Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Humans: “Episode 4”

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Until now Humans has had a fairly simple arrangement. There are humans, whom I think we can all agree deserve basic human rights. There are dumb albeit advanced synths, who are programmed to fulfill certain domestic functions but have no real claim to humanity but sure look awfully cute, and that plays on our sympathies in strange ways if we’re not vigilant. And there are five sentient synths, or four and a cyborg or something, but the point is they experience something close enough to humanity, and soft science fiction has been tearing down our walls for long enough, that most of us agree they’re basically human and deserve all the rights (and criminal justice, Niska) as the rest of us. There’s also Odie, who is in the process of circumventing his programming ever so slightly, or maybe it’s just a glitch. But it’s all been pretty straightforward.

“Episode 4,” written by Joe Barton, muddies the waters in ways the other episodes have tried and often failed. Niska’s claim that the way johns treat synth prostitutes speaks to a general sadism in their nature didn’t pass muster with me, but an incident in this episode lays out the case beautifully. Mattie’s at some house party, and the teenager throwing it gets drunk and cocky enough in front of his friends that he decides to “have a go on” his family synth, who responds with that same warning Anita used on Toby. So he turns her off, and she collapses to the ground, at which point he decides to carry her body off to his room or somewhere.

Now, the premise does beggar belief somewhat. Wouldn’t there be some technological way to prevent just such abuse? If you build it, people will want to fuck it. Surely developers would have considered that. Wouldn’t they have designed a synth’s genitals so that they become not worth the hassle upon shutdown, say, by retracting the penis or closing the vagina, I don’t know, I don’t design robots, but you get my drift. Maybe there’s a physical component to the activation of adult options. But anyway, say such technological prevention poses too much of a liability—imagine the poor sucker whose adult-activated synth shuts down mid-coitus—or say there is a way to shut that whole thing down but this teenager hasn’t discovered that for himself yet. The point is he’s getting practice dragging a body off to a room. Mattie stands up to them. “Do you think it’s normal to drag an unconscious woman into a room and rape her? Is that standard party activity for you?” He protests with the reasonable response: She’s not a human. But the point is made, and it’s made better than Niska tried. The optics are gross, but so is his actual physical and social behavior, his showing off in front of his friends in such an ugly way, in such a way that could easily translate to a human woman next time, or eventually. Whatever you think about the ethics of this kid masturbating in his household synth, this party situation is at least murky.

Barton sets us up for an episode of muddy waters with the story of Alexandra Kennedy, who is suing over a violation of the human rights of her synth, Howard, after he was ejected from the audience of a play. Sound policy: Synths can’t appreciate art, and he’s taking up space. So far, so good. At first it’s just a story Laura hears at work, one of those details that fleshes out the world. Details like the oddly synth-like movements of Karen at work, like the background synths waiting on people at the diner where Mattie meets Leo, like Niska passing for human in front of a human supremacist, like the discovery that Leo’s DNA is an exact replica of David Elster’s, like Anita putting her hand on Joe’s and pleading with him not to cross some line in his marriage. Or like the moment Toby’s leaving for the party, fixing his hair in the mirror, and Anita says, “May I?” and adjusts his collar before sending him off. “Enjoy the party, Toby.” The episode is full of these jarring little moments that remind us synths are stranger than we might have given them credit for.

Well, eventually Laura pays a visit to Mrs. Kennedy and Howard, because she’s curious about Anita experiencing fear. There’s some clumsiness here, too. Mattie tells her mum that Anita yelled for help, and Laura’s natural reaction is to accuse Mattie of mistreating Anita. But any sentient human would impress upon her mother that this wasn’t just an automated alert or something. This was deep, disturbing panic. Anita, well, Mia grabbed Mattie! She’s not supposed to initiate contact. Why are the Hawkinses so bad at conveying to one another precisely how Anita fucks up? It doesn’t matter, because the ends are the same: Laura gets curious about Anita experiencing fright. After all, Anita’s already told us she can’t feel fear, in a monologue that surely stung for Laura. She’s wondering if Howard might have some answers. But it turns out he’s not special. Instead he’s the creepiest synth yet, and I’m including looming Vera. He has no feelings about Death Of A Salesman. He only has facts about it. When she asks about scary plays, he tells her, “I’m not built to feel fear, Mrs. Hawkins.”

So the episode gets our hopes up for even more synths developing sentience, synths who presumably weren’t designed by David Elster somehow evolving a certain level of consciousness approaching that of Max and Niska, and then it closes that window. Nope, it’s still the same three categories I mentioned at the top, and nobody can advance from one to another. At least that’s what this whole cunning Howard episode suggests. Mrs. Kennedy, though, stands on principle. “I don’t believe that he’s a human. But I also don’t believe that he’s an inanimate object that I should be ashamed of having a connection with…We can’t keep insisting that they are just gadgets. They are more than that. We have made them more than that.” And even here the episode finds a reasonable wrinkle. She’s not saying her synth, who is just like every other dumb one, is a human. She’s just attached to him, and understandably so. As for whether or not they’re gadgets, reasonable people may disagree. But the point is we leave this sequence, which was seemingly open-shut, with a bitter aftertaste.


