One of the most fascinating questions Humans has raised so far is the question of trust. Who do we trust? What do we trust? And why do we trust them? Laura Hawkins is presented with an object that looks and talks like a human in Anita. Presumably, Laura is capable of trusting other human beings. She trusts and loves her family. She’s also capable of trusting her machines. Save for an oven with a penchant for burning cookies, she gets along just fine with her other appliances. It’s just Anita: this walking embodiment of an uncanny valley, that Laura can’t seem to wrap her head around.
If Anita fully behaved like a machine, maybe Laura would trust her continued safe and functional operations like she would a laptop. Or if Anita fully behaved like a human being, instead of in just fits and starts, Laura could accept her like any family would accept the hired help. Human beings are volatile and at times frightening, but we still welcome other humans as maids or cleaners into our homes all the time to help clean up in return for goods and services. Something in-between a human and a machine, however? What is Laura supposed to do with that?
It’s fitting that Laura turns to another man-created machine for help with diagnosing Anita. Just like when we can’t figure out how to get U2 albums off of our iPhone, Laura simply Googles what’s wrong with her synth. Anita has bought some goodwill with Laura by jumping in front of a bus to save Toby’s life. And Laura is undeniably beginning to soften towards Anita but still can’t shake this question of trust. So she administers a test for illegal modifications. The most popular of which is to mod synths to experience pain. Anita responds to this test by sticking a toothpick through her eyeball.
This quiet conversation at a table is Humans at its best. It’s both familiar and alien in the way that only good science fiction can be. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher for Laura. She feels like she’s losing her mind in the face of such impossibly sophisticated technology. She feels like she’s seeing a soul in a computer but like any good middle-class mom, she needs to troubleshoot this first, from the comfort of a kitchen table.
Previous episodes have established that Laura sees Anita as a kind of domestic threat to her own femininity as a wife and a mother. Anita more or less confirms this by saying she can take care of Laura’s children better than Laura. But what’s refreshing is that Humans is starting to break away from this little by little and treat Laura as a more fully-formed human being rather than just the roles she plays. Of course, she doesn’t want a machine to be better than she is but her fear of Anita is starting to go deeper than that. Laura is afraid for her own sanity. Why can’t anyone else see that this thing is somewhere halfway between a machine and a human? Why does everyone else just arbitrarily trust that this is technology and not humanity? After the passed pain test it looks like Laura can finally rest easy. Then Anita has to go and open her dumb sexy synth mouth and ask a question about somehow from Laura’s past that no machine would have the natural curiosity to ask. At least Laura didn’t have to witness her husband
George’s interactions with his synth stand in stark contrast to the Hawkins family. Odie is very clearly a machine so George can trust him to behave like a machine even when he’s malfunctioning. I’ve written before how Odie and all the other “non-conscious” synths are just mirrors for whoever is interacting with them. That remains true but it’s becoming increasingly clear just how much those mirrors reveal. Anita tells Laura that despite how much better Anita is than Laura, it’s Laura’s capacity to love her children that set her aside. And it’s George’s capacity to love his child, even if he’s not human reveals how special humanity can be.
Odie is trying to be helpful, bless him, but at the end of the day he’s just a malfunctioning machine. Like Laura turning to the internet for answers, it’s interesting that George’s interaction with his synth involves another machine: this time a car. Odie and George go on a nice drive through the countryside. It seems inadvisable that George let a malfunctioning Odie drive and this is borne out when Odie exits a moving car in his confusion. It’s telling that in a show where everyone is concerned about the dangers of these new machines, there are two car crashes, reminding us that we have a habit of trusting our machines, even when they kill us at a stunning rate. Still, this doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to see Odie by episode’s end lost in the woods and dutifully hiding like he was told too. I can’t help buy appreciate the little guy as much as George does.
Through three episodes, Humans is working quite well and quite efficiently. One aspect that is still lagging behind is how disparate many of the plotlines feel. Leo and Max are tangentially connected to Anita and Hobbs and Niska, while George and Odie are off on their own happy George and Odie Island.
Niska presents probably the most action in Episode 3 with her life on the lamb from the brothel but it’s not quite lining up thematically with everything else. It’s only in Niska’s storyline that Humans feels a little overwhelmed with all the potential of its premise. It’s handled the relatively low-key aspects of its sci-fi conceit and Niska so far is too Frankenstein and removed from the rest of the show.
Niska’s response to life and then freedom is to turn violent. She takes a man home from the bar* and is looking for an excuse to kill him from moment one. She thinks she finds one in the hairtie left behind on the sink but when she discovers it’s the hair tie of his daughter she spares him and takes her leave. No one can begrudge Niska for not having a fondness for humans and she is driving the plot well. Her heel-turn so far is just too Frankenstein for the time being. Maybe future episodes will sort that out.
*Baller move on her part by telling the bartender to make a drink for “whatever a girl like me” would like.
What Humans needs more of is an exploration of the thin line between man and machine and questions that confront what we can and cannot trust about that thin line. Thankfully, they seem to be going in that direction with Leo. Leo hasn’t been the most consequential character yet through three episodes but in his conversation with Niska before she abandons their makeshift “family” it’s implied that Leo might be the embodiment of what can take Humans to the next level. He’s a hybrid, both figuratively for now…hopefully literally as well.