“Why does she want to hurt us?” Mia asks her sister, when she finds out Karen tried to kill her.
“She’s angry that we left her,” Niska replies.
“Is that all?”
Good question, Mia. As usual, the emotional logic propelling these characters, humans and conscious synths alike, isn’t the most sensible part of Humans. The AMC-Channel 4 adaptation toned down the kitsch of Sweden’s Real Humans, but now the arbitrary ways characters behave in order to get to certain plot points sticks out. Karen has always been the most together of the conscious synths. She’s built herself a life. She found a job working in a field she cares about that benefits her community. She has a friend, maybe others. She ought to have been bright enough to choose someone a little more on her side than Pete—who’s a gust of wind away from official human supremacy—to come out to, let alone have sex with, but we all make mistakes. So, not to underestimate the intimacy of her rejection by Pete, but is that really all it takes to send Karen on a slam poetry rampage, telling everyone she meets, “Consciousness is suffering,” and springing a gun on Niska and any other siblings she runs across?
This is one example of how Humans’ lukewarm, lived-in realism, its straight-ness, threatens the plot. A little bit of Hannibal’s woozy whatever would go a long way toward selling the primal myths of these newly conscious humanoid lifeforms. As is, Karen seems more like she’s been sold out by her other creator, the writers. The saving grace is Ruth Bradley’s deeply wounded performance, her lower voice and her tremulous threats. Looking back, it doesn’t even make much sense that she chooses now to come out. What happened is, she discovered George Millican was alive, and somehow decided Niska must be with him and it was time to pull the plug on her life as Karen Voss? To which, in “Episode 7,” she adds teaming up with her old pal Hobb to track down the Elster kids in exchange for assisted suicide? And I thought Niska was a bridge too far.
Hold that thought. When Karen faces off with Niska, the ex-supervillain asks the new one, “So you’d be a traitor to your own kind?” Karen responds, “We are not a kind. We are an experiment that failed.” How quickly she fell into absolutist rhetoric. And Niska goes from being afraid for her life to daring Karen to kill her in two lines. “So you better shoot me, then.” I would say this is proof positive that even conscious synths behave nothing like humans, except, at the end when a SWAT team floods into the Hawkins home, Joe puts his hands up, like, “Everybody take it easy,” apparently not registering there are a bunch of highly trained men in full-body black with rifles aimed at everyone. Believable human behavior sometimes escapes us all.
The Niska-Karen rumble turns out to be a “Whoever wins, we lose” situation. Vera gets shot through the hand, which causes a permanent malfunction. You’d think even the conscious synths who were designed to learn would have greater motor control, or at least would be able to identify targets faster than humans. When George tries to intervene, Karen accidentally shoots him in the gut, too. This is a robotic organism and trained police officer who keeps accidentally shooting the wrong people. She’s been failed by nature and nurture both. So she flees, and George tells Niska to run, too. Then poor Odi walks down the stairs and asks if there’s anything he can do for George, kneeling next to his dying mater with his crooked arm, recounting that once-lost memory like he’s telling him about the rabbits. When Hobb shows up, he coldly tells someone to strip Odi’s memories and scrap him.
Humans hasn’t made it very challenging to maintain a cold ruthlessness toward synths so far, but the Odi story is so sentimental it’s hard not to anthropomorphize the outdated computer. In a way, Odi is junk. But whatever his limitations, he’s also George’s oldest living friend. What Odi offers, even though he can’t think or feel, is memories of their time together. He can’t do much but shoot the shit, but that’s one of the main functions of friendship. Doing it with a long-term robot companion isn’t necessarily unhealthy or pathetic. It isn’t even just sentimental, either. Their final scene together isn’t a portrait of an old man’s delusion and a computer’s inability to feel. It’s a man dying in the arms of a robot reciting a happy memory of their time together. There’s dignity in that relationship, in their devotion, even though one of them is a not-very-advanced computer program. No other story comes this close to challenging preconceived notions about synths, and now George and Odi are (presumably, although there’s still an episode left to set things up for a new season) dead.
The thrust of the episode is the Elster kids and the Hawkinses, all of them, working together to try to save Max, and as they await his resuscitation, the single setting becomes a crucible to their intra-group tensions, such as Joe and Laura, Joe and Toby, Joe and the synths he sold out, and presumably still more relationships Joe has fucked up. The robo-operation is a handy unifying premise, but you’d think there’d be a bit more urgency or precision. Instead, Leo and Mia tell everyone else what to do, and not exactly in a “Call 911!” kind of way. It’s more like, “Here are three steps I’m gonna need you to follow once you’ve dug out your laptop and plugged it into Max, who is dying, so please hurry at your earliest convenience.” When they’re ready for a synthetic fluid transfusion, basically they just funnel a bunch of Niska’s blood—diluted with ever-important electrolytes!—down Fred’s gullet to no specific location. The whole scene could have used a bit more detail, but the important thing is everyone plays a part, including Dopey, who’s instructed to talk to Max to engage his mind.
