You can tell “Episode 5” is off to a weak start when it begins by contradicting “Episode 4.” Last we saw Laura and Joe, they were resolute about keeping Anita for all her quirks, and now Laura and Joe are ready to ship Anita off because she’s an ancient model who’s been illegally modified and such. But wait! A couple lines into the scene and Laura flip-flops again: “So Anita’s old and weird,” she tells Joe. “If that’s a good enough reason to get rid of her, then we’re next.” First of all, make up your mind. But more importantly, that’s at least in the running for the dumbest argument to come out of a Hawkins’ mouth, and that’s saying a lot. Anita is not a human being. Mia is, or is close enough anyway, but they don’t know about Mia. This is nothing like shipping off the parents when they get too old. Repeat after me: Recycling your iPod is not the same thing as Logan’s Run. Why do the writers insist on exploring the central questions about a world of evolving AI through the dumbest characters?

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It’d be one thing if they had emotional intelligence at least. That way you’d understand that they’re not debating philosophy, just reacting naturally to their sci-fi situation. But that’s not in great supply in the Hawkins household, either. Consider Toby, who gets accused of perving on Anita when Mattie discovers the Adult Options have been activated. Toby laughs her off, because it’s absurd. He voices one strong piece of evidence in his favor—he’s not old enough to activate the Adult Options—and for some reason, maybe because he doesn’t know, which again speaks to the intelligence deficit on our stage, doesn’t say anything about the other—he’s not the primary user. As Anita says to Joe, “There must be physical contact with my primary user to enable activation.” So it couldn’t have been Toby. Not even Mattie could get away with an illegal hack, so that should be out of the question too. It was obviously Joe.

But Toby takes the fall for no reason other than a twist of the plot. When Joe asks him outright why he did it, he says he wanted to know the truth. But the truth was, again, obvious, and even if not, would have certainly come out on its own, all without Toby taking any licks, as it were. Is it really worth it to this kid to claim to his mom that he fucked the sex doll just so he can get his dad to confess? Is that something a human being would do?

Then there’s the other side. Laura sits alone at the kitchen table just stewing over the incident. Come on. I’m not saying it’s exactly the same as finding out your son masturbates. It’s probably something like finding a sex doll in his bedroom. Humans has done a great job of objectifying the vast majority of synths. They behave like dumb machines, and people tend to take them for granted. Think of Peter blowing off the synth at work who tells him he’s breaking the rules, or the synth waiters at the diner. If you actually lived in the synth-ridden society of Humans, it would be difficult to resist thinking of synths as appliances. They’re so remarkably sub-human. And imagine the news reports and survey data about how often synths are used for sex. How normal it must be becoming. Clearly it’s still strange—witness Peter sneering to Jill and Simon, “People are laughing at you”—but it would only shock the naive. Now, it’s surely awkward to talk with your kid about sex, and not in the abstract. But the fact that Toby supposedly had sex with Anita is not that out there. Maybe you don’t want him hogging all her cleaning time, but at least it’s safe. And, you know, he specifically turned down the option to have sex with a human already, so the train is leaving the station one of these days. What’s so wrong with him having sex with Anita?

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Still, just because I think it’s okay for Toby to have sex with Anita, that doesn’t mean there’s not an understandable human explanation for Laura’s outsized disappointment. The availability of free, safe sex in this case is complicated by Anita’s synth-hood and Toby’s youth. Toby’s young and dumb. Laura would want to be careful about making sure he socializes well. She wouldn’t want him developing emotional feelings for a computer. You don’t want your son to end up on My Strange Addiction. Relatedly, there’s something ultimately uncanny about synths, which is pronounced during such a revealing and human act as sex. At least if Toby has disappointing, detached sex with a human, he’d be interacting with another sentient being. His sexual relationship would be balanced, not purely one-sided, and his partner would not be just an object to get him off, not that that’s necessarily unhealthy. The thing is, Laura doesn’t voice any of these complaints. She seems to just find the whole thing icky. Which is a human reaction, but it’s even lazier in its exploration of humanity than it is in its consideration of the ethics.

Similarly, when she finds out Joe was the one who had sex with Anita—and by the way, knowing he activated the Adult Options doesn’t mean he necessarily took advantage of them, so why doesn’t he even try to lie his way out of it?—she calls Joe a cheat. I repeat: Come on. Is this that far off from having a vibrator? What complicates it is Laura’s relationship with Anita. Whatever Anita empirically is, Laura has a distinct and strange relationship to her, if not exactly with her. The spine of the first few episodes is Laura worrying that Anita is usurping her position in the family. Now to find out her husband is sleeping with Anita, too, and after she had finally made a sort of peace with Anita, well, that would feel like betrayal. But again Humans doesn’t really voice any of this. Again the complaint is that it’s icky. Anita lives in their house, Laura says. What, like he slept with the au pair? There’s a perfectly understandable human reason for Laura’s reaction here, but Humans rests on the cliché.

