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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Humans prepares to debate the measure of a woman

Illustration for article titled Humans prepares to debate the measure of a woman
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The big story this week once again revolves around Niska, the antihero trying to make good. More and more she’s looking like this season’s Mia, the star synth whose relationship with Laura anchors the show’s drama. To that end, Laura negotiates—or rather, accepts absolutely with no questions asked—a deal for Niska to turn herself over to an independent inspector who will rule on Niska’s consciousness. If the inspector finds that Niska’s a conscious being, she’ll have a fair trial—this on the word (specifically the word “mmhmm”) of a woman who can’t seem to look Laura in the eye and whose voice jumps an octave when asked. If not, she’ll be incinerated like every other manslaughterous synth. It’s a big deal, with implications for all of synthdom and the immediate stakes of Niska’s very survival. The momentous story recalls Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Measure Of A Man,” a courtroom episode that asks whether android commander Data has rights. It may well turn out like that, too, with a powerful dialogue about slavery and a wrenching performance of robot compliance. But for now this monumental drama is reduced to a couple fly-bys in a scattered episode that’s still just setting things up.

The problem is that thinking is the primary activity of the episode, and the writers haven’t quite figured out how to dramatize that process. There’s Laura wrestling with the decision to help Niska personally, eventually joining the inspection process in the company of a UN human rights observer. There’s Leo and Max deliberating over what to do about the man chained up in the barn, a subplot whose actions are entirely contrived for the sake of the reactions. There’s Athena studying the consciousness code uploaded to a couple lab rat synths. There’s Mattie trying to reboot Odie all on her own. And there’s Niska, sitting alone at a table in some government black site, spending hours upon hours in physical if not mental stasis.

What is Niska thinking about, the last time she was in bondage, her hopes and fears for the trial, the color blue, what? It’s a question the writers could have asked. Maybe they did. Maybe there’s absolutely nothing interesting going through the mind of this particular conscious robot who is risking her freedom, her power, and her very life in order to stand trial in a nation that doesn’t yet recognize her autonomy. Maybe she’s maximizing efficiency by keeping all thoughts at bay until absolutely required. But even granting all that, it’s possible to visualize her ability to turn off her thinking. It’s possible to dramatize Niska’s situation.

Instead she’s only on screen long enough for a few quick and painless steps on the road to the real drama. Laura presents the state’s terms to Niska, Niska acquiesces, Niska sits at a table, Laura finally shows up to make sure things are on the up and up. Emily Berrington gives a light touch to a beautiful mini-monologue just before her self-surrender, saying of all the synths who are waking up, “They should be born into a fairer world… If a thing can be free, it should be free. If it can think, it should think. If it can feel, it should feel.” That neither of these women put up any kind of legal fight until the end shows how little thinking they actually did. The government could have fried Niska and gotten away with it, but they weren’t thinking either. Contrivances like this ever so slightly cheapen everything that follows—including any potential legal status for conscious synths down the line. Why even devote episodes to putting the dominoes in place if not to ensure there are no gaps in the design?

And this is a setup episode, plain and simple, hence the three scenes in a row with new paint on the walls, or blue synth blood on the drop cloth, as the case may be. Karen and Pete resurface—hold your applause—just to reestablish their whole deal, specifically that she’s a synth cop going back to work soon now that big bad Hobb’s been shut down. Also apparently there’s a black market for some high-dollar synths for some reason. To be continued.

Humans is great at efficiently coloring in the world that’s been shaped by its central conceit of robot servants. Last week I asked about any synth-related social movements on the left, and it’s not much, but right there in the opening credits is a headline about “synth labour protests.”


More light is shed on another new social movement. A girl named Renie (Letitia Wright, who played Scotty on Cucumber and Banana) walks to school in robotic rectilinear strides with little emotion on her face. She’s a human who almost passes for a synth. Synthies, they’re called. Toby’s friend tells him what their teacher said about synthies. “We have to tolerate their lifestyle choice. Otherwise it’s a hate crime or whatever.” Now, this is the secondhand word of mouth from a kid dumb enough to hang out with Toby Hawkins, so who knows how seriously to take his words. But if Humans is getting this close to a trans allegory, it’s going to take a little more sensitivity in the future. Synthies are a protected class? What about otherkin? Later there’s a funny little moment where Sophie welcomes her dad home the same way Mia used to: “Hello, Joe.” He laughs it off, but I think we’re all about to find out how much this is not “just a phase.”

