The first season of Humans saw the advent of humanoid robot servants, or synths, as a chamber drama, a microscopic view of relationships buckling under the pressure of the new world order. If the premiere is anything to go on, the second season zooms out to find a globe-trotting political thriller. The episode hops all over the map from a Bolivian mine to a Berlin nightclub. New characters stand in for powerful institutions, like Silicon Valley tech capitalist Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman, which is a pretty on-the-nose surname for a Humans cast member). And interpersonal ethical dilemmas are yielding to bigger questions, like how a conscious synth might fit into the justice system. Loathe as I am to keep calling Humans promising, the premiere is just setting up the dominoes. So far the design is beautiful.
Take Niska, the conscious synth who killed a human, swiped the hard-won code to program consciousness into other synths, and fled England without looking back. With her fearless forward drive and pitiless android sarcasm, she’d be a great character if not for all that unearned supervillainy and refusal to engage logic that you’d think would appeal to her, not to be speciesist. Throughout season one, Niska was treated with kid gloves as the traumatized and therefore relatively justified rebel robot. She was presented as generally sympathetic in a way that neglected her crimes.
Creators Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent didn’t give her a soft update between seasons. Instead they organically write her back into sympathy where they want her. First they show Niska fleeing the world of men, which sold her into sex slavery, into the arms of a woman. She shacks up with Astrid (Bella Dayne) in Berlin for almost two months. “Are you sure you want this?” Astrid asks on their first night together. Niska Niskas, “You’ll know when I don’t.” Next the writers find some semblance of conviction in her supervillainy. Niska carries out something like a cyberterror attack. She uploads the consciousness code to a server, ostensibly to be downloaded by every synth on that network. It seems to fail in the moment, but over the coming weeks, around the world, one by one, synths are waking up. And it’s not just about Niska’s personal vengeance this time. Finally, the writers show Niska’s sincere attempt to make good. She tells Astrid she’s in Berlin to contemplate a decision, which I naturally assumed had to do with her status as one-woman judge, jury, and executable filer of synth consciousness. Instead, it turns out it has to do with facing an actual jury. In the final scene, she shows up at the Hawkinses’ and declares her intention to stand trial—but only as a conscious being with rights. By the end of the episode, Niska’s the star of the show, and now the writers have a much firmer grip on her.
The Hawkinses are a bunch of sparks with no real fire yet, but it’s early to see what will catch. Laura and her sleazy husband, Joe, are trying to move on, with a house under construction. Their contractor is a synth, to boot. Yes, it’s gonna take more than discovering their malfunctioning synth nanny is actually a sentient being with thoughts and feelings to turn these bourgey white people off synth servants altogether. Meanwhile Sophie is clinging to Mia’s shoes in the hopes that she returns someday, Mattie wants to get back involved in the fight for synth justice, and the boy is probably discovering some particularly perverted corners of the internet. The most interesting development is Joe getting made redundant—by a synth. The drama is too juicy for the little attention it gets. Here’s Joe, the most chauvinistic of the Hawkinses, trying desperately to make it up to his family of synth-lovers. And now he’s losing his paycheck to a damn robot who can’t possibly maintain relationships the way Joe has, notwithstanding his present home life. Unfortunately there’s very little time to watch him squirm, but it does hurt when he sees himself through his daughter’s disappointed eyes.
The bigger question is just as interesting, but goes unaddressed: How does a wealthy nation respond to a strong robot labor force? Does this Britain offer universal basic income? Is there any reason for most people to have to work at all in a job they don’t want? In season one we see one social movement arise in the wake of synths, a traditionalist human supremacist hate group. But what about on the left? Are there protesters on behalf of guaranteed income, synth rights, or immigration, which would surely be affected by synths usurping most low-skill jobs? As Humans zooms out, it’s exciting to see the global impact of the conscious synths, but it sticks out more when questions like these are ignored.
