Humans: The Shape of Things to Come

Posted on July 06, 2015


Katherine Parkinson in AMC’s “Humans.”


With this, the second episode of the series, we got a much better sense of what the show’s going to be about. Not that we didn’t grasp the ideas and concepts presented last episode. It’s still a sideways world where lifelike androids have infiltrated every area of life, but it feels less like it’s a story heading to some apocalyptic showdown. If anything, the apocalypse has already happened and people appear to be largely unaware of it. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

It appears this isn’t going to be a tale of war between humans and artificially intelligent synthetics, Terminator-style, although there’s certainly a subplot or two hinting at such things percolating along nicely. Instead, the show is taking a much slower and more – dare we say it? – human approach to things. So far, it’s less about man vs. machine and more about man succumbing to the ubiquity of machines. The synths have not only invaded every aspect of life, but they’ve infiltrated the most sacred and personal parts of it – and it appears that very few people are bothered by it or even notice it, except for Laura, Mattie and George.

But first, lets check in on the non-human side of things. There were a couple revelations and clarifications this week, foremost among them being that the synths who appear to have all achieved sentience did not evolve. Instead, they were created to be the next generation of synths. By whom, it isn’t made clear, but the fact that there are (so far) very few synths with emotional capability is what clued us into the idea that this was less a story of robot overthrow and more a story of humanity slipping away under an endless wave of ever-improving tech. The tension regarding the sentient synths doesn’t arise from  what they’re going to do next; it arises from the very fact of their existence and what it means in a world where humanity is losing itself.

Anita, stuck somewhere between automation and intelligence, is showing signs of independence underneath all her programming. She stopped Toby from feeling her up and showed a modicum of feeling and concern for him. While she wouldn’t technically be lying by not informing his parents, since he never actually touched her, it’s clear she’s bending the rules of her programming through sheer force of will. She did, however, lie right to Laura’s face about taking Sophie out of the house the night before. When you put her story alongside her other “family” members and their struggles for independence, you want to cheer for her as she appears to be fighting her way out of some sort of fog. But you can’t ever lose sight of just how creepy her actions come across in the setting of a more or less normal family home. Even if the intentions are good, to have an automaton hug your child and swear to protect her is, at the very least, an unsettling thing. Then there’s the whole “staring at Laura” thing she does, which makes us fear she’s going to snap at some point.

Similarly, Niska’s moment of triumphant freedom doesn’t quite scan once you think about it. While it’s truly awful what she was subjected to (and the scenes of her being disinfected and told she had six minutes to prepare for her next client sold that nicely), at the end of the day, she was treated as an object by people who had every reason to believe that’s what she was. You don’t cry over the feelings of inflatable sex dolls, do you? While the sex-toy aspects of the story are potentially some of the more interesting, the show has yet to ask any questions or pose any moral quandaries that really stick. “Everything they do to us they want to do to you” sounds damning, but it’s coming from something that all of society believed (rightly, in almost every case) to be an inanimate object. It’s like a broken vase suddenly complaining about domestic violence. Similarly, it’s hard to see Toby’s fumbling as anything but a teenager discovering porn for the first time. It’s played like an assault, but that’s only because we know on some level that Anita can understand what’s happening to her. On the other hand, it’s frightening to think of a world of Tobys growing up and not understanding fully the idea of consent or the necessity of a willing partner in sex.

Much more damning and potentially more interesting are the other ways in which synths have invaded personal lives: not just through sex, but through childcare, elder care, and disability care; areas of life positioned to benefit most from this technology. And yet, the show does a wonderful job of showing how slowly horrifying it can become when you entrust the care of human beings to unfeeling machines. Or in Anita’s case, machines who aren’t supposed to be feeling. That’s the thing that became obvious with this episode: the importance of the series title. There’s nothing ironic or next-stage about the use of the word “Humans.” It is quite literally a story about humanity; about what we hold dear; about the likelihood or ability of humanity to fight for those things anymore, and about the ways in which we will almost happily give up the most fundamental aspects of human life for convenience’s sake. It’s not a story about robots becoming more human; it’s a story about humans becoming less so.

Interestingly enough, there’s a socially conservative undertone to the story, which is not something you see often in modern sci-fi. The state, technology, and outside forces are taking over our healthcare and child-rearing decisions, perverting our sex lives, and threatening the family unit. You’d think the show, because it’s taking such a social and personal approach to this story, would show at least a little bit of social or political resistance to the synths, given how much they’re changing society – and how quickly. Laura is seen as a bitter and unsuccessful mother (a “shit mother,” as she put it) for asking questions that, in retrospect, seem like fairly obvious ones to be asking. Mattie is seen as a juvenile delinquent for pointing out that her entire generation has no reason to train themselves to enter the workforce. George is seen as an old crackpot (and to be fair, he kind of is) for not wanting his agency taken away from him by the state and an overzealous machine. As much as we’re enjoying the personal aspects of this tale, all of these things appear to be happening in a vacuum, which doesn’t quite scan with how we see the real world. Two decades after the internet was adopted by the public at large and we’re still – as a worldwide culture – wrestling with ethical questions about privacy, pornography, and advertising in this medium. So far, this story feels one-sided and incomplete without some sort of serious worldwide resistance to what’s happening, even if its only on a rhetorical level.

Still, you can’t fault the show from shying away from these questions, even if the people of the world the characters live in aren’t asking them enough. It’s possible this could erupt into something more action-based, but at the moment, we’re loving the philosophical approach.

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