Leo Elster has had a real rough time of it. If dying once weren’t enough, he’s had to be recharged so many times he’s in danger of invalidating his USB port’s warranty. And then once he’s reunited his family, a seemingly undead specter of his mother bursts through the door to have him arrested and his personality erased.*
*Just like all moms, am I right?!!??!?!? Jk love you, ma.
To Leo’s credit, however, even when life has handed him such awful, Freud-on-bathsalts-hallucination level circumstances, he knows how to handle them. “Kill me too. I want to go with them,” he tells Karen Voss whilst in Hobb’s captivity. Then has the audacity to follow that up with “Just trying to appeal to your humanity.” When that doesn’t work he takes a different route: the route of community. He tries to assure Karen that she belongs to a family, even though she never truly has. Leo tells Karen that she has bits of all the sentient synths in her. She has Fred’s strength, Niska’s darkness, Max’s curiosity and Mia’s caring.
It’s a testament to both Leo’s rhetorical abilities and his humanity that Karen agrees to “link” with her brethren once they’ve escaped. Leo’s a pretty fascinating guy. I believe that Karen has a little bit of the best of them in her because Leo’s so adamant. I just still don’t quite understand what the best of the remaining four synths truly entails, since it’s so rarely been onscreen.
“Episode 8” is an unusually condensed and small-scale affair for a season finale. That’s not a bad thing as now that George and Odie are out of the picture there’s plenty of room for the Hawkins and the Elsters to save one another’s lives while Peter lurks around the corners. “Episode 8” by and large operates quite well this way but the smaller scale also draws more attention to the series weak links. Leo speaks of Fred’s strength, Niska’s darkness, Max’s curiosity and Mia’s caring but no sooner than the words have left his mouth it becomes apparent just how little the audience has been able to witness that.
Mia and Max have fairly clear and strong traits. Mia has spent an entire season having her personality suppressed by the servile robot personality, Anita. Still Mia is so inherently caring that even when she herself was hidden under mountains of code, the entity known as Anita still was a caring presence for the Hawkins family. Max also lives up to Leo’s designation of curiosity. This season has been filled with images of his fascinated gaze, robotically muted as it may be. He’s intrigued by Mattie’s computer ability and captivated by the day-to-day lives of normal human beings.
Fred and Niska, however? You just have to take Leo’s word for it. Sure, Niska has darkness. But she has a lot of other things as well. She’s a confused, often maddening character. She commits her first murder to secure her freedom and from there it’s a never-ending series of glowering followed by begrudgingly accepting others’ love. And for Fred “strength” may as well be a synonym for nothingness. It’s not all his fault. After all, Fred has been unconscious most of the season. Still, the only semblance of his personality is when Leo tells Toby that Fred was the best of them when they were “kids.” Generally speaking, if a TV show has to tell you something it’s probably not showing you.
A lot of your enjoyment for this first season of Humans then can be derived by how much you believe Leo. And while it’s disappointing that Humans couldn’t find the time in its brief eight episodes to fully flesh out all of its crucial synth characters, at least Leo is a good “tell-er” of plot.
Also in Humans’ favor is the development of its…you know: human characters. Early on in the show’s run, the synths seemed far more interesting than the people. Part of this was due to some broad writing and broad acting they may have felt necessary to the beginning of the story. I’ll also admit, however, that part of it was that calling human characters “robotic” in a show that actually features robots is low-hanging fruit that no critic can resist.
The Hawkins of “Episode 8” have displayed real growth. Not only are they interesting but they are something far much rarer for a sci-fi show: competent. Hobb has the whole family under what essentially amounts to house arrest and has even confiscated their electronics. This is supposedly for their own safety but in reality is to keep them from contacting Leo and the others. Laura has gone on quite the journey this year and it culminates with her leading the decision for her family to help the synths.
With an assist from a now sympathetic and answer-seeking Peter, Mattie and Toby steal back their laptop and run to the safety of a café with WiFi. Mattie thinks she should still be able to access Leo’s memories from the laptop and then Laura can blackmail Hobb into letting Leo, Max, Fred, Mia and Niska go. That’s putting a lot of trust in the fact that the Internet can A. actually understand the implications of those memories, and B. actually gives a shit about some brilliant scientist’s half-android son. But Hobb apparently has a much higher opinion of humanity and acquiesces to the Hawkins’ blackmail threat.
Every one of the Hawkins is on their “A” game. Even poor, pitiful horny teenager Toby. Once the synths are back with the Hawkins and have navigated through an anti-synth rally to a Mary Magdeline-themed safehouse, it’s Toby who recognizes that there is something off about Fred. When Fred was in the possession of Hobb, Hobb reworked his programming so that Fred would retain his consciousness but still be a slave to his primary owner. He also acts as a beacon for Hobb to track down the others again. This is shockingly, caustically evil for a show that dealt largely in shades of gray for so long. It also makes little sense, character-wise. Hobb was once employed by Elster and has several times throughout the season expressed empathy for the synths even when there was no one else around to witness it. Now he wants to give them a fate worse than death? In the name of capitalism? That’s strange.
Also strange is the literal happy-place tree that the synths must converge upon to produce the code for synth consciousness. The concept of what the synths are hoping to accomplish is enormous. Unfortunately, there are few ways to represent computer code being combined together visually in an interesting way. A happy-place tree is fine enough, I suppose, but it also makes Karen’s role in it somewhat confusing. At first she wants to sabotage the attempt before Mia convinces her to go along with it. It’s not entirely clear why or when Karen finds her “humanity.” Later on, once the consciousness code is secured and Karen wanders off, Peter catches up with her and asks her why she gave herself a scar. “To appear more human,” she responds. If emotional and physical scars are a prerequisite for humanity then maybe Karen finally realizes she has been human all along.
Laura has plenty of those scars as well and her admitting them to Joe is her most human hour. Joe asks why she is so determined to help the synths. She’s done enough, he says, why take it any further? Because of Tom, she replies. When Joe finally hears the full truth about Tom he doesn’t hate his wife for making a mistake so long ago. She’s human after all, and so is he.
Humans season one was sometimes great, sometimes frustrating but always interesting and carefully crafted. In the end, two families are repaired and the code for true artificial intelligence exists on two external hard drives. It’s perhaps Humans season one’s finest achievement that the knowledge for true life seems just as safe in humanity’s shaky, imperfect hands as it does in computers’ mechanical and perfect ones.