This morning I woke up to a news story that took me back to 2006 when Facebook commenters poured one out for Pluto despite the fact that nothing actually happened to the little guy when it was downgraded to a dwarf planet and beyond that, who knew all these people gave a damn about Pluto? The new hubbub concerns HitchBOT, the Canadian robot, well, tablet dressed up like a dumpster diver with hopes, well, programmed goals of being carted by humans from Boston to San Francisco. HitchBOT made it as far as Philadelphia before being vandalized, and because the nomad had already successfully traversed Germany and Canada, we’re all supposed to take this as a black mark on America’s human rights record or something. We’re all supposed to go full Niska. But it only takes one person to end the game. Think of how many humans stopped driving, picked up this strange robot, and carted it to the next city. Even in America, far more of us were Lauras than Joes.
When Laura asks the impromptu robot gathering in her living room, “Are we safe?” meaning human-humans, Max responds that they’re the ones being hunted, meaning synth-humans. Given the way things were going there for a while, I’m surprised to say that’s true. Synth consciousness doesn’t in itself pose any more genocidal danger than HitchBOT. Despite Fred’s breakout in an action sequence made with tender loving boredom, and Niska’s attack on the he-man synth-haters club, the Elster kids aren’t threats the way AI is usually depicted. They don’t have magical computer control of our electronic networks. They can’t just zap away our money or our records, and they can’t hack into defense systems and launch nukes. They don’t even share with other synths. They’re discrete units whose personalities are shaped by experience. If they’re threats, well, there’s a reason for that.
That is to say one of the many whammies in this knockout is the revelation that Niska was made by her creator not to be a friend for Leo but to be a sex slave for David. There’s a grand canyon between that and people patronizing the synth brothels or Joe having sex with what he thought was just your basic model synth. David Elster created a bunch of friends for his only child who grew up in seclusion. First Mia, a nanny who became a friend. Next a same-sex pal, Fred. Then he created a hot blonde. I wonder if there’s more to the story with him and Mia, but at the very least, David Elster programmed and manufactured a conscious, self-aware android who can think and feel, and he took advantage of her. Max says Leo doesn’t trust humans, and it makes sense now that we know his childhood. He didn’t grow up with them. But Niska’s experience of humanity is far more traumatic. She’s a survivor of abuse. She knew shame almost as soon as she knew consciousness. There still isn’t a lot of sound argumentation behind her supervillain worldview, but suddenly there’s a whole lot more emotional logic.
Accordingly, it’s a little soon for one man’s kindness to start breaking through her barriers, but “Episode 6” has places to be, and the writers know we get the point already. Besides, George is smart enough to puncture Niska’s absolutist rhetoric in ways that get through to her. And after an episode all about the plight of the Elster kids, there’s something uplifting about seeing George and Niska working to resurrect Odi. Even Vera doesn’t seem so bad at the moment, despite that frustrating reminder about health care overreach: “My GP gets notified if she’s powered down too long.”
After weeks of asking the philosophical questions, “Episode 6” goes right for the gut. It’s all the more impressive after Humans has made the case against the final five pretty effectively. Anita kidnaps Sophie, and Niska kills someone. These are dangerous people no matter how we classify them. But now here’s a moving story about the poor lives these people have had, and it happens almost effortlessly. It starts in the background, even, while Laura tells Mattie about this Tom fellow, who it turns out is her brother who died on her watch as a kid, creating bad blood between Laura and her mother. A whole bunch of wheels click into place: Mattie’s shock at learning she has a grandmother, Laura’s confession that her big trip at the start of the series was to her mother’s, the reasoning being she was afraid of losing Mattie. Put it all together and Laura’s reactions to Anita make even more sense, and she’s been going through all this alone.
