Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Can a human and a machine love one another? This is the question Humans dedicates itself to not only asking, but to asking in as many ways possible.
The show exists in a setting familiar to most science-fiction fans: a world in which lifelike humanoid machines populate society’s homes and businesses. Like the hosts of Westworld or the replicants of Blade Runner, they’re anatomically identical to humans and nearly blend in with humans. However, unlike hosts and replicants, the “Synths” of Humans do not think, trick, manipulate, feel or lie. That is, except for a select few – Niska, Mia, and a handful of others – who are disrupting expectations due to their “consciousness code.”
The second season of Humans picks up a few months after its first season and opens with Niska (Emily Berrington), perhaps the most intriguing of the conscious Snyths, considering whether she should spark upheaval by losing the consciousness code upon the world. She does, of course, but soon learns that it did not function as expected. Rather than every Synth immediately “waking up,” as Niska (and the audience) were led to anticipate, only a few Synths across the world begin acting differently, with no apparent rhyme or reason.
Back in London, the Hawkins family – Laura, Joe, Mattie, Toby, and Sophie – are trying to ease back into a normal life, a Sisyphean task after having a bunch of robots secretly living with them. This isn’t made any easier when Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) loses his job, or when their old friend Niska appears on their doorstep and declares that she wishes to stand trial for that murder she committed back in season 1. What does this have to do with the Hawkins family? Simple: she wants Laura (Katherine Parkinson) to defend her.
Meanwhile, we learn that Mia (Gemma Chan) is spending her days pretending to be an unconscious Synth and falling in love with a human, while Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Leo (Colin Morgan) round up all the freshly-woke Synths they can, including the dangerous Hester (Sonya Cassidy). Detectives Karen Voss (Ruth Bradley) and Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell) have started dating, despite that Karen is a secret Synth. If this isn’t enough for you, this season also introduces a handful of new characters, including Carrie-Anne Moss as Dr. Athena Morrow, an American AI scientist with a handful of secrets in her past.
What makes Humans work is that attention and care has been paid to each of these characters and their lives. The show takes its time, expanding both on the experiences of the characters and the world so compellingly built in the show’s first season. Joe and Laura are in marriage therapy conducted by a Synth; teenager Toby (Theo Stevenson) has a human classmate who identifies as a Synth; Joe has been made redundant not by a man, but a machine; and Mattie (Lucy Carless) has gone deeper in the world of “headcracking,” i.e. modding and hacking Synthetics, including a familiar face she rescues from the local dump.
Throughout all its storylines, Humans dedicates itself to asking the question previously mentioned: can a machine and a human love one another? Is love what makes us human? And if to love is what makes us human, what differs humans from machines? Can a machine raise a human child as its own? What is there to prevent a Synth from killing anything that threatens it? If a robot hates humans, is there anything to contain its danger?
The show’s greatest weakness is also that it seems to be so concerned with asking these questions that it diverts the story to ensure they’re asked. The actions of some characters are hard to believe, particularly the minor characters in roles in government or mysterious corporations. By the end of the third episode of the season 2, Niska has asked some probing questions and delivered some haunting monologues, but her muddled pseudo-trial storyline doesn’t make much sense.
Even when it becomes too complicated or repetitive – and by the third example of a platonic parent-child human-robot relationship, Joe’s factory job isn’t the only redundancy – Humans is still thought-provoking and enjoyable. It does not spend much time on shootouts or car chases, opting instead for marriage counselling, workplace bureaucracy and human drama. While this may bore some viewers, it allows for further exploration into the details of this parallel universe. If you found yourself yawning during Gattaca or Blade Runner or the first season of Humans, don’t expect the second season to be any different. This outing has even less action, although there is at least one murder so far.
One may describe Humans as “the poor man’s Westworld.” This is a true in a very literal sense. Humans is on AMC, rather than HBO, and lacks the names, budget, or landscapes of Jonathan Nolan’s futuristic Western epic. What Humans has that Westworld lacks though is restraint and subtlety. Westworld has cowboy robot orgies and a scene where Anthony Hopkins bulldozes his way through a series of Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein references; Humans has a haunted police detective who apologetically references For Whom the Bell Tolls after sex and has to save his robot girlfriend from a bizarre variant of alcohol poisoning.
What both Humans and Westworld share is a love for the legacies they build upon. Humans explores some of the same questions already explored for generations, by the novels of Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick and, more recently, the films Her and Ex Machina. The show knows it’s asking classic questions and it seeks to explore these questions while also paying tribute to its predecessors. Some of its best moments are in its homages, both quiet and not; a scene reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange works, even if it falls within one of the more muddled storylines. Even the names of the characters contain nods to the history of robots, including a minor character named for the inventor of the word “robot.”
Like its first season, the acting is magnificent. One can’t help but miss William Hurt’s character, but Carrie-Anne Moss is an excellent addition, both for her acting and her storyline. It’s also fun seeing such a contrast between Moss’s Humans character, dedicated to bettering the world through artificial intelligence, and the leather clad Moss who gunned down agents in The Matrix. Berrington and Carless are two of the other highlights, giving us nuanced and challenging characters. Where many science-fiction tales still struggle to pass the Bechdel test, there isn’t a single episode of Humans that doesn’t give us thoughtful dialogue between two compelling female characters. The one drawback to this many compelling characters is that some, like Gemma Chan’s Mia or Colin Morgan’s Leo, are given too little screen time and too little to do.
Like the best sequels and sophomore seasons, Humans takes full advantage of its opportunity to stretch out and continually add layers, both to its own narrative and to all the similar narratives that came before it. It avoids the present contemporary clichés of dystopias or apocalyptic landscapes, opting instead for something quieter. It might be too slow or too dry for some viewers – and the story may take some unnatural turns – but like some of the best science-fiction out there, the patience of the attentive audience is rewarded.
The second season of AMC's Humans builds on the sci-fi world of humans and AI established in its first, exploring ideas, conflicts and their consequences.