Meanwhile Joe activates Anita’s adult options in a sequence that, like Mattie at the party, does what Niska’s scenes have failed to do. The key is nuance. The gray area Joe sees in fucking his robot has nothing to do with the ethics of fucking a synth in general. It’s that he’s married. Is this masturbation or cheating? He comes to his senses immediately afterward, as you do, and he suddenly feels really guilty. Setting aside Anita’s origins, which neither party is aware of at the moment, Joe’s basically masturbating, and the guilt comes from the personification of his Swiss Army sex toy. But if it’s really so clear-cut, the episode does a great job of testing that theory, because this is one of the saddest and most subtle scenes of the series so far. How do you compartmentalize like that anyway, and shouldn’t you accept that there’s some gray between the synth’s function as a personal tool and the fact that you interact with her and feel positively toward her? Is it better to clearly see Anita as a tool who can serve a sexual function or to feel guilty for using a humanoid womanoid like this? When one’s robot servant and sex doll are the same, the relationship gets a little trickier to make sense of.

Anita and Gemma Chan don’t make it easy. First of all, for a synth in passion mode, Anita sure doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself. She’s so quiet, which isn’t unrealistic, just noticeable. But of course she is. Deep down, somewhere in there, Mia is suffering from a sort of locked-in syndrome. After Joe turns off adult mode, which you have to command while touching, which seems unnecessarily burdensome, Anita ever so faintly loses her smile and turns away from him. In that one little gesture, whatever fleeting joy was in the scene dissipates. He asks if she has to clean up, and it’s like a real-life hook-up where everyone involved feels, or seems to feel, shitty afterward. It’s a simulation of that experience, yes, characters keep telling us synth emotions aren’t real, but we’re watching fiction after all, and this scene is strange and sad and strangely sad.


Eventually there’s even a big action scene about the subject of the day, synth abuse. We’ve been told about people hacking synths to feel pain, but we haven’t had such a sustained look at people giving into their negative feelings toward synths until this episode. The human supremacist and the synth fighting ring are about the only things that could salvage Niska as a character. She pays her fee to beat a synth with a baseball bat, and when she gets into the ring, she asks, “Ready?” Her conspirator doesn’t understand the question, because he is after all an object, but this is Niska we’re talking about. She wants to liberate the toasters. Finally she swings and hits one of the watchers. Someone shouts, “It’s humans versus synths!” and she shouts back, “I know!” It’s a blast in the moment, but that’s another way the episode complicates things. The optics of this fight club are bad, but what’s so wrong with it? It’s not so far from beating up computers and copy machines. Is there harm to society? The slippery slope Niska’s so convinced of doesn’t seem to exist here. It’s hard to imagine these guys escalating to kidnapping human beings, especially because obsolete synths ought to be pretty much everywhere. But the episode pulls our sympathies away from what we might rationally make of the situation, or tries to anyway.

The idea of Anita cleaning up is a setup for the final scene, which takes place at Karen’s. I hadn’t even noticed she was synth-like until the scene at the office this week, where she walks like a robot, and I assumed it was just to blur the boundaries. It is, but from the other direction. She’s not a human with synth-like qualities. She’s a synth with human-like qualities. She’s been Rick Deckarding us this whole time. She locks herself in her bedroom, which is odd, but I didn’t get it until she sits down at a table. Then she throws her head back and pulls out the balloon of food and liquid she’s had to ingest in front of people that day, ties a knot in it, and sets it in the trash. Time to charge for the evening. It’s an absurd proposition, this synth somehow fabricating an identity to the point where she works for the police and draws a paycheck from the state—what are her insurance physicals like?—but it’s the perfect surprise to cap the episode that shows us exactly how blurry the line is between synths and humans.


Stray observations

  • “Episode 4” is directed by Daniel Nettheim.
  • In robot news, one future cylon achieved a measure of self-awareness this week, and technology companies are very excited to start selling us synths. Get those shelters ready, y’all.
  • Mattie finds her mom snooping. “You would make a terrible spy.” “Whereas you would actually make a pretty good Bond villain.”
  • Jill Drummond wants a separation, and when Pete tries to take his rage out on Simon, she shouts, “Pete, the deposit!” It’s the little things that bring this story to life.
  • This girl at the party wants Toby, but he turns her down. “There’s someone else. I think I like someone else.” Oh, kid. It’s funny and weird, but it’s also sad in the same ways as the other stories. Toby should prefer human company to synths, right? But then, after all we’ve seen, maybe that compartmentalization isn’t quite right.
  • I was just wondering why there aren’t any copies of synths in Humans, no Simons in the fight club, for instance, when we cut to a technician answering my questions. “I haven’t seen one like her before,” she says of Anita, “so she’s unique. Sometimes they can be buggier than the mass-produced ones.”
  • So Leo’s a clone cyborg?
  • Pete: “What if it’s not an isolated incident?” Karen: “If there are more synths out there who can kill? Well, we’re all screwed, then, aren’t we?”