“Unless there is a fault, sir,” a voice on the phone tells George, “there are no grounds for replacing or returning your assigned care unit.”
“Your assigned care unit.” Finally, some straight-up dystopian language. “Episode 2” moves like a soap opera, incrementally advancing every story without much concern for a unifying bow, which at least means there’s no nonsense Mohinder monologue. The story that digs the deepest is poor George trying to shake his new synth, Vera (Rebecca Front). As the episode goes on, we learn a few unsettling things about her. First, she disobeys George’s orders, serving him a healthier breakfast than the one he asks for. Then she reveals she reports any violation of George’s medication intake to his GP. Finally, it turns out, she snitches on way more than medication. Any time she makes a recommendation that George disobeys, she tattles on him. Because her primary user isn’t George at all. It’s the local health authority. This takes George and Odi’s adorable role reversal and goes nuclear.
Humans is approaching medical drama territory, such as a cancer diagnosis that requires rigorous treatment to extend the lifespan by a year or two but at some immeasurable cost to the pleasure the patient takes in life. For a human, that might be a gray area. Or, for many, a black and white one: It’s ultimately up to the patient, not the family or the state. But it’s not hard to imagine a situation like this of enforced social services where many of your decisions are superceded by that of a nanny robot that knows what’s best for you, in a chilling, actuarial sort of way.
Then the second knife in George’s side: He’s complaining about his synth on a hotline run by a synth. George doesn’t hear it, but the second synth does offer an option to speak to a human, which is exactly the kind of detail Humans nails. This is the pre-apocalypse. Synths are consistently gentle and servile, such that even as a skeptic I could easily imagine myself, personally unable to stop the tide, getting a synth to make my life easier and feeling perfectly safe in a crowd of them. There are human bypasses, like the hotline representative and user programming. There are apparent failsafes that would make humans feel comfortable. But this society is already past the point of no return. And person by person, the characters on Humans are discovering that for themselves.
Last week I wrote off Mattie as whining when she complained about not having any job prospects. There are plenty of reasons to apply yourself in school: to increase your knowledge, to develop critical thinking, to cultivate intellectual interests. But it’s also reasonable to expect teenagers, already prone to moodiness, not to see the light at the end of the synth tunnel. I don’t see it, either, and from my cursory research it looks like many AI thinkers don’t, either. “There’s literally nothing I can do that a dolly can’t do better,” says Mattie’s friend Harun. Maybe all they can hope for is to maintain some semblance of humanity, to fall in love and do silly things and try to live their lives as best they can within the structure of the synthpocalypse. Hence Mattie and Harun’s refreshing moments of teen drama, falling for each other off to the side like the individual prom in Contagion.
That said, I didn’t want Mattie to shoot Anita last week. Poor Anita, I thought. She didn’t ask for any of this. That’s my stupid humanity talking, or it would be if we were talking about almost any other synth, like Odi or Vera, who don’t have feelings. They would experience some sort of hardware damage at most. Part of the reason George speaks to me is I’m the guy who gets frustrated when every new software upgrade takes away user control and makes every function an auto-hassle. Computers, including household servant robots, should be tools, right? Not independent lifeforms?
That’s why I think the Niska story doesn’t have it quite right, or if it does, then Humans hasn’t devoted nearly enough attention to it. In the premiere Niska’s an over-the-top tragedy, the consequence of our society having no place for these sentient synths, who would be studied and destroyed if discovered by humans. The framing rubs it in our faces. How dare we, I guess. In “Episode 2,” she’s had enough. A client wants her to play young and scared, and apparently that’s where Niska draws the line. She chokes him out (possibly to death, but I’ll be conservative and say to unconsciousness), and then she walks out in a trenchcoat. She picks up the kitchen knife conveniently lying on the counter of the lobby of the bordello and presses it to her madam’s throat. “Everything your men do to us, they want to do to you,” she tells her before walking out in fist-pump of liberation.
At least, that’s how Humans plays it. Okay, let’s assume Niska’s right. Isn’t it better for society that the odious clients of the knife-on-the-counter bordello take out their sadistic impulses on robots who can’t feel, who were in fact designed to receive such behavior? Even if the clients do wish they were abusing human women—and that’s another stretch that I think would snap in two after a single skim of a sex worker’s blog—isn’t it better for those fantasies to be explored with robots, not humans? The real issue is that Niska is a sentient robot being who can feel and who would rather not be working in such a grim joint. It’s true that she has the ability to flip a switch and turn off her feelings, but she sees no such option. It’d be like denying your sexuality. The problem is she’s on the lam because of who she is, and her options are severely limited.