Speaking of global impact, Niska’s bomb detonates all over the world. The first synth to wake up goes by Ten (Raphael Acloque), though he’s still considering a name like Sam, Ralph, or Radiator. Ten is a Bolivian miner who wirelessly receives Niska’s update and suddenly stops working. Between seasons, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld raised the bar for visual depictions of robots achieving sentience. Humans doesn’t live up to Thandie Newton’s wordless walk through the factory where she was made on Westworld, but the shot of the episode is Ten’s ascension up the mineshaft, the shadow of the elevator grate narrowing on his face as the newly conscious man looks up toward the light.
Unfortunately Ten gets sniped by corporate goons chasing another runaway conscious synth, Hester (Sonya Cassidy). Presumably there are many others all over the world, but in the seven or so weeks the episode covers, Leo and Max only manage to rescue a Bolivian miner and a Nottingham chemical worker, and one of them gets killed. Needless to say, the ragtag robot refugees are not living up to their potential. Considering they’re the epicenter of synth consciousness, their goals are awfully small. Mia’s the only one with any personal desires, and hers is just to spend time with people, that is, humans. So she’s working in disguise as an unconscious synth named Lisa at a restaurant on the coast. She may or may not have a thing for the cute owner, Ed (Sam Palladio), but one accidental word brings their relationship into focus: She has to be a mindless drone when she’s with him. It’s a great moment and a quick recovery, but how long can Team Mia stay in hiding?
One newly conscious synth not lucky enough to make it to Stratford-Upon-The-Down-Low instead winds up in the care of tech magnate Milo Khoury. Insulated by his coterie of lawyers and deep pockets, Milo doesn’t feel the need to disguise his intentions. He wants to figure out why Artie (Sam Woolf), the guest of honor at his Apple-store-looking psych ward, has suddenly gained consciousness so he can replicate it and corner the market. But he doesn’t have the tech know-how, so he has to woo Carrie-Anne Moss’ Dr. Athena Morrow, which is one of those names that destines you to become a scientist on a sci-fi show.
Dr. Morrow works at an underfunded lab where she’s keeping some secrets of her own: a sentient neural network or two. Rumor has it she once had 16 operating, but they started self-deleting. The more delicious intrigue comes at the end of an act, when the female neural network, V (voiced by Chloe Wicks), reveals she’s sentient and that Dr. Morrow wanted her to keep it a secret from Milo. I’m sure there’s much more backstory and conspiracy and orphans black to come from this subplot, but for now it’s all summed up in Moss’ circumspect distance. She won’t give Milo an inch, in dialogue, in blocking. She plays her cards close to the vest until her final line, about poor Artie. “This the only one?” she asks. Milo ever so subtly shakes his head, playfully underplaying this enormous discovery. “Good,” she says, “because I’m gonna need to take it apart.”
- Season two, episode one is written by series creators Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent and directed by Lewis Arnold.
- Astrid tells her new lover, “You don’t talk much.” Niska responds, “Talk is mostly noise.”
- One of the strengths of season one was that each synth revealed so much about the conceit, such as the wireless synth communication, the way different models have different programs, and the setup instructions. In that vein, I loved the characterization of Ten. He walks very fast toward his goal with no modulation, and he speaks mostly in Spanish. He explains to his comrades, via subtitles, “As a basic industrial model, I was never fitted with a language package.” Max and Hester apparently were fitted with such programming, so they understand, Leo not so much.
- After Ten makes a long hard sell to Hester, all in Spanish, Leo asks Max what he said. Max just replies, “Nice things.”
- Milo speaks that Silicon Valley-ese about wanting to make the world a better place. He tells Dr. Morrow that her lack of funding is “immoral” and that he wants the market to serve her. It’s very Veridian Dynamics.
- The midnight ring of the doorbell wakes the entire Hawkins household up. Niska’s standing there. “Can I come in? If I was here to kill you all, I wouldn’t have rung the bell.”