That’s just the setup for the real heart of the episode, the tragedy of the Elster kids. First there’s a cutaway to Anita taking in the bonding moment between Laura and Mattie, or not, who knows, but there’s something going on behind those eyes. On the car ride home, the camera just pushes in until the driver and passenger are out of frame and we’re just staring at Anita as they chit chat. It looks like she might start crying, like she’s on the verge of some emotional reaction, and suddenly Mia gasps for air, and it’s the most moving and triumphant moment of the series so far. Laura and Mattie’s instincts are comical evidence that the writers do understand humans after all: They immediately pull over and get out of the car without even looking back at Anita until they’re safely outside the vehicle. Imagine how scary that would be, how the immensity of their interaction had safely sidelined Anita in their immediate thinking until the moment she inhales in a panic right over their shoulders. The scene is a triangle of love and compassion—Laura’s protective instincts, Mia’s appeal for help, Mattie’s sympathy—and it permanently unites the Hawkins women. Which heightens the disappointment of the inevitable moment Anita takes over Gemma Chan’s body again, and she reverts to stiffer language and motions.
It’s also notable that the resurfacing makes a sort of common sense, to this layman anyway. It’s not exactly “love conquers all.” It’s the idea that this intense experience of your brother dying is something that happened to Mia, and so hearing about it jogged Anita’s memory just enough to pull Mia to the surface, since Mia and her memories are essentially a code buried somewhere in there.
Fred’s had weeks of tragedy already, so now he’s on the upswing. He tells a story about humans underestimating him—specifically his qualities of compassion, resourcefulness, and determination—and he punctuates it by punching through a door to choke out the man who was apparently standing guard there. He only incapacitates Hobb and the other guards, but strangulation is how Niska became a murderer, so Fred may or may not have joined her. Again, the action sequence isn’t very thrilling after that initial punch, but afterward, he’s free, and so are his siblings, and for the first time it looks like the Stark kids might be reunited.
There is one more moment of triumph before the end. After some unconvincing hacking or whatever, Leo brings Mia to the surface, permanently this time. I can’t believe it, but I teared up. It’s partly the resurrection, partly the slave liberation, partly the family reunion, partly Gemma Chan’s warm but assertive performance, but it all makes for an exciting payoff to a story that hasn’t been that compelling until this episode (the Elster kids reunion, that is; the Mia story has been a blast).
Naturally, Karen’s looking a lot more sympathetic, too. She’s more advanced than Anita and Simon, and new hints are pointing to some connection with George Millican, possibly because she’s his version of the sentient code. Anyway, Karen has sex with Pete so she can reveal her secret, which he naturally takes as an Oldboy-level twist, but at least he doesn’t beat her to death, and I was bracing for that possibility even before they slept together. Humans is pretty cuddly when you get down to it. It’s the Elster kids who are the tragic heroes (and antiheroes and villains), but with obsolete Odi and unconscious Vera and rejected Karen, all of the synths, not just the sentient ones, get in on the emotional appeal this week.
And then fuckin’ Joe comes along and earns his status as villain. He had made a mistake with Anita, because really Anita’s a brainwashed personality of Mia, who was locked in her own body, but apparently none of the Hawkinses are very sympathetic to that argument, or any logical argument. Toby is particularly dopey about the whole thing. Poor kid’s growing up. And you have to suspend your disbelief about Joe’s positioning through the whole climax. He’s just standing outside waiting for Leo to leave, and they’re all cool with that? That’s a normal thing to do? And then when they get Mia back, nobody thinks to show Joe? I’d love to hear what Mia thinks about him. Anyway, the fact is the Hawkinses and their new alliance with the Elsters—team captain, Laura, naturally—leave Joe out in the cold, so he calls the cops, and that’s that. Max sacrifices himself to save Leo by jumping in the river where he’ll supposedly be unfindable. I don’t know that this is death. Surely synths are waterproof, and the river isn’t that deep. But after all this, the Elsters are back to being hunted by people who would exterminate them. The episode ends with a perfect summation, a close-up on Max and his megawatt smile losing charge as his eyes close.
- “Episode 6” is written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and directed by Lewis Arnold. (Update: I saw the original UK version, and it contained a scene that wasn’t in the AMC version but probably will be. Apologies.)
- AMC and Channel 4 renewed Humans for another season of eight episodes!
- Hobb tells Fred he’s basically a cyborg, too, because he has a pacemaker. In case you, like me, were wondering, according to research, TASERs have no effect on pacemakers.
- “The Anita personality identifies me as rogue code. Tries to delete me.” There’s much more drama there than Humans gets at—mental and physical deterioration, body horror, slavery—but just telling this story through Gemma Chan’s back-and-forth performance gets plenty of pain across.
- Max: “If I die, it means I’ve lived.”