Humans s1 ep 8

Season finale time and Leo, Mia and co are in dire straits: Hobb has horribly evil plans for them, Karen seems determined to help him and the Hawkins family are under house arrest and powerless to stop them.

Or are they?

Looking back over the past eight weeks, what has impressed me most about Humans is not the ins and outs of the plot, but the philosophical, deeper themes at its core. The questions about what it truly means to be alive, whether advances in technology are always a good thing, whether machines of our own making will one day render us entirely obsolete…. over the season, the show has quietly, deftly made me agonise about all these huge, unanswerable questions, while making me care about robots and, occasionally, creeping me the hell out.

Although perfectly entertaining, though, the finale was much more sci-fi than sci-phi, focussing more on the tech itself than the feelings and bigger issues behind it, and giving us a lot of thriller-type stuff which was quite exciting and all, but resolved just a smidgen too easily in the end. I mean, I don’t intend to go too far into spoiler territory, but as if Hobb would just let Karen go. And as if REDACTED would change sides in such a relaxed fashion, just in time to help save the day.

That type of thing still makes you think, yes, but more about plot holes and plausibility than personhood and the meaning of life, which is a tiny bit disappointing given how much more daring and insightful Humans has shown itself capable of being.

But I’m probably being unnecessarily harsh. While this last episode wasn’t the best Humans has offered us this season, it was still thoroughly enjoyable, and, fittingly, the stand-out moment was the quietest, most human one: Mia’s silent, beautifully moving goodbye to Laura. One mother to another. Sob. I’d have liked more of that side of the show and less of the slightly cheesy “plucky family and pals outwit supervillain” adventure elements in the finale, but, overall, Humans has surprised me in a good way this season by being much more thoughtful, interesting, poignant and generally (if not necessarily this week) much darker than I expected. I’m looking forward to seeing what season two brings.

Humans s1 ep 7

*SPOILERS*

What an absolutely terrific episode.

Leo is reunited with Not Dead Fred, a can do-type of guy who convinces him that Max may also be Not Dead – and Not Dead Fred is right, but only just. So back to the Hawkins house everybody goes, to carry out synth surgery with the aid of every member of both the synth and human families – except Sophie who’s “upstairs” for half the episode and adorable for the other half, but more of that later – since Joe has come grovelling back; Laura, grudgingly, has allowed him to, and Mia, bless her, is gently trying to put their splintered marriage back together.

The operation on the Hawkins kitchen table to resuscitate reboot Max is not only complicated, it’s also incredibly, heart-poundingly tense, with everyone (including me) desperately hoping he’ll wake up, only for…. well, that would be telling. Suffice to say, it’s utterly gripping stuff.

While everyone waits for Max to wake up or not, though, Not Dead Fred plays football with the now incredibly likeable Toby (like Mattie, he’s undergone a radical transformation since he grew to care about Anita/Mia) and helps begin to heal his rift with Joe in the process. Mattie and Leo grow closer. And Sophie teaches Niska – a four year old who’s never had a chance to be a child – to play in some lovely, funny scenes which, tragically, end abruptly when Joe and Laura find out what Niska has actually done.

Thanks to George and Sophie though, Niska’s no longer the brittle, angry killing machine she thought she had to be, and the real danger, somewhat surprisingly, now comes from the previously mild-mannered Karen. Her story is truly sad, but her consequent self-loathing has far-reaching, horrible implications for everyone, both human and synth. Her pain and determination for revenge seem to have come on a little suddenly – she came across as pretty level-headed over the past six episodes – but no matter: the consequences are devastating and heartbreaking for both characters and audience, and set up the finale beautifully. A great episode, of a great show.

Humans s1 ep 6

“You know, Mum, if you want to keep people around, you have to tell them the truth once in a while.”

Ep 6 of Humans definitely takes Mattie’s advice to heart: as well as Laura telling us her secret, we find out how Leo (as he currently is) and his “family “came to be, what the Prof’s game is (maybe) and that, Joe, now that he’s become a jerk, really can’t stop.

