daily minutes of a humming, glitching grid of faces. The children are supposed to do things in their main app, Seesaw, where small red notifications of the kind that haunt adult dreams pile up. There is also a math app called Dream Box and a reading app called Lexia and a video app called BrainPOP, which is not part of the kindergarten curriculum but which my daughter can use to watch animated videos about elections or ancient Egypt. There’s an app that looks like a video game but will allegedly teach her how to code.
With all the caveats about having my health and my family’s health and the necessities of life, I am struggling, not least with seeing my child grow disillusioned with learning. I am not working regularly, and so I have the twin pleasures of feeling inadequate both in my professional responsibilities and in my parenting. On Friday evenings, when my husband and I prepare for a big night in with booze and our phones, he asks me what I want to watch, and I usually say, “Something about space.” The idea of leaving the planet is attractive.
Going to space softens the agonies of the here and now even when the space story is just a refraction of an earthly problem. At one point this summer, we watched “Aniara,” a dour but memorable Swedish film wherein a group of Earth colonists on their way to Mars find themselves immured in their cruiser when they go off course. The movie is largely about how people cope with periods of confinement with no set end date. This was topical to a fault; I still liked it.
Things about space are never really about space. Take “Raised by Wolves,” a new series on HBO produced by Ridley Scott and set emphatically in another world. We open with a voice-over, a young person telling us, “We were the first, the pioneers, but we weren’t scared. We knew that, no matter what happened, Mother and Father would always keep us safe.”
In the first episode, one of the most arresting I have seen on television, a small craft hurtles toward the face of a planet that we are told is called Kepler-22b. The craft zooms past rock formations and desert landscapes and comes to a halt teetering over a giant hole. The camera takes us inside the metal cylinder, where we see a feminine white face in a peculiar metal helmet. A pleasant male voice offscreen says, “Nice to meet you, Mother. Did you sustain any damage during the landing?” “No, no damage. Why do you ask?” she replies. The male speaker, a Black figure in the same helmet and a silvery-blue bodysuit, explains, “My programming is telling me that it is a priority for me. Your well-being.” “And yours will be mine,” she responds. The craft moves threateningly on the precipice. “Quickly, Mother,” he says, and they begin to briskly unload their luggage. “Would you like to hear a joke while we work this out?” he asks, as he balances the weight of the craft on his back.
We understand that they are androids because of their formal diction and their phenomenal strength. “Retrievable,” Mother says, watching the craft plummet down the hole, before she hoists herself over the edge like a spider. Father tells her his joke as they walk together across the strange terrain, metal suitcases in hand. An odd mist pours over the jagged teeth of the low mountaintops that surround them. They find their spot, a stone outcropping next to a field of what look like Joshua trees. One piece of spherical luggage unfolds into a large orange yurt. Inside the yurt, Mother lies back and Father attaches cords to her. “Initiating Trimester 1,” he says, smiling warmly.
Earth, we learn, has been torn apart by war between a group of religious fundamentalists called the Mithraic, who follow a god called Sol, and militant atheists. While Mother and Father are Mithraic technology, they have been programmed by someone from the atheist camp, and tasked with raising human embryos to adulthood by dint of science and not belief. They begin with a multiracial group of six. The voice-over continues: “It was hard keeping us alive, but Mother and Father never complained, never got tired or lost their temper. And they never took time for themselves, always making sure we were happy. . . . All the bad stuff that happened wasn’t their fault. The future’s invisible, even for androids.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that, in the first episode, five of Mother and Father’s six children die, leaving only Campion, played by Winta McGrath. They are soon replaced with new children when the surviving Mithraic community arrives on Kepler-22b in an “Ark,” changing the course of human settlement on the planet (and possibly in the universe).
