The third episode of Humans’ sophomore season finds its most blistering moments by simply tracking the minute shifts on Niska’s impassive face. No actor on the show deploys the carefully calibrated movements expected of androids with more subversion than Emily Berrington. To the humans who give Niska various tests meant to demonstrate her consciousness, her icy demeanor is seen as a byproduct of her origin as an android, but it is actually the result of trauma. A tense flicker of recognition or a sharply spoken one-liner demonstrates a clarity of emotion that they can’t properly understand.
Much like the season premiere, there is a lot happening in this episode. As Humans crisscrosses across the globe, tracking the wide-ranging and profound aftermath of synths slowly coming into consciousness, its story lines broaden in turn. Some plotlines feel a bit extraneous — like how Joe’s return to his old job in a lower-paying position touches on the prosaic fear of androids taking away work from human beings. (I also can’t help but think every time a synth is seen as a doctor, therapist, or nurse how ill-suited they are for such positions. A major part of the health-care industry is bedside manner. The false cheeriness of synths isn’t comforting. It’s isolating.)
Back at work, Pete Drummond and Karen Voss become entangled in a case involving malfunctioning synths that leads Drummond to accurately speculate that more are becoming conscious. Their story line is the least interesting and most disconnected from other characters, but watching Karen pretend to be human as she knocks back several pints of beer definitely has some potential. Pretending is starting to cause complications not only to her body — the buildup of fluid leads her to malfunction — but also in her relationship with Drummond.
Ultimately, it’s Niska’s dedication to proving synths deserve rights by putting her own life in peril that taps into a truly unsettling idea: How do we conceive of humanity in the first place? It’s clear that synths react differently to gaining consciousness. Max has an inherent optimism. Mia is full of empathy and curiosity. Hester is quick to violence and displays no emotion at all, though she is proving to be quite cunning. Just look at how she holds back from mentioning to Leo that she killed the man they kidnapped after Max released him. There is no one way to demonstrate humanity, which is why the tests being performed on Niska feel misguided. Also, if Niska were a male synth, would they expect such obvious displays of emotion from her? Or is it because she looks like a woman that she’s judged more harshly for her lack of openness and vulnerability?
Niska watches a series of videos meant to elicit emotional response. How the tests works is a bit murky, but it’s obvious she isn’t responding in a way she needs to be given opposing counsel Neha Patel’s (Thusitha Jayasundera) cutting jokes. Writhing snakes. Embracing hands. Bloodied fingers. The soundless videos presented to Niska are meant to provoke an array of emotions. But at best, Niska seems mildly annoyed. What the people testing her don’t seem to take into account is that Niska has no reason to react to these images. Why would an android be afraid of a snake or spider when those creatures are no threat to their livelihood? This doesn’t mean Niska has no interiority. She just learned to hide it in order to survive.
Nevertheless, Laura remains determined. She changes tactics by playing music for Niska, hoping that it will tap into a more primal response. When she hears techno music playing, Niska thinks of Astrid — the memory colored by the hazy amber glow of nostalgia — but once again she betrays no flutter of emotion. So, Laura chooses to provoke Niska’s anger and fear another way: by discussing the murder.
In the first season, Niska killed a man while pretending to be a normal synth in a brothel. He was the 14th client she saw that day. He wanted her to pretend to be a little girl, something that angered Niska. When she refused his request, things got ugly and she killed him. Niska’s act of violence wasn’t the apocalyptic android uprising some humans fear. It was the understandable reaction of a woman afraid of being raped. Laura’s decision ends up getting the outcome she hoped for. As Niska reacts, Patel isn’t in focus to be fully seen, but her shift in body language behind Laura is the definite sign of a breakthrough.
“I was scared,” Niska says. “I’m sorry I can’t cry or bleed or wring my hands so you know that. But I’m telling you I was.”
This is just the beginning for Niska. It’s too early to tell what the outcome may be for her, but I’m worried. Hear naturally prickly demeanor means that no matter what she does, this trial will likely end in death for her. The humans judging Niska have a small-minded view of what it means to be human, as if dramatic displays of emotion would even make sense for Niska. This is a woman beset by trauma, who learned to survive by keeping her real self in the dark.
Of course, what frightens Patel is the idea that synths don’t want to live like the human beings who created them. Yes, humanity can be kind and affectionate. But Niska has repeatedly faced humanity’s cruelty, scorn, and violence. Why would she or any other synth aspire to that?
Meanwhile, after the man they kidnapped is found missing thanks to Max’s act of kindness, Leo decides they need to leave the farmhouse. Mia chooses to stay behind in order to speak to Ed. It’s a dangerous decision and I’m unsure what she expects to happen. When Ed sees her, he’s apprehensive, but finds himself surprisingly touched by Mia’s display of affection. “Everything normal is bigger and brighter when I’m with you,” Mia says. She doesn’t say I love you or the more expected words of devotion. There is something naïve to her pronouncements, as if she’s struggling to put together the right words so Ed will understand how she feels. Ed eventually does. Later, back at his café, they even kiss. The only problem? One of Ed’s customers peeks into the closed café, spotting him as he shares a tender moment with Mia. Is this burgeoning romance doomed to end in tragedy? Unless Niska can prove her own humanity, synths like Mia cannot live the normal lives they so desperately crave.
The synths’ consciousness is about more than just their freedom. What does their emergence mean for the course of human evolution? Athena’s backstory, which is teased out in this episode, taps into this potent question. Her daughter has been in a coma for several years with no hope of waking up — but Athena is dedicated to keeping her in the hospital. It also becomes clear that V is some sort of re-creation of Athena’s daughter, which puts recent events in a new light. What is Athena’s endgame? To find an appropriate body for V, thus giving her daughter another chance at life? In order to get some answers about synth consciousness, Athena tries to bribe (and threaten) a familiar face: Hobb. Next to Niska, Athena has the most intriguing, morally dynamic story line this season. Carrie Ann-Moss’s mix of steeliness and vulnerability makes her the focus of any scene she’s in.
So far this season, Humans has a lot of wide-ranging narratives of varying quality, the best of which explore the moral complications that come with synths gaining consciousness. Mattie continues to tinker with Odi, who finally is awake. Some human beings, like Toby’s classmate and Sophie, are pretending to be synths due to the order and lack of vulnerability they represent. Every character is on the precipice of dramatic changes in their lives, and everyone’s fate comes down to what happens to Niska. If she’s able to prove her own consciousness and gain human rights for synths, the world will change in a profound way. It would be the start of a revolution.