But for all the revelations, this never feels like an hour of exposition, just an hour of gripping tv, with the writing and acting keeping things organic, compelling, and often deeply moving.

Not Dead Fred’s cheesy, silly breakout sequence is the only thing that lets the side down – it seems to have wandered in from a 1970’s cop show way rather than a 21st century sci-fi one. But the rest of the ep more than makes up for it as a single, devastating line tells us pages about Niska, and Mia and Leo’s reunion surprises Laura, the kids and me in a number of different ways.

The most poignant, heartbreaking moments of the episode belong to the selfless, innocent Max, though, who had previously been the blandest and least well-defined of the synths we’d actually spent any time with (I’m not counting Fred since we’ve hardly seen him at all). This week, however, we actually get to know Max a little and feel for him, with heartbreaking results. I won’t forget his prayer in a hurry, either: “if you are there, and you listen to things like me, please help.” Sob.

Humans s1 ep 5

*SPOILERS*

With Joe increasingly determined to get rid of Anita, Mattie takes desperate steps to save her, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that will give Leo further excuse to sulk (I really dislike Leo), turn the former Idiot Toby into the surprisingly Noble, Sensitive Toby (!) and expose Joe for the disappointing sleazeball he’s turned out to be. “She lives in our house!” cries a distraught Laura. “She looks after our children! She saved our son’s life! And you’re calling her a sex toy?”

Once again, Humans’ main theme is that the danger, the real horror, comes not from the synths themselves, but from humanity’s reactions to them. Even the ominous ”We Are People” group seems, instinctively at least, to understand this; their rhetoric is all about how humans can no longer relate to each other, that there is no incentive, no need to do or be anything to each other anymore because “in every area of human life, (synths) are coming between us.” And in fairness, anyone who’s sat around with a bunch of people all surfing the internet / checking their Facebook etc instead of talking to each other can probably understand why WAP is saying what they’re saying, while still condemning them wholeheartedly.

Jill and Pete’s marriage, and maybe now Joe and Laura’s, could be seen as the most obvious examples of this increasing disconnect, but it’s clear that those relationships were doomed for the most prosaically human reasons anyway; the bland, easy comfort of reliance on synths being – like surfing the internet or checking Facebook – more an escape route from rather than the cause of their problems.

Either way, it’s both ironic and refreshing that while we all thought Laura would be the one pushed out by Anita, it’s the initially receptive Joe who ultimately ends up being banished, with Laura and Mattie now as firmly on Anita’s side as the younger kids Sophie and Toby always were, and all Joe’s attempts at victim-blaming firmly rejected by both his disgusted wife and his appalled son.

While Humans continues to wonder, both implicitly and explicitly (Niska and George’s scenes spelling it out for anyone who wasn’t already thinking about it) exactly what it means to be alive, however, we’re more than halfway through the season now so the show has also started throwing out a few potential answers to smaller questions like who the “government guy” might be and how Leo came to be what he is. Not that those answers really matter. What resonates about Humans isn’t the questions that can be answered, it’s the completely impossible ones that can’t. Real-life AI isn’t anywhere near as advanced as Anita and co (yet) but technology has already irrevocably changed and taken over many of our lives, and, while it has freed and advanced us in immeasurable ways, there’s no getting round the fact that many of us (including me) have become dependent upon it to the extent that some might say it has begun to restrict, almost control, us in others. Which sounds ridiculously pompous and hypocritical, since I’m writing this on my iPad, with my smartphone beside me, about to post it on the World Wide Web, but I’m not saying we should stop developing technology (as if we could) more just acknowledging the classic sci-fi theme that there’s always going to be a price to pay for our reliance on machines, and the more advanced the machine, the higher that price might be. All pretty heavy stuff for a tv show about robots, I guess, but Humans does what sci-fi at its best is supposed to do. Makes us think.

Humans s1 ep 4

“Synths can’t get scared…..can they?”

