Humans episode 3 review

Do synths qualify as people? And if so, why? Here's Michael's review of Humans' impressively acted third episode...

Warning: this review contains spoilers

One of the most quietly impressive things about Humans is the use of physical performance to carry some of the story. An awful lot of this is done by the actors playing the synths, who manage to convey the similarity of the production line with the individuality of the womb and make each one the same while being recognisably different. Compare, for instance, the machine-like movements of Vera with the Bambi-on-the-ice awkwardness of Niska, and you’ll see how well it is being done. The actors were given coaching to help them to develop their performances and the work shows. It was noticable, too, in Anita’s sudden switch from impassive machine to emotionally responsive being as Mattie toyed with her core programming. 

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However, it’s not just a question of the synth performances. The difficulties in Joe and Laura’s relationship are presented through movement and expression as much as they are through a knowingly irritable exchange of dialogue. The look that they shared as Laura returned home with Toby’s bicycle to find her husband emerging sheepishly from the shed was priceless; years of declining marriage distilled into a few seconds of silence. 

The use of the Hawkins’ marriage to explore the difficulties in their ownership of Anita is an interesting choice and one that appears to be paying off. The scene in which Joe allows Anita to read to Sophie, contrary to Laura’s wishes, not only made a neat set-up for the later exchange between Laura and Anita but also strengthened the sense of antipathy that Laura feels for their house synth. It’s hardly surprising that she gives free rein to her suspicions when it seems that there are sides developing in the household. Joe’s desire to ‘avoid a meltdown’ is one familiar to many parents and entirely consistent with his preference for the path of least resistance. It’s this temperamental difference to his wife that underscores the problems that they are dealing with and which the presence of Anita is doing nothing to help. 

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None of this would work if the marriage was a totally happy one, or if it was completely dysfunctional. The mild symptoms of mistrust make a perfect fit to Humans’ subtle approach and make it much easier to recognise the difficulties that Laura faces. 

Of course, the subtleties are not limited to the Hawkins household, or even to physical performance. The series of misunderstood exchanges between George and Odi (’the open road and a V8’ ‘Yes, and the car George’,) were a light way of suggesting that the synths, or at least Odi’s early series, could never achieve full personhood and that they are doomed to slip between the cracks of lived experience. Slightly less light was Odi’s attempt to leave a moving car (a symptom of failing programming rather than poor design) and George’s forced abandonment of him in the woods. It was a clever way of raising the question, if personhood is denied to synths, why is Odi’s decline so heartbreaking?

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Further exploration of this theme emerged through Niska’s storyline and the issue of whether synths can be capable of murder, or indeed, any act of volition. That the investigators of the ‘accident’ should move so quickly to suggest that the incident was the product of illegal modding -and therefore human in origin- is a clue to how ill-prepared people are. We have seen just how far synths are prepared to go to defend themselves, how they are capable of anger and fear and how they are able to select courses of action because of the moral, rather than simply practical aspects. It’s curious that these choices should so often involve children, as when Anita intervenes in the relationship of Laura and Sophie or, more dramatically, when Niska realises that the hairbands in Greg’s bathroom belong to his daughter, rather than a lover, and decides to put the knife down and leave the scene. 

If the synths are to be considered as candidates for personhood then it is in these moments that their case is made. The moments of decision, moments of agency. It’s there when they experience loss, or fear, or anger and it’s there when they encounter those feelings of relief when they find, as Max and Leo do, that one of their lost electric friends is close by. 

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