Most of the episode is about pairing up the different humans with the different conscious synths, each to great effect. Niska, who let’s not forget is a genocidal murderer (albeit a repentant one), makes a crackerjack comic duo with Soph. The little girl asks her new Frankenstein monster, “Has your hair always been like that?” Niska snaps back, “Has your face always been like that?” Meanwhile, Mattie and Leo are connecting so blatantly Joe spins his head all the way around to give them a look. Fred gives Joe a segue to open up to Toby about fatherhood and being there for your kids. (It turns out David Elster is a deadbeat robot dad.) And Mia is Laura’s new bestie, helping her in the kitchen and giving her all kinds of unsolicited advice. Turns out, she’s a ’shipper.
When Joe convinces Laura to let him in, Mia reaches out her hand.
“Anita, we’ve met before.”
“No, we haven’t. My name is Mia.”
There hasn’t been a lot of time to get into Mia’s experience under Anita’s control, but “Episode 7” gets the basics out of the way. Mia was there for most, if not all, of Anita’s experiences. She knows what Laura and Joe have said and done in private with her. And she wasn’t happy about being helpless. But she also doesn’t blame Joe for having sex with Anita-Mia, and she’s really rooting for Laura to take Joe back. She tells Joe, “I was there the whole time. You started to hate yourself before we even finished.” It’s odd that she’s so concerned about the other people involved, but then, she was designed to be subservient, and she’s just broken out of a month or so of formal servitude. Still, Humans loses track of what Mia thinks and feels about what happened to her. She may be understanding about the sex, but has a period of locked-in syndrome traumatized her? More to the point, can Mia stand up for herself when she needs to?
Because Leo sure can’t. He’s good at being moody and making decisions based on his self-centered gloom, but he absolutely crumples in sight of his mother—well, his mother’s artificial successor, Karen. He doesn’t even call out to the others, but there wasn’t anything they could do anyway, and the Hawkinses have just kicked them out due to a very late “Breaking News” segment about Niska’s attack at the synth fight club. After an episode about building and rebuilding inroads among the Hawkins-Elster alliance, the final sequence confuses everyone beautifully, starting with Mia’s discovery that the five Elsters together contain a code for conscious synth reproduction. That sorts the group into humans and synths pretty handily, both sides containing actors (Joe, Niska) that fear the other. Then comes the news report, which suddenly transforms the living room into a suspense scene where Niska’s a predator and Sophie’s sitting on her lap. Niska gets it, so she immediately freezes and puts her hands up, genuinely meaning no harm. But Sophie takes her sweet time getting down, the better to ramp up the tension. The occasion has pushed Joe and Laura back together, too. Nothing bonds people like an external bad guy. Finally come the guns, which ought to tell everyone what the two sides in this struggle really are. The question is whether Joe and Laura are listening.
- “Episode 7” is written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and directed by China Moo-Young.
- Synths sense cars the way an Up dog senses squirrels.
- Playing with Sophie, Niska voices a T-Rex: “Perhaps we should rest?” Soph as Arabella the doll: “Or go on holiday to America!” “That doesn’t make any sense. We just came back from a holiday in Spain.” Also, notice that Niska wears the same hostile face for every even marginally negative situation, which is to say she deems Soph ready for extermination in this moment.
- There’s a strange moment when Fred freezes for a bit and then snaps out of it. Joe tries to laugh it off, all “Lost you there for a minute,” but he falls back on his heels like he’s trying to sneak out of frame.
- Mia: “The man who made us didn’t think bodies were important.” Oh, god, the code is going to be David Elster’s mind, isn’t it?
- Niska warns Leo about Karen after he’s already practically hugging her. “She tried to kill me. I couldn’t tell you before. I needed your mind to be clear.” Oh, brother. That was Glee-level arbitrary.
- Mattie: “It’s dangerous out there for them.” Joe: “It’s dangerous in here for us.”
- There’s an anti-synth protest in town. Laura asks, “Why are they so scared of you?” Mia says, “I think it’s our plan to conquer the planet and make humanity our slaves.”