And what’s up with Vera? The Millican story has been about reversing synth-human relationships, but suddenly we’re back to normal. Vera’s so powerless now she can’t even make logical sense of the fact that a human being with no cardiac or respiratory activity must not be a human being, even if she claims otherwise. Imagine the drama of an overbearing Vera snooping around Niska’s visit. Imagine Vera coming to George’s rescue for a change when Niska catches him reading a newspaper article about the killer synth. There’s potential here, but it remains potential, because everyone’s been dumbed down for “Episode 5.”

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The really provocative stuff comes in a fly-by scene where Peter catches Jill and Simon out at a café. What does he expect, for her to stay cooped up at home? I’m only disappointed we don’t get to see Simon carry her in. Anyway, Peter says everyone’s laughing at her, which is not in evidence—clearly he’s just projecting—but she doesn’t call him on it, probably because she’s insecure about the relationship, whatever it is, anyway. Instead she tells him those hypothetical gossips can fuck right off. Finally, someone willing to consider her relationship to a synth by her own standards, not societal convention. Then comes the stakes. Peter informs her the insurance money has run out, so Simon has to go unless she wants to foot the bill. Suddenly I felt sad and frustrated for Jill, and only partly because she still has medical reasons to need Simon around. Her face is a picture of helplessness, and Simon’s is pleasant as always, a perfect encapsulation of the human-synth relationship.

Last comes the knife. Jill lists all the things she likes about Simon, her points sharpened and aimed to hit Peter where it hurts. She doesn’t have to walk on eggshells around Simon, she doesn’t have to wonder if he still loves her, she doesn’t have to worry about his moods. In short, she doesn’t have to care about his feelings. It’s supposed to be her big, triumphant break-up anthem, but your fist only gets halfway up before the misgivings arise. That’s her picture of a happy relationship? An object who cares for her, loves her like a puppy dog, is programmed to snap into sex mode, and has no thoughts or feelings of his own? There’s no way she’s actually happy like that. Humans thrive on challenge. It’d be like talking to yourself all day. And deep down, I suspect no one who grew up in a pre-synth world could ever fully suppress the knowledge that synths aren’t people. Any serious look at Jill’s life with Simon would let all the air out of this speech, but in one simple little scene, Humans presents a more complex look at the human-synth relationship than anything in the rest of the episode.

Stray observations

  • “Episode 5” is written by Emily Ballou and directed by Lewis Arnold.
  • Mythology Time: Lots of boring backstory comes out this week, confirming a lot of suspicions. George Millican had a falling out with David Elster over the prospect of synth consciousness. Hobb fell out with David, too, but we don’t know why yet. Leo supposedly died after drowning, hence his cybernetic resurrection. And inside each member of the Final Five is part of the code for synth consciousness, that is, AI. Great, can we get back to talking about when it’s okay to fuck a robot?
  • Because of that last part, not the robot sex but the AI code, Hobb is ordered to demolish the synth he already has. Without Fred, the code is incomplete, and sentient machines are limited to just a handful. He presents a charred rubber corpse, but the fact that we can’t identify it as Fred tells us all we need to know. It’s probably the dumbest decision on the show so far, considering the threat of AI, but this, too, ought to have posed an interesting dilemma. The state executes a sentient humanish being who has committed no crime just to keep its coding secret? Imagine the look on poor Fred’s face. At least if they captured Niska, they’d have cause to sentence her to death. They’d have a way to kill two birds with one stone, as it were. Poor Fred is part of a cover-up, so there’s no public outrage from synth allies, but still. The people in charge don’t dig very deep on this issue.
  • There is one good scene at the Hawkinses, when the recyclers show up for Anita. Mattie high-tails it out of there with Anita in tow. Anita, apparently unaware of the danger she’s in, turns to Mattie and says, “Please reconsider this course of action, Mattie. It’s very unsafe.”
  • Niska remains a total bore, and it’s even rubbing off on moody Leo. What a waste of humanity she is. Yeah, yeah, her experiences shaped her, and those experiences don’t reflect well on humanity. She’s still a drip. At least Magneto is funny.
  • Laura, on Toby and Anita: “She stopped him being run over, and he does that to her.” What are you talking about?! What is the connection between those two clauses?! Get a grip.

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