Perhaps the most integral storyline to the first season of AMC’s Humans is the Hawkins family’s reaction to their synth, Gemma Chan‘s Mia, burgeoning open consciousness. For the two daughters of the household, her increasingly odd behavior was both fascinating and endearing, while matriarch Laura (Katherine Parkinson) became immediately suspicious and worried. The men of the house, of course, only had the extents of Mia’s ability to give sexual pleasure on their mind, at least for the first week or two. After that, the state of Mia’s mind and emotions became of particular interest to the family for several reasons, including Laura’s distrust and jealousy of the synth in her home.
We’ve all seen the videos of robots serving dinner, diagnosing diseases, dueling expertly with swords, and even creating music, but the most fascinating thing about the dawn of artificial intelligence is how they will engage with us intimately. And that is what is still at the heart of Humans as its second season gears up, facing up to the bizarre and endlessly intriguing intricacies of a world where synths – androids, essentially – are beginning to seek rights like flesh-and-blood people. As the series opens, Emily Berrington‘s Niska, a former prostitute synth, is attempting to get a handle on being liberated and a wanted fugitive in Berlin.
For what it’s worth, the world is good to Niska: she meets a friendly woman whom she begins to sleep with and something of a romance begins to bloom over a few brunches and mornings in bed together. Her issue, which becomes a stalling force in said romance, is that she doesn’t know how to talk about herself or her history, especially considering the fact that her history includes a murder. The question that creators Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent seem to be pondering is what happens when you must build your own morality from scratch, when influence and programming don’t have as much say in your decisions as your natural impulses or cognitive ability. Lying is an option but does that solve the underlying problem? If it doesn’t, would a synth be able to ignore the uselessness of that tactic?
Niska is also something of a Che Guevera in the world of synths. Around the same time she arrives in Berlin, she uploads a reprogramming virus to all synth servers, one that deconstructs their docile loyalty to people and makes them fascinated by their own existence. Two of the newly woke synths take up with Leo and Max (Colin Morgan and Ivanno Jeremiah), who are being tracked by an enigmatic organization looking to enact default programming on any and all synths. Another synth, under the ownership of tech genius Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman), is the central figure in a new study on sentience by down-and-out AI pioneer Dr. Athena Morrow, played by Carrie-Anne Moss (hot off her excellent work in Jessica Jones). Brackley and Vincent use this splintered perspective to give a variety of perspectives on how the age of sentience in artificial intelligence will not only effect the synths but those who are fighting their own personal battles in the fields of robotics and advanced technologies.
Athena, for instance, seems to have a distinct distrust of people and an open, friendly relationship with synths and computers, a feeling that seems to be reflected when one of her first attempts to upload her sentient program into a synth, it’s rejected. In moments like these, the series highlights how synths are used as highly advanced personal crutches even in a professional setting. Her dependency and obsession with her own program is not all that different from Theo Stevenson‘s Toby and Tom Goodman-Hill‘s Joe Hawkins’ obsession with Mia. The writers are careful not to paint either Toby or Joe as simply crass, pathetic men in need of getting their rocks off. That element is there, of course, but there’s also an emotional longing in both of them that Mia briefly assuaged. The loneliness that the people suffer, just like the repression that the synths are damned to suffer under, is constantly felt throughout Humans.
This puts the show in direct opposition to HBO’s Westworld, another series about artificial intelligence but one that clearly can’t be bothered to consider the interior lives of its characters. Where Humans readily brings up the embarrassments of people in the face of A.I., as well as the horrors, Westworld seemed to only see the ugliness and pettiness of the human race and never, not once, suggested a genuinely challenging idea about its promising conceit. Westworld is a show about breaking free of your narrative and yet, on the whole, it’s a series that relies on nothing so much as its excess of narrative to keep its audience interested. Humans is chiefly fascinated by how and why we build our own narratives for ourselves and what they say about us; Westworld rightly sees narratives as restrictive but has exactly no idea how to break out of the cycle other than to create more narratives, a tactic used to simultaneously rousing and emptying effect in Game of Thrones.
The fact that Humans is, for instance, interested in how an android would go about being tried in a court of law suggests philosophical and societal ambitions that are absent in HBO’s show, which has a much larger audience than Humans. It’s fun to watch androids and humans rape, murder, and violate each other while a piss-poor player-piano cover of Radiohead goes off in the background but for all the excessive talk in Westworld, it has nothing even remotely insightful to say about man or modern technology. Humans never turns away from violence or mistreatment but neither does it assume that the world pivots on such actions. Humans may lack the visual pizazz or expressive symbolism to bring its bigger ideas into greater relief, but it’s becalmed yet thoughtful aesthetic actually works perfectly in tune with its subtext. Underneath the clean labs, modern homes, and cold, verdant landscapes where Mia, Morrow, Leo, and Max do their work is an assured wisdom and a riot of radical concepts about behavior and desire, a sprawling petri dish teeming with actions and thoughts that feel at once convincing and unreal.
Rating: ★★★★ – Excellent
Humans airs on Monday nights at 10 p.m. EST on AMC.