Every week so far Humans has posed another question about what makes a human, human. Last week was “are you capable of feeling love?” In “Episode Four it’s “do you get scared?” Laura asks this of Anita after finding out about her seemingly terrified outburst from Mattie. “I think everyone does, Laura,” Anita unhelpfully responds.
Later, Laura asks the same question to Eric Foreman look-alike synth: Howard. Howard’s owner insists that Howard felt something during a performance of Death of a Salesman* and that his being ejected from the show is a human rights violation. Howard clearly doesn’t get scared but his owner doesn’t care. “We can’t keep insisting they’re just gadgets. They’re more than that.”
*Helpful note to all TV-writers. If you ever want to inject a deeper sense of gravitas into your work, have your characters watch of the following two plays: Death of a Salesman or Our Town. Both are just dripping with atmosphere in subtext that even the mere mention of either will immediately imbue an episode with oodles of purpose and foreboding.
The deeper we get into Humans, the clearer it becomes that Howard’s owner is right. The machines are more than gadgets. The people, however? Debatable.
At this point all the chief characters remain more archetypes than people: the horny teenager, the clueless father, the aging scientist, the suspicious mother. And this is reflected in the kind of questions they’re asking. “Do you get scared?” is an interesting enough tagline to put on a poster, but is it really the question that’s going to lead to a deeper truth? Of course not. Humans get scared, but so do voles, zebras and raccoons. There are far more complex and unexplainable phenomena and paradoxes that only humans experience: like the pathological need to watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives every time it’s on despite it featuring near-fatal levels of Guy Fieri. Explain that, synth.
Still, I’m inclined to forgive Humans for its paper-y characters asking paper-y questions. Maybe “Episode Four” just caught me on a good week when I fully realized how bare the rest of the summer TV schedule is, making Humans grading curve much more forgivable. Or maybe it’s the realization that characters as archetypes instead of people isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. Stock-ish characters speed up the process of getting to know them, which allows the plot skip along quicker – something that such a high-concept show with so few episodes to go desperately needs. But “Episode Four” deserves a lion-share of the credit, itself. While the first quarter of the season has been fine, it’s lacked a certain excitement and tying together of disparate plots that “Episode Four” begins to provide in spades. One could even say the synth hits the fan.*
*Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Never mention that pun again.
“Episode Four” features the unfortunate man on synth action that has been building up for weeks. Once Laura elects to leave Joe home with a bottle of wine and an impossibly attractive robot, it’s clear what’s going to happen. Add “Chekhov’s Pamphlet Regarding the Sexualization of Your Household Robot” to the long list of TV-centric “Chekhov’s Gun” jokes. That doesn’t make the consummation of the inevitable act any less gut-wrenching. Laura has been looking for evidence that Anita feels. If only she could have been on hand to witness Anita’s detached, helpless expression as Joe pumps away on the poor machine. That would have removed all doubt.
Laura at least begins to creep closer to answers in a much less upsetting and explosive way. She brings Anita to a diagnostics test to get to the bottom of her hunch and it reveals that Anita is 14 years old, not just a few weeks old as they had previously thought. Joe admits that Laura was right about Anita and offers to return her but interestingly Laura is now more determined than ever to keep her. Two refreshingly contradictory (i.e. human) responses to troubling information.
It remains to be seen how the Hawkins children will respond to this, though much like most children, they already seem more amenable to such a radical concept than their parents. Toby has admitted to himself* that he is in love with a machine and Mattie is ready to stop the unambiguous rape of a female synth at a party.
*And cockblocks himself in the process.
Mattie is really quite the hero this time around. She’s come a long way from the teenage eye-rolling in “Episode One.” In addition to punching some rape-y bloke in the face, she also gets the drop on Leo and Max during a meeting at a diner. Leo is still trying to get to Mya/Anita but comes on far too strong in his brief meeting with Mattie, causing her to run away via a bathroom trip and a decoy purse. It’s a bold, rationale move for Mattie but unfortunately could have very well meant another prolonged stalling of Leo and Max’s story. Instead, Humans allows Leo to come up with a Hail Mary epiphany. While they’re in London, Leo and Max might as well try to track down a member of the original Synth project.
It stretches credulity that Leo has never considered doing this before. And it also violates a core storytelling principle of cause and effect. Instead it’s: cause, no effect, wait awhile for an unrelated cause, then go through with that effect. But again: Humans caught me on a good week. Breaking some storytelling rules is necessary for what comes next: Leo and Max paying a visit to George.
With the introduction of Leo and Max into their world, George and Odie (come home from the woods, little guy!) are no longer stranded on George and Odie Plot Island. It’s a brief, almost rushed scene but the level of world-building Leo provides is just what Humans needs. Leo knows everything about George’s partner, David Elster. He knows a lot more than George expects him to for a simple reason: Leo is David’s son. This helps snap the grander world of Humans into place perfectly. It offers plenty of exciting possibilities for Leo, his potential hybrid-ness and the crew of five synths that Elster programmed for true artificial intelligence – sentience, even. And after some help from George with extracting a program from language in Anita’s coding, Leo thinks he knows a way to turn all synths into sentient beings.
To do so, Leo will need all five synths together. Unfortunately for him, by episode’s end Niska is a bit occupied. She joins an underground club of angry human supremacists who let you watch someone beat a synth to death for 20 quid or do the beating yourself for 40. Niska, of course, lays waste to the operation very thoroughly and brutally.
The underground human v. robot junkyard scrapping is a popular trope in science fiction, as is the aforementioned “hybridding.” Still, something about the way that Humans combines so many tropes and tricks into one (mostly) cohesive unit is charming. You don’t mind the redundancy because Humans is operating on a “leave no sci-fi trope” behind policy. It’s not groundbreaking but it works, especially when the elements are added into what amounts to a very recognizable modern world with iPads and non-self-driving cars.
By the end of “Episode Four” when Pete’s partner and assumed human Karen Voss pulls a mysterious sack of blue liquid from her throat, Humans has saved itself from being returned to the synth store and should be a welcome presence in our homes for the next four weeks.