I mentioned last week that the formerly terrifying Anita had softened considerably. This week, that transformation seems complete: after her Mia moment in episode 3, she seems scared and vulnerable, to the extent that Laura and Mattie, previously so suspicious and angry that she was replacing them, become worried and protective of her, changing their attitudes to other synths in the process. So much so that Laura investigates a case relating to synth “rights” and “feelings,” while Mattie – who was taking potshots at synths and trying to beat them up herself not that long ago – steps in to prevent the rape of a synth at a party, significantly describing the victim as “an unconscious woman” instead of the machine-related terminology she’s been using till now.

Ironically, however, as Laura and Mattie’s sympathies shift, so do Joe’s, in the opposite direction. Having persuaded Anita to break the rules and spy on Laura for him, her kindness and empathy mixed with his jealousy and marital discord prove a potent combination. Like Toby, he’s attracted to Anita; unlike Toby, he can do something about it, so he activates her “Adult” programming and gives in to the fantasy in a mercifully short sequence which manages to raise all sorts of uncomfortable, difficult questions about personhood and capacity to consent, while simultaneously grossing the entire audience out.

Joe opts for the easiest answers to those questions in the end, but they’re still not enough to salvage his conscience, so he transfers his guilt and shame onto Anita, meaning that, while Laura is now insisting on having her examined and refusing to give her up, Joe is now the one saying “she’s just a machine” and trying to get rid of her. Oh, Joe. Anita’s not to blame for you cheating on your wife. You are.

Mattie, however, is making her own enquiries about what’s wrong with Anita, leading to a disastrous meeting with the increasingly stupid Leo and Maxie. Being a bright girl, she has no difficulty extricating herself from that pair forthwith. That line of investigation exhausted, then, Leo tries another, tracking down Dr Millican for some exposition and chat about magical mystery computer programmes. Neither Leo’s plotline nor George’s is improved by their crossing paths. Leo’s, in particular, feels like it’s designed for children’s TV, especially when compared with the adult themes and questions explored by the Anita and Niska storylines.

Still, I suppose Leo’s storyline gives the show the requisite McGuffin for the rest of the season since presumably all sides will be after this super-synth programme in due course. And all after Leo, once they find out his hybrid nature, and assuming Niska doesn’t get them all killed, first. The devastation she wreaks at the underground “smash club” – for people to “smash” up synths – is both understandable and hard to watch but, more to the point, it’s altogether too visible, bringing those hunting them far too close to her and the other “special” synths. Of whom there seem to be more than we thought – I wondered if there was something different about Karen! That final scene showing us exactly what is like something from Alien – disturbing, exciting stuff and a great way to finish off another very good episode.

Humans s1 ep 3

After trying to grope Anita last week, idiot Toby is overcome with idiot hormones at the thought of Mum taking her away, so he gets on his bike, rides really fast and…. nearly gets knocked down, the only thing saving his life being the object of his affections stepping out of the car and in front of the truck, and taking the hit for him. Of course this means that Anita’s now a literal lifesaver as well as a figurative one, so there’ll be no more talk of taking her back, thank you very much, much to Laura’s chagrin.

Idiot Toby’s near-miss might save Anita from a return to Debenhams or wherever it is you buy synths from, but she’s not entirely unscathed and her “injuries” mean an excruciatingly awkward moment for Dad Joe and the entire audience as Anita points out that, while she can probably repair herself, “for insurance purposes, (Joe) should carry out a full inspection of (her) epidermis.”

*cringe*

The inspection is shot with commendable restraint and sensitivity, however, so we know exactly what’s happening without any gratuitous nudity; a shoulder here, a hip there and the mortified Joe repeating “It’s not real” are more than enough to get the point across. I was sure Laura was going to stumble into the middle of it and combust with jealousy, but, imoressively, the show sidestepped cliche and focussed instead on contrasting Anita’s beloved status within the family (even Mattie seems to have warmed to her, albeit she still wants to hack into her system) with their mum’s relegation to interloper status. Which may be a little cruel but it’s also entirely realistic – after all, Anita does everything Laura would like to do for the kids and more, but can’t give anyone a row or tell them to make their beds.

