Almost Human spent the bulk of its first eight episodes building a fun and compelling partnership between two lead characters. It also took a slower approach to tinkering with the world of the show, adding in bits of technology, or revealing the Blade Runner-esque noodle bars and android “companion” showrooms. But what the show lacked was a palpable villain, someone at the head of the shadowy Insyndicate organization—which had no real goals or conflict with the police other than existing and causing the incident that led to Kennex’s disastrous mission from the pilot. Or better yet, someone else entirely, apart from that organization (at least to start) with a more clearly defined reason for standing in opposition to the police. “Unbound” provides that much-needed villain, and even if it’s telegraphed as the “innocent ally slowly appears to be the criminal mastermind” knock-off of The Usual Suspects.
Now seems as good a time as any to bring up the original, abandoned ending of the Almost Human pilot, since the show has clearly lurched off in a different direction, but preserved elements of the original twist. If you’ll recall, the broadcast pilot ends with Kennex telling Dorian to call him John as they drive off in his car. But the original pilot ended with another minute or so of tag, where Maldonado beckons Kennex to the evidence room, where they open up a box the Insyndicate was after, and it contains a severed android head. Cut to: Kennex looking up and taking a dramatic pause…because it’s his father! Honestly, that’s how the pilot ended, a Hail Mary twist that served to shock, but moreover just backed the story into a corner it didn’t need to be trapped in at the time.
I’m glad that got cut, because instead of Kennex continually moping around and tracking down every little lead about Insyndicate—plus the episodic cases shoved in there so potential new viewers wouldn’t feel so lost—Almost Human was forced to focus on the most important partnership on the show. Oh, and it meant that John Larroquette could emerge as a disgraced robotics genius who invented Dorian’s line, but descends into villainy and seeks revenge in order to steal back resources before sneaking off to build a cutting-edge robot army.
Now that the whole “severed android head preserved in evidence” plot device has been employed within this plot offshoot to establish Larroquette’s Dr. Nigel Vaughn, I seriously doubt Almost Human will go back to that well—at least, not in that way. And when used for an introduction instead of a mind-fuck twist ending, it’s much more effective, teasing a good mystery about a dangerously powerful android created by an angry, bitter scientist who originally designed Dorian’s DRN series of androids.
As Dr. Vaughn, Larroquette conveys just enough of the brilliant pomposity to show the guy still has his wits, and then an ocean of wistful bitterness about his failed creation. After the DRNs began to malfunction, Vaughn lost his contract, and in a fit of desperation, designed the XRN, a more soldier-like android, which failed miserably and massacred a lot of civilians and police officers during its only demonstration. To Dorian, he behaves like a proud father, seeing one of his sons still working as a police officer, not relegated to the scrap heap like so many others. When he’s working with Rudy, he’s in the presence of an adoring fan that makes special note to praise Vaughn’s work at every opportunity. Vaughn is perfectly ingratiating, helping the department to seek out Danica, the violent escaped android with keen combat instincts.
Larroquette’s big moment is a monologue about creating the synthetic soul that formed the integral part of the DRN program. Vaughn compares it to DNA, which he dubs the “data,” as opposed to the soul, which is the “story.” He gets romantic and philosophical about his crowning achievement, without ever revealing anything about its development, and it’s clear that he’s got Dorian’s creator/absent father issues going, and enraptured Rudy. Larroquette is the show’s biggest guest star thus far, and he makes a big entrance, building from meek assault victim to active consultant on the case, helping to track down an android he built, while exuding regret at every possible juncture.
Dorian, for his part, isn’t much concerned with seeing Vaughn as a father—he’s more worried about his own capacity for violent malfunction in light of Danica’s unhinged killing spree. “Unbound” is probably the most interesting episode of Almost Human that doesn’t lean heavily on the comedic and witty nature of the Dorian/Kennex partnership. Though I enjoy that aspect very much, it’s good to see the show take a week off from it to establish a third character, one who can hopefully stand in well-defined opposition to the police as he builds an army in the one place nobody will think to look: the other side of a giant security wall that blocks out some unknown threat (or keeps everyone within).
The lingering problem with the sudden shift in the overarching story is that it forces Kennex, Maldonado, and everyone else to suddenly introduce The Wall as though it’s an incredibly significant part of life in this city. Almost Human has never been upfront about its setting, not even dropping hints—and now a giant border wall in the middle of an anonymous city that looks an awful lot like Vancouver just happens to mean something significant. Fringe shot in Vancouver for five seasons, and now the Almost Human production resides there as well, but the specific location hasn’t been important enough to share or invent yet.
The expert witness that Rudy calls in to talk with Kennex and Dorian offers up the name of a talented young robotics researcher in New Tokyo—which suggests that something happened to Tokyo in the intervening years (and also suggests that Almost Human missed a chance for an Akira reference to go along with the Blade Runner touches). But The Wall, the city Almost Human takes place in, and the history that makes the other side sound so bleak are part of the other difficulty the show has been brushing up against as it creeps towards 13 episodes. (Fox hasn’t ordered a back nine, and it’s a toss-up as to whether that’ll actually happen or if it premiered late enough in the schedule to come back with a full order next fall, if it returns.) Some mystery is good, when well executed, because it keeps viewers highly interested in checking in each week. But all mystery with no foundation can lead to something like “Unbounds”’s climax, where there’s a threat, but no tangible stakes, since neither Kennex nor Dorian will die in that scenario. It’s only after Danica’s final line about sacrificing herself connects to the twist that Vaughn planned the whole incident that it takes on meaning.
After that fight scene—yet another nicely choreographed bit of stunt work for a series that has the benefit of Michael Ealy and Karl Urban as game fighters—Vaughn is still gone, and the ruse begins to unravel. He stole the synthetic souls from among his old lab equipment. He programmed Danica to steal the powerful microprocessors and discard them before acting as a sacrifice while potentially taking out the political opponent most responsible for de-commissioning the DRN program and tanking Vaughn’s company. And he absconds up and over the giant border wall, presumably to begin constructing an army of androids more powerful and more precise than Danica. Insyndicate had things like Red Cyklon and biotech, but even if Vaughn doesn’t link up with them somehow, he’s a more formidable, and entertaining villain than some faceless organization that leaves Kennex’s ex-girlfriend in the wind for now. Larroquette is the jolt in the arm Almost Human needed to get the plot back into gear after the Dorian/Kennex partnership has been established. And with at least four more weeks left, the team actually has a capable villain to track down while elucidating what The Wall is there for and what happened to the world to get to the point where the show begins.
- Perhaps the only thing that continues to bother me every single time is the name Insyndicate. I have no earthly idea why the organization has that name instead of just Syndicate.
- Excuse me while I go re-watch Richie Rich to enjoy some sweeter, sweet John Larroquette villainy.