This review contains spoilers.
The biggest advantage that the writers of Humans have in going into their second series is the sheer ambiguity of language and meaning. As the show expands its scope (among other things, by offering glimpses of the global impact of the Synths), it also seeks to expand its line of philosophical questioning. There’s an awful lot to pack in and it helps that so much of it can be done through the subtle layering of meaning and intent. A prominent example occurs early in the narrative, coming as part of Niska’s ongoing quest to understand herself. The question she poses to her new lover, “how did you know who you were?”, promises a kaleidoscope of answers, encompassing the self, opinion, sense of place and, its received meaning, sexual orientation. The precise answer seems less important than the multiplicity of options available. The implication is one of murky clarity: no one person knows who they are because no one is any one person. You think it’s hard to be a Synth? It’s hard enough being human. Or should that be ‘hard enough being humans’?
The quest to become more human is a compelling one and has been set up to drive the second series as it builds upon the world created in the first. After a lengthy period of deliberation (itself a tellingly human characteristic), Niska uploads Elster’s consciousness code and, with further trepidation, awaits the explosive results.
Which, at least to begin with, don’t amount to very much. There is no immediate robot revolution, no AI apocalypse, just some seemingly random malfunctions. The delayed response is a source of frustration for Niska, who was always the most militant of the Elster synths (were she human, we might call her politicised. We might yet). Perhaps that is cruelty by categorisation; her anger is her most human aspect and is central to her drives (in the emotional, rather than the file system sense). Robbed of her revolution, she decides to submit to the courts in the hope that it will help secure legal recognition of her personhood. Such a court case would be extremely high-profile (the term ‘landmark’ feels woefully inadequate) and, even if unsuccessful, would draw more attention to her and her views. For Niska, this surely is the main benefit. From her awkward loitering hook-up to her Synth politics, Niska desires a response. Read that verb back again. Niska desires. Her mechanical coldness aside, she is all but human anyway. Her militancy, her cause, is the answer to her own question.
Humans tackled this sort of philosophical conundrum very well its first series and it’s testament to their fundamental unanswerability that so many of them have returned to haunt the characters in the new series. In addition to the concept of personhood, we are promised deeper dives into the nature of consciousness, the sense of otherness, the value of memory and the universality of trauma.
The return of so many familiar Synth faces, among them Max, Leo and Anita, helps to increase the sense of the uncanny. We feel as though we know them but, with the partial exception of Leo, they retain enough of their hyper-calm stiffness to maintain the unease, which is only enhanced by their paramilitary-esque encounters with flesh and blood. The ‘unknown agents pursuing the Synths into abandoned buildings’ scenes felt a little too close to series one, but it is a positive step to see how the group’s activities are motivated by the same event, namely Niska’s mindbomb, that prompts the Silicon Valley explorations of Dr Athena Morrow (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her paymasters at Qualia Industries. It offers a nicely tangled web of plots, both groups reacting to the imminence of Synth consciousness and, both, unbeknownst to one another, embarking on a race to secure the answers first.
There are two clear strands at play here; on this side the quest to see the possibilities for Synths, while elsewhere, the show is concerned with the implications of Synths, both as they are and, perhaps, as they might one day be. A welcome addition is the issue of the economic implications of the Synths, which is a timely and necessary expansion of the show’s concerns. The first series let us become used to seeing them in domestic and service roles, so the glimpse of them at work in mines, in chemical plants and, brilliantly, as marriage guidance counsellors, offers a tantalising hint that this series will explore just how economically disruptive AI can be.
This is the most immediately terrifying prospect of AI and so it was a smart decision to address the topic gently. We were treated to a nice visual joke as the camera tracked the row of immaculate and identical Synths before terminating on the tea-drinking Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill again bringing a welcome warmth through his character’s human flaws), blissfully unaware of his own economic extinction. Really, what can anyone offer that an AI can’t? It used to be thought that intelligent machines would spend their days cleaning up after nuclear accidents, repairing deep sea pipelines or operating space stations. It’s becoming clear that with innovations in algorithms, even knowledge-based jobs are not safe from mechanised interlopers.
Neither, for that matter, are roles that require emotional intelligence. A non-human counsellor sounds like a joke (a fact gleefully acknowledged by the writers) and the ‘Barbara’ starts to appear like a cruel parody. Until her session actually starts to work. The scene is very cleverly done, smartly written and subtly performed, and is possibly the most exhilarating and scary of all the episode’s quieter moments. Prompted to reflect on their own relationship and, without the burden of embarrassment that a human counsellor might unwittingly create, the Hawkins begin the process of talking to one another. There may be hope for them yet. Hope too for us, the viewers.
The Hawkins family are as welcome returnees as their Synth companions and despite, or even because of, the expanded philosophising, it’s an incongruous comfort to see some all-too familiar suburban concerns added to the mix. House moving, parenting difficulties, relationship problems, none of these particular joys are going anywhere soon, Synths or no Synths.
Speaking of human constants, Barbara’s substitution for the flesh-and-blood mediator was one of at least two references to human sickness absence in the episode. Here too lies the mixture of threat and promise. How much easier would our lives be if they were freed from the interruption and inconvenience of having to change plans because a key person was laid up with Kleenex and chicken soup? The improved efficiency of the economy and society would almost make up for us having no jobs to go to.
Humans offers so much future-horror as subtle remarks or background details it’s worth paying close attention. It’s a necessary solution; there are so many ideas to explore and so few episodes in which to follow them that the writers have a gargantuan task to fit them all in. My hope for this series is that they manage to do so and in a manner that does them all justice. Their second biggest advantage is that there are no answers to these questions. I don’t think that anyone can go into this show expecting philosophical conclusions; it’s enough for us to find some genuine human ambiguity. It’s a welcome familiarity.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode here.