Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
As I launch into these Electric Dreams recaps, I hope to impress that writing a great episode of a sci-fi anthology series is exceptionally difficult. For the last two episodes, I’ve talked about the dangers of pushing the audience away and plot-blocking, but with “Human Is,” I’m happy to report that we get the strongest episode yet, at least dramatically speaking.
We begin in the distant future with humanity battling for resources with a dangerous and ethereal alien race. A high-ranking soldier named Silas (Bryan Cranston) makes a speech about sacrifice and duty, but the general praising him also praises his wife, Vera (Essie Davis of The Babadook), who is a fellow officer of equal important. Silas becomes bitter and spiteful because he is a selfish, tiny man, one so easily emasculated that he takes to scolding his wife in private. He’ll do anything he can to make himself feel like a tough guy, the kind of man who has willingly sacrificed so much for honor. In other words, he’s toxic masculinity to a T.
Meanwhile, Vera is barely hanging on by a thread. Silas has eviscerated her sense of self and whittled her down to a nub, to the point that she often resorts to a breathing mask just to get through the night. It’s as abusive a relationship as you can imagine. Sure, we may wonder how these two got together and how it got like this, but the pressure cooker of conflict between them plays so strong and heartbreaking as to take precedence over those questions. And that’s why dramatic writing is so important to the function. With anthology shows, you always know that there will be twists, turns, and secrets that unfold. But unlike in “Autofac,” when we were on our heels just waiting for them, the inevitable twist in “Human Is” isn’t driven by mere curiosity. My driving question as an audience member wasn’t “What’s really happening?” It was, “Oh, God, how is she going to get out of this?”
I didn’t expect the answer to be “Vera moonlighting in future sex clubs,” but hey, that’s what makes sense. But we learn that this is only one of several release valves in her life, which include running and a strong friendship with another female officer. Together, it all paints a detailed portrait of co-dependency. And then we hit a lovely new synthesis point when Silas goes off to war, only to suddenly die in the blaze of glory that he always wanted. We genuinely wonder, “Is she free? Can she escape the cycle of abuse with someone new?” As anyone in a co-dependent relationship would feel, she’s racked by nervousness and guilt. But it’s all short-lived when Silas and another soldier apparently come home from the mission after all.
“What happened?” we wonder. At first, Silas is weak and dependent on Vera’s care, but he also seems so different. He treats her with kindness and decency and all the things we’ve never quite seen from him. Suddenly, the episode has introduced the greatest problem with abusive cycles: the problematic reconciliation periods before it all falls apart again. Has this haunting experience changed Silas? Has he seen the light? But just a few moments later, we get a right turn: The other soldier who was brought back is an alien metamorph, posing as the human in question. And as the general tells us, these aliens are without pity, empathy, or human kindness. So now, we are left with a haunting question of trust: Has the real Silas simply turned into a better man? Or is he an alien?
Sadly, this is where the episode goes off the rails.
Not necessarily within the logistics of the story itself, though. The rest of “Human Is” plays out with remarkable tension as Vera tries to sort through Silas’s new displays of humanity. And when Silas finally goes on trial, his kindness toward her lead to his biggest human gesture yet, which is sacrificing himself to protect her from being put on trial as well. Vera then uses this act to prove to the council that he must be human. To which they agree. And thus, Silas is freed. But in those final moments, Vera finally lets us see the truth: She knew from the moment that he got back that he wasn’t the same horrible person, but she saw a being full of empathy and kindness, one that she could share a life with. Vera asks for the alien’s real name. “I’m afraid that you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it,” he admits. To that, they join heads in their new future.
But sadly, the desire to go with a “gotcha” ending hurts the last act and yet another episode of this series. If Silas and Vera’s conversation had come before the trial, then the quiet unsaid drama of their desire to save each other would have played like gangbusters, particularly with Cranston’s gaming performance. Instead, we’re left with another case where the story suffers in the name of making the audience question what they’re seeing, when they could sit there in the emotion itself.
Still, there’s a much bigger problem: I have no idea what to do with this episode as an extended metaphor. If we’re supposed to buy into the overt setup that this is a metaphor about an abusive relationship, then what is it saying when the abuser is literally replaced by a new person? Is this episode really just about when a person seems different? That not only seems dangerous for a story ostensibly about getting out of toxic cycles, but because of the nature of the logistics, does that mean it’s also a metaphor for learning to trust and opening yourself to new relationships? If Vera has suffered abuse, how does she adapt so automatically without any real conversation about the how and why? By waiting for the last gotcha moment, the truth is we can’t really explore these ideas thematically to get a solid answer. And, as a result, we’re left wondering what it all really means.
In sci-fi stories where characters never actually face the conflict at hand, the central metaphor matters tremendously. But in this case, the metaphor can’t hold itself together: In the real world, your partner is never going to suddenly change into a different person, specifically a much nicer one. (No, those kinds of changes usually go in a different, darker direction.) And so there’s nothing I can ultimately grab onto outside of the story itself. All the ideas within it end up being mere thoughts, allusions, and flavors of conflicts that I know all too well. It all never quite adds up to a coherent point, so there’s no real place I can go with it.
With “Human Is,” I was constantly transfixed, but ultimately at a loss.