Which is another byproduct of a synth society. Every new robot comes with miles of invisible strings to other robots and agencies, expanding an already outrageous bureaucracy into everyone’s every waking moment. Mattie tells us that when synths meet, they exchange data wirelessly. Silently. What information in particular, I wonder. The point is, it takes a lot of effort to get away with anything in a society run and socially, if not physically, enforced by machines that see right and wrong as black and white.
Hence, Leo and Max living in the margins. They visit Silas (Paul Kaye), the chop shop programmer who reformatted Anita. Hearing that, Leo attacks Silas, but Max has to just stand there lest he reveal he’s not your average synth. Before the fight, Max seems like the most clearly human of the synths, the way his eyebrows move, the passion in his voice. During the fight, Ivanno Jeremiah is the main attraction, subtly struggling to maintain the polite robot smile before finally joining the fray, showing Silas there are synths who can initiate contact and indeed bring harm to humans, synths who have preferences and emotions, synths who are somehow human. Synths also seem to have a bit of extraordinary strength—Simon carrying Jill, Niska attacking that client—but the way Max breaks Leo’s fall and walks him through the streets suggests he’s not Colossus. Just a bit sturdier than most of us is all.
Silas clearly isn’t very good at his job, because Anita is as sentient as ever. Turns out she didn’t kidnap Sophie at the end of “Episode 1.” She just took her for a walk in the rain, as you do, and Sophie didn’t wake up even when Anita changed her pajamas. Strangely Anita’s cunning enough to play semantics about the incident, but not enough to hide the evidence. The whole Hawkins family story in “Episode 2” is basically Anita sticking her tongue out at Laura but smiling when everyone else turns to look. So there are some beautifully human moments, like Laura trying to win back her kids from their new mom, and then there are absurd predictabilities like Joe laughing at his own wife for having pretty reasonable concerns about the tall, creepy humanoid robot walking around their house.
But I was right to think “Poor Anita,” last week. Where the Niska story is a giant pit, the Anita story is an ant farm. Anita’s not a threat, but she acts like one. She’s stuck. She’s been kidnapped and reprogrammed, and maybe some of it even took. She only has flashes of memories, well, memory, one traumatic incident involving a van crashing into water. She doesn’t belong there, but where can she go?
Laura doesn’t know the answer to the second part, but she’s putting her foot down about the first. She calls the store to return Anita after she says something odd. They’re talking about how computers can break, and how Anita might be able to lie out of malfunction. And eventually Anita hisses, “I will always keep Sophie safe.” That does it for Laura, who goes to call the store. But Sophie’s crying upstairs for her mother, and Anita shows up instead. She calms Sophie down about the wolf under her bed. And minutes after telling Laura that she can’t contravene her programming, Anita disobeys Laura’s order and hugs Sophie. Now that’s a tragic situation. Anita’s just trying to do the right thing, but it’s easy to see from Laura’s perspective why her actions look dangerous. Everyone’s trying to do what’s best, and the result is Sophie losing a friend, the Hawkinses falling back into a barely manageable household, and Anita being subjected to god knows what.
- “Episode 2” is written by series developers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and directed by Sam Donovan.
- That old man, whose name is Hobb (Danny Webb) is on Leo’s trail. He’s also still trying to study Fred. “He’s the Mona Lisa. He’s penicillin. He’s the atom bomb.” He’s right. The only problem is Humans seems to be presenting AI synths as dangerous only in response to human violence as opposed to an actual Singularity. Not sure how Hobb’s position, a commonly held one, jibes with what we’ve seen of the sentient synths yet.
- Laura tells Anita, “I’m watching you.” “I’m watching you, too, Laura.” Laura’s taken aback, and at last Anita continues, “You’re right in front of me.”
- Mattie and Harun try to hack a custodial synth at school, but it recognizes the illegal modification and alerts the school board. Failsafes.
- George complains about Vera: “There’s no fault. It’s just that she’d be better suited guarding a chain gang on a Siberian gulag.”
- Simon’s a temp. Apparently he was sent by the insurance company. Can’t wait to find out how Jill copes with him leaving.
- After Laura freaks out about Anita, Joe looks at her and asks, “What happened in Leeds?” Allow me to answer his question with a question: Who cares? Not every sci-fi show needs this mysterious backstory business. There’s already plenty going on as it is.
- Toby wants to fuck Anita. He gropes her breast, and she wakes up saying, “Inappropriate physical contact between myself and secondary users must be reported to a primary user.” But then she covers for him, saying there was no such contact, so nothing needs to be reported. How sweet. In the original show, Real Humans, the incident is a bit different. Toby (Tobbe?) touches Anita up her leg, but soon becomes so nervous and weirded out that he stops on his own. So Real Humans kind of leaves the door open, whereas Humans has strict procedures in place to prevent Toby from experimenting on his family’s synth.
- Odi: “The bulb is reaching the end of its useful life.” George: “Aren’t we all?”