We’ve been blessed with a glut of really well done superhero movies for several years now. One of my favorites, however, came at the ancient dawn of this recent comic-book movie boom* in Bryan Singer’s 2003 follow-up to X-Men: X2.
*I know comic book movies date back to as far as 1920 but Singer’s original X-Men is a pretty convenient demarcation line for this current Avengers era as we know it. Let me have this premise!
What X2 got right (certainly not its dumb title) is embracing the mundane day-to-day lives of extraordinary people. Sure, we all go to the movies to see the guy with retractable claw-hands fight some dude who controls fire. But somehow it’s even more exciting to see the guy with retractable claw hands waking up in the middle of the night and heading downstairs to grab some milk from the fridge. X2 was filled with scenes of super-human people doing very human things whether it was going to class, awkwardly interacting with their parents or blinking to change the channel on the TV*. Or even more importantly: talking to one another.
*Was that seriously that kid’s ability? Xavier’s standards for his school are seriously lacking.
I love X2 for those little moments and am constantly on the lookout for them in other sci-fi movies or shows. When done right and in moderation, they’re perfectly establish the humanity of characters that exist only on a page or a sound stage or in our imaginations. Humans “Episode 7” is filled with these little “human” or mundane moments…just not in moderation.
“Episode 7” is another fine hour for a show that hasn’t really produced a complete dud. It also undeniably suffers from textbook penultimate-episode-itis: a condition characterized by last minute character-building and sympathizing before the presumably action-packed finale. That isn’t to say that “Episode 7” isn’t good at creating more investment and sympathy for its characters. It’s just too transparent in its purpose to be completely effective.
On the surface, everything that happens at the Hawkins household is more than enough to meet my X2 paradigm of characters hanging out, being bros, learning from each other, etc. Laura and Mia bro out over making coffee. Sohpie and Niska bro out over taking Barbie on vacation via dinosaur rides. Leo and Mattie bro out over saving Max’s life. Toby, Fred and Joe bro out over a rousing game of footy. And everyone bros out together around the dinner table. It’s great and it’s all bro-tastic. It also happens in such quick succession as to almost come across as a parody of good character building.
The rushed, penultimate-itis nature of “Episode 7” reinforces the notion that Humans should have been longer. It’s hard to argue against a fun, watchable 8-episode summer series but it’s also hard to deny that some moments in “Episode 7” would have been handled better had they had more time to develop in just a couple more episodes. The Hawkins-Elster house party is just one example and the least harmful. Witness also how quickly Fred and Leo track down Max or even how “Episode 7” begins with Karen Voss.
The nature of Karen’s ultimate identity is actually quite cool and logical. Finding out she was a synth was interesting and “Episode 7” takes her from interesting to essential by revealing that she is a synth model of David Elster’s wife and Leo’s father. Unfortunately, this knowledge is presented in a rather careless way through a brief flashback and then some exposition at George’s house. Niska knew Karen as “Beatrice” the name of David’s wife, though Karen’s always hated that name. Karen asks that Niska and George do her the solid of killing her because David put blocks in her programming that prevented suicide – the same cause of death of his real life.
All interesting enough stuff but again presented so quickly. A synth stalking a synth through a house may have made sense on a page. Their movements are just too stilted and precise to create any real sense of tension, however. And when George jumps in front on Karen’s bullet intended to protect Niska it feels like plot house-cleaning, not a character moment. Sure, George is old and has had plenty of martyr in him; things in his house just went from 0-100 far too quick. William Hurt, second to only maybe Gemma Chan, has been Humans best asset. His intellectual curiosity and wonderment in the face of new life has been infectious and the presentation of his character’s death is questionable. Thankfully, Odie is there in George’s final moments. Even when Humans was a little disjointed in the beginning, the Odie/George relationship made it clear that this would always be an at least above average show. Hearing the malfunctioning little guy malfunction his way through a lovely day in Spain with the Millicans is perfect. Hobb better not scrap the poor dude.
In the end, after all the over-indulgence of X2-style character building/re-human-ing is done, “Episode 7” presents a fascinating conclusion. I’d always assumed that once Mia burst through from the cocoon of Anita, she would be the one who would convince Laura to let Joe back in her family’s life. Mia knows that while a real sentient being was buried deep beneath, her exterior truly was synthetic. And Mia does give it her best shot but Laura isn’t having it. She doesn’t care that Mia doesn’t want to be the reason her marriage fails and she certainly doesn’t want to follow her advice and tell Joe about Tom. It’s interesting because all there seems to be in the Hawkins household currently is love, trust and understanding. Laura has welcomed strangers in and put everyone at risk to help them, but still hasn’t fully welcomed back her husband.
Then the risk becomes too real. Joe and Laura see the news report on television about Niska murdering a man and they are immediately, wordlessly on the same side again. There is no debate: the children are in danger and the synths must leave. And the synths do promise to leave before the newly formed super team of Karen and Hobb arrive to hasten their departure. Humans has spent the last two episodes displaying how knowledge and love can conquer hate and fear of the unknown. Then in the span of three seconds, hate and fear crank it back up to 11 and win out. That’s not rushed, bad writing; that’s the human condition.