Similarly I’m not convinced the big little showdown between Milo and Dr. Morrow is very credible, but they have to do something other than burn through sentient synth bodies with callous disregard for their consciousness. Morrow thinks she has his number. “If you took half of Qualia’s cash pile, along with whatever we’re learning here, and put it in that line of research [crunching big data], you could fix the environment, Milo, health care, global economy. But no, no, there’s no glamour there, right?” With allowances for pulp shorthand, I have to say I think “fixing” the environment or health care would be awfully profitable and indeed glamorous to whatever entrepreneur corralled the funding. Milo responds with his own dumb statement of principles. At last, with synth consciousness, he says Qualia really will change the world. “And it won’t be about money. What I have in mind is… purer than you can imagine.” So that’s an awfully creepy way to argue for your selflessness, but I gather Silicon Valley isn’t exactly high on emotional intelligence.


Still Milo has nothing on Hester. Like last week, the synth awakenings are smart shortcuts to powerful drama, as robots suddenly discover they can feel and think. And in this case, that they can cause pain, and consider ethics, and feel guilt. Or not. Hester starts by asking the corporate goon tied up in the barn, “Why do you hurt us?” But very quickly it becomes clear that she’s not as calm as she sounds. She wraps a hand around his nose and mouth. “Why do you hurt us? If you answer, I’ll let you breathe.” Eventually Leo comes to the guy’s rescue, but Hester reports that her torture worked. He spilled the details on a place called the Silo, where they’re storing captured synths who have been awakened. “Was that not worth a moment of his pain?” That’s an act break, the better for us to consider her words, but, you know, no, the answer is no. Torture is not worth the information that might be gleaned from torture. As Niska is learning, there’s a reason for a communal justice system as opposed to vigilante enforcement. This is not ’Nam. There are rules.

In any event, Hester’s back-and-forth between naïve baby synth and fearsome sadist is a blast, thanks largely to her pleasant synth delivery. One moment she sounds like she’s genuinely interested in an open dialogue, and the next she’s HAL 9000 sealing the pod bay doors airtight. Even at the end of the scene she retains plausible deniability. Maybe she was never truly risking the guy’s life. She just gave him a scare to get the information she wanted. The end of the episode clears that right up. For some reason Max cuts the guy loose in the middle of the night. There’s no precipitating conversation or anything. All of a sudden Max takes it upon himself to do the right thing—well, a right thing. He could have driven the guy to a gas station or something. Instead Hester chases the guy into the woods and smashes his head into a puddle of mud until he goes limp. “The others told me what I did was wrong. I can’t understand their reasoning. But if they’re right, then I should feel guilt for this.” The question, and it’s a compelling one, is whether or not she does feel guilt. Just because she’s conscious now doesn’t mean she knows compassion. Just because she’s a hunted minority, doesn’t mean she’s not a sociopath.


Stray observations

  • Season two, episode two is written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and directed by Lewis Arnold.
  • I love when Pete’s struggling to carry home improvement supplies to cover for Karen and then the focus racks to the deep background where a synth is effortlessly assisting a customer with their own purchases.
  • V is growing in a much more comforting way than Hester. “I was imagining… landscapes. More and more I seem to imagine waterfalls.”
  • Okay, Laura does get a single good parry in with the queen’s counsel. They try to compel her to produce Niska or face obstruction of justice charges, and Laura outmaneuvers them on the grounds that she’s not Niska’s owner. Lawyered!
  • V gets a moment inside a synth body, just long enough to recognize her new experience and smile at Dr. Morrow before seizing and spitting up blue mucus like a rabid dog. V survives, but she doesn’t seem to have any thoughts about her experience in a body. Wasted opportunity.
  • Mia—who I guess is going by Anita after all, not Lisa?—uses her robot skills to update Ed’s credit profile using the keyboard upside-down. It’s awesome, at least in the moment. Ed is less pleased, however, because if she could do such a thing, it means she’s malfunctioning. What gives her away for good is when she winces in pain at the hot stove, an extraordinarily tense moment in a rushed little subplot.
  • The low-rent synth therapist is a blast. She’s not far from being some kind of interactive chatbot. “That’s interesting, Joe,” she says after he talks about supporting Laura. “You might find it helpful to articulate the reasons behind this choice.” Plus she can repeat herself in different accents.
  • The QC asks Laura about Niska: “Don’t talk much, does she?” Niska: “When I have something to say, you’ll hear me.”