The best sci-fi fiction, be it TV shows, films or novels, doesn’t tell us what the future will be like but rather uses a futuristic setting to comment on our current way of life. The season premiere of AMC’s Humans does just that, and it’s beautiful, poignant, and absolutely terrifying.
Humans immediately sets its ominous tone with a stunning opening scene. A lone worker is seen rolling a body bag through a large white room, a number of half-naked bodies just standing around, immobile and silent. They are synths, or synthetics, robots that the everyday consumer can purchase to make their lives a bit easier.
We don’t know that right away though, making this first scene wonderfully tense. The lone worker, earbuds in and music blaring, strolls out of the room and shuts off the lights. The synths are at ease, shut down, except for one. She raises her head and stares up at the moon just barely peaking through the ceiling.
That synth, who seems to be more “alive” than the others, is later bought by the Hawkins family. More specifically, it’s patriarch Joe Hawkins who buys the synth, a desperate move from a man who’s overwhelmed by his job and his children while his wife spends more and more days away on business trips.
When Laura, Joe’s wife, comes home after five days away and discovers the synth, she’s immediately unnerved. It’s in Laura’s feelings towards the synth, which the family has christened Anita, that Humans really finds its dramatic tension and most thoughtful thematic territory.
Across the first episode we see Laura struggle with the idea of being replaced by Anita. Anita, in some ways, represents a physical threat — her eerie, dead eyes and towering presence, coupled with a series of flashbacks that reveal she is more conscious and human than your typical synth, mean that she’s more powerful and perhaps dangerous than the Hawkins’ realize.
As compelling as the mystery of Anita is — she seems to be a thinking, feeling synth who has a human lover named Leo looking for her–it’s the deeper, more human anxieties that pervade the episode that provide the most intriguing thematic musings. With Anita doing the laundry, reading to the Hawkins children, and coming with the capability for sexual pleasure–the manual for which Joe has discreetly (and creepily) kept for himself — Laura is unsure of her role within her marriage.
What Humans asks, through Laura’s anxiety, is this: what happens when we lose the very things that we use to define ourselves as human? We define ourselves through our jobs, our family, our ability to care for and love one another. If a machine can do that all relatively easily, then was it really that special to begin with? If the very things that make us human can be replicated so easily, then what about us is unique? What separates a human from a robot?
This is something Humans is reckoning with throughout its first episode, and the premiere does a great job of balancing the more existential themes of the show with the need for fast-paced plot and action. The action here is largely in the form of flashbacks, which take place 5 weeks before the Hawkins family bought Anita.
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Anita, and a few other synths that also seem to have some form of consciousness, are on the run with Leo. The central mystery of Humans has to do with Leo and the synths; there’s a vague notion that a big company or government agency are on the lookout for “feeling” synths, those that are perhaps outgrowing their programmed non-humanity.
Still, that mystery is anchored by the premiere’s more emotional moments. One of the highlights of the first episode is the storyline that involves Dr. George Millican, one of the original Synth scientists, who’s stubbornly taking care of his outdated synth model Odi.
As Millican, William Hurt turns in a stunning, heartfelt performance. Millican is a widower, having lost his wife, Mary, and now all he has is Odi. It’s painful to watch the doctor take care of the fading, malfunctioning Odi; he’s not only taking care of the synth, a personal achievement of his, but preserving the memories of Mary. Odi remembers what Mary was wearing on certain days in the past and can remember pulling a bee sting from her.
To lose Odi would be to lose his wife all over again (and maybe more, as Millican says Odi can’t be recycled because “he knows things”). After an accident in a supermarket, it looks like Millican will have to destroy Odi. Back home, as he gets ready to put his synth out of its misery, Odi begins to remember Mary again. Millican can’t terminate him and it’s completely moving, a scene that really hits home because of Hurt’s tender, generous performance.
As touching as the premiere is, there’s also a throughline of anxiety and mystery. Are the more intelligent synths dangerous? Does Anita pose a threat to the Hawkins family, or will she protect them from any harm that comes their way? Is Joe really looking to make life for him and his wife easier, or is he using technology to mask the real problems of their marriage?
That last question is part of the poignant thematic work Humans crafts in its first episode. The premiere asks us whether we’re using technology to better our lives, or to distract us from the things that matter. Are we dulling our sense and rounding off the sharp edges that, while painful, remind us what it means to be a thinking, feeling, complex human?
On top of that there’s Anita and her motivations. At the end of the episode she stares up at the moon again from the Hawkins’ house. She’s compelled to wander, to leave and maybe get to Leo. He’s spent the episode frantically looking for her, so perhaps the moon means something to the two of them.
The episode ends with a great cliffhanger. Anita leaves the Hawkins home in search of something, but she doesn’t leave alone. She takes Sophie, the Hawkins’ young daughter, with her, cradling the child in her arms as she wanders out into the night.