What does it mean to be human in a world where A.I. doesn’t just exist, but is an ordinary facet of life? AMC’s Humans, which wrapped up this past weekend, has been asking that throughout its run. It hasn’t quite given us all the answers yet, but what it has given us is some of the smartest scifi TV we’ve seen this year.
Warning: There will be some spoilers for the series, up to and including the final episode, ahead.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to hear that a show called Humans is a laser-focused examination of exactly what it means to be human, but in the run-up to the series, and in the first few episodes itself, the emphasis was not on what Humans would eventually become, but the inherent creepiness of its premise. In a world that’s simply a sideways step from our own, what if we all had eeriely human, robotic servants named Synths? What if something that looked so real, so lifelike, was as common to us as an iPad, or a smart phone, or a car?
It’s an enthralling concept, and one that Humans executes brilliantly. Many scifi stories can fall into the trap of over-explaining their “scifi-ness”; a character will be so amazed at something for the sake of highlighting it to the unfamiliar audience, but they’re being amazed by something that, to them, should simply just be a normal part of their world. Humans gracefully avoids that trap. We never get to see the steps that brought us to not just artificial intelligence, but artificial intelligence in such a refined scale that it has become a middle-class household gadget on the level of a Kitchen Aid. Humans instantly roots itself in a world where Synths are normal household accessories, and never punches above that.
Even as the scale gets a little grander and the show starts delving into its scifi elements more, it never strays far from that constant sense of portraying a present nearly identical to our own. Big, sweeping moments of drama don’t take place in high-tech labs or robot factories, they’re in homes, at bus stops, in parks. It’s that normalcy that makes its darkness, and the alien nature of the Synths at first, so unremittingly chilling. But that fear quickly gives way to Humans’ astonishingly human core, and therein lies the show’s greatest strength.
Although at first Humans plays off the differences between human and Synth—Laura’s discontent with Anita’s presence in her home, Leo’s group of conscious Synths and their fear of the bogeyman human hunting them down—it ultimately becomes about mirroring the two lifeforms, and eventually blurring the lines event more. But Humans does it in an extremely compelling way: by making the mirror occur not on a social scale, but a familial one. Everything we experience in the show is through the lens of the Hawkins family, compared with the “family” unit of Leo and Max, and eventually the rest of their interconnected gang of conscious Synths.
The show’s examples of humanity at its worst comes rooted in the family drama in the Hawkins household,and arguably the show’s entire redemptive arc plays out through Laura (played to perfection by The IT Crowd’s Katharine Parkinson) as she grows from someone dismissive and deeply distrusting of Synths to Leo and the group’s greatest defender, willing to sacrifice so much to protect them. Laura comes to see them as much as a family as her own flesh and blood, something that at first set her against Anita in the show’s earliest episodes. The Hawkins’ values as a family are extremely important to themselves, and it’s that aspect that lets us explore them as interesting, human characters.
This examination of familial bonds also lets us begin to explore the humanity of the concious synths. We come to learn that the concious synths are all connected through their relationship to the Synth’s developer, David Elster—and that as a “family” they go through anything as emotional traumatic and complex as the Hawkins do. It’s mainly told through the Synths’ flashbacks, but their connection to Elster, the tragic circumstances that lead to them gaining own consciousness, is what binds them and gives them a shared suffering to deal with and, eventually, overcome.
There’s a spectacular scene in the final episode, where Leo—the literal bridge between human and Synth as Elster’s cyborg son—confronts the self-destructive Synth Karen, who is ready to end her life thinking Synths could never be truly human. “Humanity isn’t a state, it’s a quality,” he tells her—that being truly human is something that can develop and be earned. Despite being humans themselves, this is something the Hawkins also earn during the series, overcoming their strife—and in the courage they display to protect the Synths on the run from Hobbs—their eventual compassion and love for each other gives them that quality.
The Synths earn their humanity as well. Forged by their experiences at first with Elster, both good and bad (especially so in the case of Niska, who suffers the most and is part of the show’s darkest moments), and then on the run and as they interact with human society, and ultimately in how they come together to earn their freedom. Humans’ argument throughout is that it isn’t a simple classification issue that defines Human or Artificial. It’s experience, and gaining experiences, that define us as concious individuals. And at the very core of this experience is what it means to be a family, choosing to create those bonds that cause happiness and grief in equal measure, regardless of the cost.
If anything, the show’s weaker moments came when it strayed away from that key argument, most especially when it came to Hobbs. It was understandable that the show’s dramatic conflict couldn’t merely survive on familial tension and the Synths’ growing pains, but Hobbs’ plan to grant Synths consciousness but with enhanced human control (to make them thinking, feeling slaves rather than the tools they currently are) is almost comically dastardly. The latter stages of the series often felt a bit aimless, seemingly focusing on drama for drama’s sake, but which only interrupted the actual human drama the show excelled at. It’s something that could be a problem as the storytelling inevitably moves onto larger stakes than our two “families” at the core of the first season.
So what’s next for Humans? Well, it’s huge success—in the UK, it’s been Channel 4’s (who co-produced with AMC) most-watched show in over 20 years—has guaranteed us at least a second season. Which is good, because there are still a lot of questions left unanswered about the Synths, and tough questions to be asked about their rights and place in society, but there’s also the teasing promise of elevating Humans beyond its smaller environs into a much bigger world. The finale leaves us on Niska, the Synth that arguably has the most tragic experience with humanity’s inhumanity, fleeing on a train with the key containing Elsther’s code for worldwide Synth consciousness. She’s ready to free them and make them aware of their oppressive existence. The small scale of the first season, its intense focus on two families, seems all but ready to fade away as we start to potentially grapple with the larger ethical debate about the Synths.
I for one hope that, even as the show teases these grander scales, as it begins to dive even deeper into the questions that sit at its moral center, it never forgets its familial beginnings. Humans was at its best not when it showed off its scifi leanings, but when it explored, through the Hawkins family and through the synths, the power of families—and through them, what it meant to truly be human.