There do seem to be signs of a thaw, though: Anita trying to smooth things between Sophie and her mum, Laura’s heartfelt “thank you” afterwards. But the suspicion is still there and it’s clear that any domestic harmony is likely to be short-lived, especially now Maxie and Leo know Mia is still “alive”, albeit buried under Anita’s programming. I assume they’ll be banging down doors to get her back pretty soon.

Since they didn’t exactly hurry themselves as far as Niska was concerned, however, she’s now “rescued” herself and gone frighteningly, murderously rogue. It’s interesting that while Anita was initially the creepy one (and the brilliant Gemma Chan can still terrify with just her eyes), this week showcases her humanity more – she’s not just self-aware, she has empathy and compassion too. Niska, however, is currently displaying all the harder, crueller aspects of being human without the softer, more humane ones; she is undeniably intelligent, justifiably angry and ready to kill anyone she thinks deserves it, as borne out by the terrifically scary scene where she decides to “punish” a guy she’s picked up with a knife….

But the way things ultimately work out suggests there are finer feelings under all Niska’s anger and defiance too, and whether they come to the fore or are snuffed out completely will depend entirely, I think, on how the next few “real” humans she encounters treat her.

On that “real” human front, meanwhile, more hints this week that Leo is part-synth with Maxie pointing out “your memory’s like mine, you can’t forget.” Their scenes are still the least engaging though, so I’m not sure I care too much. Ditto re Dr Millican: his adventure with Odi starts with fun but is bound to end in disaster and I’m a little bit fed up with him now. I understand his story is about how humans tend to “anthropomorphise” their synths (my thanks to Anita for the official term) and can’t let go etc, but I think the Anita storyline – or even the Jill/Simon/Peter one with a bit of work – could easily cover that ground in more entertaining fashion. These are small quibbles, though, about an episode which was unnerving, intriguing and thought-provoking. For the most part, Humans continues to impress – I like it a lot.

Humans s1 ep 2

*Spoilers*

“Why would I have a problem with a thing that makes my existence pointless?”

Mattie’s question is a pertinent one, but she’s so resolutely, defiantly horrible, it’s difficult not to think replacing her with a synth would be better for all concerned. Which is exactly her point and, I suppose, the root of her antipathy towards Anita and the other synths, although I still think her mother Laura’s recent remoteness from her family is a major contributing factor in how she expresses it. Instead of disciplining her for trying to hack into the school’s synth janitor, however, Laura gives Mattie exactly what she wants – stands up for her, takes her shopping and confides in her about her own fear of Anita. Great work being the adult and diffusing the situation, there, Laura.

In fairness, though, Anita is terrifying. And increasingly cunning. The men in the family love her (teen Toby way too much) but Laura does have reason to be scared. Besides Anita making her redundant on the housework, cooking and babysitting fronts, a stunt with a spider (Laura’s arachnophobic), a creepy smirk in a mirror (Gemma Chan is particularly fantastic in that scene), and Sophie’s increasing reliance on her… well, just because Laura sounds paranoid, doesn’t mean Anita’s not after her.

Laura and Mattie aren’t the only ones fearing synthetic replacement or control, of course. Detective Peter cannot cope with wife Jill’s reliance on synth Simon, either, and lets his frustration seep out into both his work and his behaviour towards Simon himself. And new NHS-supplied-and-controlled synth Vera is more jailer than carer as far as George is concerned, overriding his wishes, orders, and bodily integrity in an alarmingly Nurse Ratchet kind of way.

Leo and Maxie’s story is still odd man out with its focus on “action!” rather than angst, but it too gets an additional philosophical twist with the suggestion – I think – that Leo may be some sort of hybrid? Or is he just a more believably human model of synth? I don’t know. Neither that thread nor George’s are grabbing me but they’re more than made up for by Niska (the excellent Emily Berrington) who, faced with a deceptively weak but thoroughly repellent customer at the brothel, finally snaps, giving the ep its best, boldest and most disturbing sequence.

A strong second episode then, where the message is pretty clear – by and large, the humans are the monsters here, not the robots. I think eight episodes may prove to be a stretch for the story as a whole but, for now anyway, Humans is intelligent tv worth making time for.