Niska makes a daring escape, George gets a new nanny, and Laura is ready to return Anita to the store.

By Kyle Fowle
July 06, 2015 at 02:00 AM EDT
Des Willie/AMC

Through two episodes, AMC’s Humans has struck a balance between being a fun thriller and a more meditative drama. While the actual plot isn’t forwarded that much in tonight’s episode, there is a lot going on in terms of character work. After last week’s cliffhanger of an ending, the second episode quickly resolves it and spends some time deepening each story line.

The episode begins by teasing that cliffhanger, with Laura waking up and finding that the top floor of their home is rather quiet. She stands outside Sophie’s closed door and pauses before going in. To our surprise, Sophie is there, sound asleep, Anita having returned her from their midnight excursion at some point before dawn.

But where did Anita take Sophie the night before? That question is part of the larger mystery at the heart of Humans. Laura finds that Sophie has changed her pajamas, the ones she was wearing when she went to bed now lying wet in the hamper. It must have something to do with Anita’s strange flashbacks, where she’s underwater with someone.

That someone seems to be Fred, who’s being tested by Hobb and his colleagues. They’re attempting to tap into his memories, and while doing so find a recurring one where he’s underwater and reaches out to grab Anita. It’s unclear what Hobbs wants with Fred and the other conscious synths, but he’s worried what would happen if knowledge of them got out.

Hobbs understands what Fred means to society. “He’s penicillin. He’s the atom bomb,” says Hobbs when asked why Fred is so important. The description is pretty cringe-worthy, a slice of hacky dialogue, but it does signal why Hobbs is so determined to track the other conscious synths down.

That’s one of the few times where Humans has slipped into trite sci-fi territory. So far, the show has done a wonderful job of trusting that viewers will grasp the underlying messages of the series. The focus is instead on tone and character, and through those storytelling aspects, Humans becomes so much more. It largely avoids pointing out how the synths are like “atom bombs/penicillin,” and that’s part of the show’s charm; the world feels very-lived in and the narrative isn’t heavy on the exposition.

That means that Humans can spend an episode like tonight’s just jumping around from one character to the next, checking in on them without pushing the narrative too far forward. This is a much more meditative episode than the first, but considering the show’s elements­—from its sparse score to the clean look of its “contemporary future” setting—it’s a mood that fits the show.

That pace allows seemingly smaller characters like Peter, the Special Technologies Task Force agent, to become more than minor players. Humans doesn’t really have any “villains” per se; rather, there are just a bunch of people trying to cope with the world that’s been given to them. For that kind of show to work, one that doesn’t derive tension from a clear clash of forces, you need a more patient style of storytelling.

Peter, initially positioned as a bad guy of sorts who works to shut down old synths, including Dr. Millican’s, is given some sympathy in this episode. We see how he feels emasculated by his wife’s synth/physical therapist, Simon. Much like Laura, Peter is struggling with the notion of being replaced; of understanding what value he serves in his marriage if his duties can be so easily replicated by a machine.

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Peter’s emasculation really works as part of the show’s exploration of sexuality, power, and human emotion. Synths may be able to do the chores and organize our schedules, but they have no remedy for jealousy, insecurity, violence, or misogyny.

Those qualities embody what it means to be human, and in some ways, Humans argues that even when presented with advanced technology, human beings resort to primal behavior. That cultural critique is at the heart of Niska’s escape from the synth whorehouse Leo has kept her in. When she’s confronted with a customer whose demands she just can’t stand—an older man who wants Niska to act young and powerless—she lets her consciousness be known and strangles the customer before escaping into the streets.

It’s a powerful scene not only because of the implications in terms of the group of conscious synths staying in hiding, but also because of its thematic concerns. The scene works as a critique of the sexualization of young women in our culture; the fact that the synths who aren’t “aware” wouldn’t be able to say no to the customer’s demands is important, an indictment of the way our culture strips women of their agency when it comes to their bodies. Niska is literally someone’s property until she fights back.

Dr. Millican is fighting back in his own way as well. He’s officially been strapped with a new synth, though Odi is still in tact, hiding out in the shed for now. Again, there’s not a lot of plot progress here—we don’t learn much more about Dr. Millican and his role in creating the first synths—but we do get more poignant thematic work.

Just as Niska loses her agency, so too does Dr. Millican once he gets his new synth. She takes over his life, telling him that his house is unclean, that the shades need to be drawn, that he can’t go outside at certain hours because of his health. George has lost the choice to live out his later years in a way that satisfies him, instead having to bow down to what the government says is best for him.

It’s another instance of Humans questioning the pervasiveness of technology in our culture, and critiquing our very passive acceptance of just about every new gadget and upgrade. Humans, and specifically this second episode, questions our culture’s belief that every new piece of technology is great and makes our lives easier. That’s just not true, and as Anita’s drying shoes suggest, there are dangers lurking that we may not even fully grasp yet.

Laura just might understand though, having had a talk with Mattie about how Anita isn’t like other synths because she doesn’t share data. She’s completely closed off from other synths, which shouldn’t be part of their design.

At the end of the episode, Laura is dragging Anita back to the store, practically prying her out of Sophie’s longing arms. It’s a stirring image, showing how quickly Laura has been replaced and the effect of technology on young minds. It’s haunting to see Sophie so attached to Anita, a clear critique of our reliance on technology and the dangers such reliance presents. It’s in that exploration of larger cultural issues that this episode really succeeds and continues Humans‘ great start to its eight-episode series.