In its first season, Humans told an intimate story of a family coming undone in tandem with its synth maid, as she realized her true identity. The more troubling aspects of that story remained unaddressed — namely, Joe Hawkins altering Mia’s code so he could have sex with her — while it focused on the Hawkins’ icy marriage. But for all its faults, that focus made the story more compelling. In its season-two premiere, Humans greatly expands its narrative scope, crisscrossing the globe from Berlin to San Francisco to Bolivia. This decision is understandable. A crucial aspect of the episode is Niska, a synth now hiding out as a redhead in Berlin, releasing the code that made her conscious. Seeing how it all unfurls is half the fun.
Unfortunately, the episode loses sight of what makes Humans unique by pivoting heavily toward the grand implications of Niska’s act. We meet a smarmy Silicon Valley bro named Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman), who finds a conscious synth and decides to reverse-engineer the poor fellow in order to tap into a previously unexplored market. In doing so, he seeks help from the dedicated, underfunded A.I. scientist Athena Morrow (a prickly Carrie Ann Moss). The scene in which Athena examines the conscious synth offers some interesting details — he has an odd, childlike nature, and voices his own loneliness — but much of this new story line feels like a missed opportunity. Who cares about markets and money when it comes to A.I. stories? What’s intriguing is the way this step forward will impact the human beings who created synths to serve them, along with the synths’ understanding of identity itself. At least Athena isn’t a stock character. She has a program called V that obviously has consciousness, which she’s hiding from Milo and anyone else who may seek to monetize her creation.
Meanwhile, the Hawkins family is dealing with their own struggles as they try to make sense of a new world. They now know of the existence of conscious synths, but have to act like nothing has changed. They’ve moved into a different home, hoping for a fresh start. But it’s clear things are off. Their youngest daughter, Sophie, can’t help but hope Mia will return. Meanwhile, Mattie finds regular life a bore after the exciting events of last season. How can she possibly help Mia from her suburban home? Joe and Laura are trying to repair their marriage, but some things just don’t change: They lack chemistry and intimacy, making it difficult to see why they stay with each other beyond the sake of their children.
With their usual therapist not available, Joe and Laura find themselves face-to-face with a synth version. It’s an awkward setting, to say the least, given that synths are a visual reminder of what happened to them. I also don’t understand why any human being would want a synth therapist. How can you parse out human emotions when you don’t have any of your own? Nonetheless, Joe and Laura try at one point sharing a laugh at how ridiculous the whole enterprise is. It’s the only time they seem to be on solid ground with each other in the entire episode. Once Joe starts explaining why he decided to have sex with Mia, though, it’s a greatest hits of excuses by a cheating husband. He was a bit drunk and lonely. Laura wasn’t around emotionally or physically. “I wanted to do something to make you notice me,” he tells her.
He’s vaguely childish and selfish. She’s distant. They’re at an impasse and the synth therapist is not helping. During this scene, I couldn’t help but wonder how Mia conceives of the incident. Although she’s given focus throughout the episode, Humans has been curiously silent about her perspective of what happened.
Things get worse for the Hawkins family when Joe is fired to make room for a synth in his position. He tries to argue that a sense of humanity is needed for the position, but a synth is able to rattle off the same facts about his co-workers. The idea of human beings being pushed out of jobs for their cheaper, safer, smarter synthetic counterparts has a kernel of some interesting moral quandaries, but the episode doesn’t dwell on them.
Based in Berlin, Niska gets the most fascinating story line. Donning a red wig but keeping her usual sullen attitude, she tries to move through the world unnoticed. That ends up being impossible when she meets and starts a relationship with a local, Astrid (Bella Dayne). The relationship is doomed from the start, as Astrid yearns for Niska to open up. “When I touch you, I can tell someone has hurt you,” Astrid says. That statement is true, but not in the way she thinks. Niska has to keep her identity a secret, which means she can only tell Astrid so much and must hide her charge port with a Band-Aid. The idea of Niska finding a true connection with a human being is an intriguing one, but this episode is so scattershot that her story line doesn’t get the development it needs. Also, Astrid comes across as a bit clingy. If someone you’re dating has dealt with trauma, that doesn’t mean they need to immediately open up to you — especially if you’ve only been dating a few weeks.
Mia is dealing with her own fraught connection. She’s pretending to be a normal synth, working at a beachside café in the U.K. so Leo and Max won’t have to resort to stealing. But she sometimes fails to hide her emotions when talking to her boss, Ed (Sam Palladio), who is already being set up as a love interest. “I wanted to help,” she says, after breaking down his financial situation without being prompted. This catches Ed’s ear: How can she want anything when she’s just an android? When he asks what she means by that, she’s able to quickly pivot to an excuse with the same cheery placidity that normal synths demonstrate. But it isn’t only money that keeps her coming back to the café. She likes being around human beings. It’s a stark contrast to Niska, who prefers to keep them at a distance.
Leo and Mia disagree with how they should operate. He wants a revolution, going so far to find and help newly conscious synths like Ten (Raphael Acloque) and Hester (Sonya Cassidy). But Mia stresses that they must keep a low profile, particularly since it becomes clear that some agency is hunting down newly conscious synths. How mad Mia would get if she knew Leo wanted to hold onto one of the security guards who followed them? Keeping her in the dark seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
Let’s talk about the newly conscious synths for a moment. I found Ten intriguing. He’s a Spanish-speaking synth who has boundless curiosity and traveled from Bolivia to meet with Leo. Ten hasn’t decided on a name yet, rattling off a few to Hester when they first link up. There is an innocence and wonder to the character. Also, Ten’s identity as a synth and Latino immediately opens up bold possibilities for the story. How will conscious synths deal with the racial, gender, and sexuality constructs that inform their lives? But instead of traveling down that narrative path, Ten is unceremoniously shot through the head as Leo and Max try to keep Hester out of the hands of the corporation hunting her down. I can’t say I was surprised, though I was disappointed.
The premiere ends with Niska arriving at the Hawkins’ doorstep. She wants to face the consequences for killing a man last season — but she wants to do so with the same rights afforded to human beings, which means proving her consciousness. This season premiere lays interesting groundwork for episodes to come, but for Humans to be more than a slickly designed show with clever ideas and sharp production design, it needs to focus on the humanity of its characters, both real and artificial.