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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pushing Niska’s buttons flusters the Humans more than the synth

Photo: Colin Hutton/AMC
Photo: Colin Hutton/AMC
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“You want me to be more human? Casually cruel to those closest to you, then crying over people you’ve never met?”


The fact that Niska’s obstinance (which borders on impertinence) during her “consciousness testing” does not register with Neha Patel as a flash of emotion is a sign that the QC doesn’t really know what she’s looking for here. As we saw last week, the fugitive synth was taken into custody—or whatever the appropriate term would be for an entity whose fitness to stand trial is currently being assessed—while Laura looked on helplessly. She’s now in a bit of a pickle: if she’s deemed conscious, then she’ll be prosecuted for murder. If she’s not, she’ll be destroyed. It’s a life (sentence) or death situation, and should be enough to provoke some display of anxiety or fear, or even anger over her circumstances. It’s not like Niska woke up one day and randomly killed someone—that old creep was going to force himself on her, after all.

And Niska knows what’s being asked of her in this setting, even if she doesn’t find the request reasonable. In an inverse of that famous Clockwork Orange scene, she’s subjected to whatever the near-future’s equivalent of Anne Geddes photography (who knows, maybe it’s still Anne Geddes), while a technician monitors her for some response. Laura scoffs that he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, a statement that’s probably meant for Neha, too. But the parameters of their tests tell us more about Neha and her colleague than they could ever possibly reveal about the blond synth; they’re essentially treating her like a human female, showing her pictures of babies and pretty things. Because they can’t measure physiological responses—accelerated heart rate, dilated pupils—they have to rely on Niska vocalizing her reactions. Because she doesn’t seem to give a shit, she has nothing to say.

There’s a subtle humor to these exchanges, which lead up to Niska’s cutting observation about how humans hurt the ones they love while being reflexively fawning over snapshots of significant moments in the lives of complete strangers. They also do important work in strengthening the bond between Niska and Laura; when the ersatz synth rights attorney presses her client to discuss things like just how quickly she could dispatch of Laura, the synth briefly falters in responding. And when Laura gets Niska to open up about her assault, she ends up doing what Neha did—drawing from the experiences or perspective of a woman—but with different results. But, Niska’s incisiveness aside, there’s no significant breakthrough as far as the QC’s concerned. Laura’s discovery of the blue band and Astrid’s number indicate she’s already working on a new plan, though.

All these comparisons and distinctions being made play into one of Humans’ central themes, which questions what our humanity means. Not just what comprises it, but what, if anything, makes it enviable, and what, if anything, could make you lose it. That’s examined through the treatment of the synth workers, as well as the fleshing out of their consciousness. There are also other heady questions, but I weighed this one for most of this episode because of how Neha seemed to be refusing to acknowledge any of Niska’s responses as something stemming from an independent intelligence and not just her programming.

It’s also hanging over the scenes with young Sophie, who’s showing some synthie behavior. She’s adopted some of Mia’s mannerisms, including calling her dad Joe. But when she avoids showing pain over her cheese grater cut—after having initially cried out—she seems to be piecing together what exactly are human actions/reactions in order to do the opposite, the better to fit the synth mold. It’s unclear why Sophie is doing all of this, but there seems to be more to it than just her connection with Mia. Could be she’s coping with Laura being called away so much in her work with Niska, or you know, just being a kid.

Although not quite as innocuous, Hester’s also been testing her boundaries. She consciously (get it?) lies to her friends here about the guy she killed last week, playing along with Joe’s ever-present concerns that someone is swooping in to capture them all. The good news for Joe is that his fears were confirmed with the reveal of the silo, which is where conscious synths are being held. The bad news is that Mia’s leaving them because she won’t leave Ed behind.


I’m all for Mia’s awakening, but I find Ed really dull (if handsome), so my heart’s not entirely in the beach and beach café scenes. But her confession is so earnest and sweet—she tells Ed that she likes him more than anything and that, in fact, he makes “everything more.” Although initially taken aback, Ed admits he’s fallen for her, too. The romance is almost certainly doomed, but at least Mia got that off her chest, and all without the chagrin of her compatriots.

Our other players were playing things much closer to the vest this week. Athena went off in search of Edwin Hobb, whose “value assignment systems were the foundation of her neural networks.” (She probably says that to all the artificial intelligence researchers.) The doctor isn’t just making a friendly visit, though—she wants to understand synth consciousness, which Hobb should know a thing or two about. After her failed attempt to upload her own A.I., V, into a synth body, Athena’s ready to make a deal with the devil in order to interact with her dead daughter again. That’s basically what she’s after, and while the added layer to the character is welcome, something big’s going to have to happen next week for me to feel that Carrie-Anne Moss is anything but underutilized here. Right now, the only purpose Athena serves is to show off the cool labs, which she’s just kind of haunting at this point. My hope is that she’ll contribute something in the long run, since she’ll have a greater stake in conscious synths once she’s related to one.


That wasn’t the only mystery element in episode three. Karen and Pete, now reunited at work and home, begin investigating some high-end synths that are fetching $100,000 (or is it pounds? I’m terrible with the exchange rate). The price tag intrigues Pete because, well, he needs to have some reason to run into Martin, a modder who drops the name “Seraphim” during their interrogation. Karen helpfully points out that the seraphim are the highest order of angels, but Pete knows that they’re dealing with something just a tad more earthly. Are the seraphim potential allies or new foes? More importantly, will they finally give Karen and Pete something interesting to do this season? Perhaps.

Stray observations

  • Season two, episode two is written by Charlie Covell & Iain Weatherby and directed by Carl Tibbetts.
  • “I’m sorry I can’t cry or bleed or wring my hands.” Because Niska doesn’t display the conventionally feminine traits, she’s probably going to have an even harder time proving her consciousness to Neha’s satisfaction.
  • Niska comments on freedom or free will, which she displayed long before she was having her consciousness tested, by rejecting the limited roles that were given to most female synths: prostitute or caregiver.
  • Toby’s crushing on Renie, of course.
  • I take it cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t apply to synths, since Niska was forced to listen to all that techno crap.
  • Maybe it’s just because Colin Morgan reminds me of Christian Bale, but Joe gives me a real John Connor vibe.
  • Who guessed that V would turn out to be one of Morrow’s loved ones?
  • Must every scientific genius find a way to recreate or otherwise save their dead kids’ consciousness?
  • Finally, you may have noticed I’m not Brandon Nowalk. That’s my cross to bear, but I’ll also be around for the rest of the season.