This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
Way back at the beginning of the first series of Humans, I noted the cleverness of having the Synths as the sole technology that distinguishes this fictional world from our own. It reduces distraction, enhances the power of allegory and throws the programme’s multiplicity of philosophical questions into sharp relief. Naturally, this decision raises certain questions of plausibility, most striking of which is, why are all the AIs humanoid? It’s reasonable enough for most of the Synth occupations we’ve seen; nanny, service staff, sex worker, but given the opportunity to employ Synths in mineshafts or in chemical factories, would four limbs, a head and a torso really be the optimum design? Even if it was, would they all necessarily be of average human height? They’re the sort of questions that can be easily handwaved with the thought that it makes a more compelling story to have them look like people. However, in Hester’s recollection of her experiences at the chemical plant, it becomes clear that their humanoid appearance is just as significant an issue as their nascent consciousness. ‘They didn’t treat the other machines like us’, she says, drawing as much synthetic anger as she can in describing the injustice. Quite clearly not. As the first season hinted, this show is not interested in old-fashioned kinetic maintenance, so much as it is in reflecting what humans do when faced with something that is both similar and different enough for the distinction to matter.
It’s to the show’s credit that not all of it is negative. The constant presence of the Hawkins family serves as a reminder of how Synths can inspire genuine emotional attachment, as does Athena’s deep connection to ‘B’, the only counterexample to the show’s all-humanoid rule. Note how even in this case, Athena appears keen to give her AI friend a physical body. Meanwhile the inclusion of the schoolgirl ‘Synthy’ is a multiple opportunity joy, demonstrating both the complicated nature of human-Synth culture and Humans‘ neat way of finding depth in a clever joke. It all speaks to one of this season’s emerging themes, which is an exploration of the strange relationship between Synths and humans.
The second important theme is the relationship between Synths and other Synths. As the story progresses, an interesting dynamic is beginning to develop, one that exploits the significant, and growing, gap between the two factions of Synth politics. It’s all very X-Men, but entirely plausible, given the way that Synth-hood has been depicted. On the one hand there is the approach advocated by Max (who among other tactics, attempts to press his view by acting as Leo’s conscience). In this model, Synths and humans can continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, even if it has to evolve to accommodate the changing nature of synth consciousness. The other wing, represented by Niska and Hester (and illustrated by Niska’s legal challenge and Hester’s refusal to accept Max’s plea for clemency) is more radical. Its precise philosophy has yet to be explored in full (though it carries the promise of ‘season finale’) but it has already essayed a few salient points, among them the idea that humans cannot be trusted to honour a compact with Synths and some kind of showdown is required to expose this. It’s becoming clear that Niska probably doesn’t expect, or even intend, to win her case; she simply wants to prove a point by losing and, in so doing, unleash the wave of Synth anger that she suspects is brewing inside their growing consciousness.
Mia (or is it Anita?) falls somewhere in the middle of these two camps. Her approach is one of well-intentioned deceit, disguising her self-awareness and empathy beneath a convincingly blank facade. It works, up to a point, failing only when her own desires override her ability to hide. Her meeting with Ed’s mum was handled very sweetly, both in the writing and in Gemma Chan’s careful performance, while her somewhat less friendly disagreement with Ed himself achieved the same goals via a different emotional pathway. The pertinent question (for the viewer, if not poor deceived Ed) is not whether Mia is capable of lying but why she would choose to do so. Her rigging of the bank’s loan systems was intended to benefit Ed, but it is not clear why she would do this unless she has developed an attachment to him through proximity over time. And his mum? What else was the hand-on-hand reassurance if not a humane attempt to soothe distress? This steady, clandestine approach to human interaction may be the most interesting one of all.
The reappearance of Karen and Pete suggests that the show’s makers think so too. Karen was our first ‘hidden in plain sight’ Synth and remains the most adept at playing human. The couple’s visit to the bed shop worked very well as a demonstration of how far their relationship has developed (a relationship that, were it to be extrapolated to other Synths would answer some of the show’s key questions, while raising many more). It also showed just how well Karen is developed too. Human-ish to a degree far in advance of the other Synths, she expresses taste preferences, a sense of humour and deeply held desires and interests. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine that, from time to time, Karen forgets that she is a Synth, even if Pete can never quite do so.
Something like that could be what the gnomish Milo Khoury has in mind when he describes his ambition as something ‘purer’ than current Synth technology. He’s a little too unworthy of trust, even without such statements and Athena’s tendency to hide things from him seems like a natural response (and similar in motivation to Mia’s deceit). Dr Morrow appears to have synth interests at heart, and shows genuine concern for the welfare of her own AI companion, and seems destined to part company with Milo rather soon. Whichever faction has the correct approach, it will be time to pick a side.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode here.