In a show that is full of predictable paradoxes, Mother and Father’s story is the most predictable but also the most compelling, a subset of the nature-versus-nurture debate for the post-singularity age: What is programming, and what is personality? As the show progresses, Mother is revealed to be a repurposed killing machine known as a Necromancer, while Father is a “generic service mode,” her kind, even-tempered helpmeet. Amanda Collin, as Mother, and Abubakar Salim, as Father, deliver virtuoso performances, toggling between warmth and menace, being and nothingness. You miss them when they are not onscreen; you root for their turn toward the human even when it feels like a cheat.
“Raised by Wolves,” for all that it plays with the technological future, and despite its beautiful aesthetic—everything shot in a sleek silvery light, reminiscent of Scott’s film “Prometheus”—is a bit traditionalist in its prognostications. Even in our radical post-Earth future, the Family shall have a Mother and a Father. The show almost reifies the link between femininity and gestation, eventually subverting it with a hard-to-watch but classic Ridley Scott moment in the final episode. In the moments when Mother assumes her Necromancer form, a bronzed angel of destruction flying through the air in a crucifix pose, it is simultaneously visually stunning and kind of goofy. You can almost picture the cross-stitch hanging on the rough-hewn walls of their dwelling: “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In a beautifully comic moment after things begin to unravel in the androids’ domicile, Father chides Mother for spending so many furtive hours away from their settlement—he fears that she is “not properly imprinting” the children. Even android mothers can’t have it all.
The show is haunted by Abrahamic ghosts. The Mithraic plot feels familiar almost to a fault, notwithstanding the fine performances of the five children in Mother and Father’s group, and of Travis Fimmel and Niamh Algar, playing two atheists who pose as a Mithraic power couple on the Ark, and who, like the androids, are raising a little boy who is not their biological child. There are echoes of Cain and Abel; Isaac and Ishmael; the Annunciation. And then there are those trees like Joshua trees, which were themselves named by the Mormon settlers who trudged through the dust of the Mojave. The androids’ settlement lies next to the coiled skeleton of a giant serpent.
Though I watched “Raised by Wolves” to escape—tearing through the first five episodes in a single weekend—it threw my terrestrial problems into stark relief. I find the show transporting, corny, and unexpectedly relatable. As I watch, I can’t stop thinking about how much better a job the androids are doing than my husband and I and our own machines. “Mother is killing it,” I whispered admiringly during one episode, my fretful firstborn grinding her teeth in her bunk bed upstairs. Never mind that almost all the original children perished, that they eat fungus and sinister spuds and sleep under burlap. Never mind that Mother murders a lot of humans in Episode 1. It doesn’t matter. Mother and Father are there for the kids, and, in their android way, for each other.
The solipsism born of social distancing and months of relative confinement leads me to see everything in relation to my current problem, which is online kindergarten. My kindergartner, who loves books and wants to be able to read, especially loathes Lexia, the literacy app, which kills me. I sit with her to do it. “Find the letter ‘X,’ ” a woman’s robotic voice—not at all the warm tones of Mother—instructs her over an array of letters. My daughter knows her letters; if she taps the wrong one via a slip of the finger on the touch screen, she pays for it with exhortation after exhortation: “Find the letter ‘X.’ Find the letter ‘X.’ Find the letter ‘X.’ ” I try not to say how I feel when we go through these exercises. I can’t tell her not to hate them or that they aren’t boring. She wriggles with frustration, and every day it’s more of a production to get her to sign on and sit still.
As on Kepler-22b, machines are helping to raise our children. But, for the most part, ours are not up to the task. We have the iPad and the Chromebook; we have Lexia and DreamBox and Seesaw and codeSpark and myOn. We have sumptuous entertainments. But none of these things can solve the problem of needing a hug, of needing to touch, of needing to be in school for all the many reasons kids need school, from the joyful (to learn, to socialize) to the tragic (to be fed, to be kept safe). I try to keep an open mind about what Chromebook school might do for my child; I live much of my own life on a screen, after all. But I’m seduced by the premise of “Raised by Wolves,” by the notion of Mother and Father as machines who cheerfully rear the children and hide their lessons in parables and in the chores of daily life. Their tech is beautiful, and there’s not a screen in sight.