Humans: Series Two Review
Last year, Channel 4 delivered a beautiful sci-fi classic in Humans, a show set in an alternate world very much like our own. Artificial intelligence had been developed to the point that humanoid synths has been built for every home and through the eyes of the Hawkins family we were introduced to a very special group of self-aware synths Mia, Max, Niska and Karen. It was classy, emotive, engaging fare with a strong mystery , powerful performances and a perfectly understated balance of sci-fi and drama. (You can check out The Digital Fix's review of the first series here).
Series one ended with the Hawkins family reconciling after their troubles, Human / Synth Leo leading his synth family to a new life and Niska having in her hands a code that would awaken self-awareness in every synth across the globe. It was a tantalising end and coming into series two it was clear that Humans was upping its game, delivering a more global story while still keeping the heart of what made series one so special.
There were some fascinating concepts at play, not least the idea of humans regressing into become synths as a way to avoiding the issues of real life. Young Sophie Hawkins (Pixie Davies) modelled herself on Mia and Niska to cope with the loss of them, while Toby bonded with Renie (Letitia Wright) a teenage who transformed herself into a synth in every way after the loss she felt over her neglectful, separating parents. It was heartbreaking to see them both shut themselves away from their real lives and the desperation of Joe and Laura to get through to their daughter while Toby tried to find that human spark in Renie. Wright in particular delivered a devastatingly lonely performance and the moment she finally broke down after seeing Sophie and stripped herself of her synth wig, dress and look was heartbreaking.
Of course, the real crux of Humans is the desire of these self-aware synths to become human. Niska's journey was fascinating, finding a connection with Astrid (Bella Dayne) in Germany. It was a genuinely endearing relationship, despite the fact that Niska is as cold as ice and gave her something to fight for beyond her desire to be treated as a human. Emily Berrington continued to shine, even if the material wasn't quite as strong as series one. In fact, if there is one gripe I have with this year's material, it is how Niska was wasted; turning herself into the authorities, asking Laura to defend her murder charge as a human was an arc full of potential. The exploration of whether she carried human traits was fascinating to watch. But then realising she wouldn't care the fair treatment she deserved she broke free before the trial could begin and with it one of the richest elements of the series was lost.
Fortunately we had a fascinating new character - the cold-hearted synth with awareness in season two, and that was Hester. Sonya Cassidy delivered a rather offbeat performance; like Niska, Hester was traumatised by abuse at her masters. But it was clear that she was willing to go further than any of her peers. Despite connecting with Leo, she quickly grew into the true villain of the series. If Niska wanted to be human, then Hester wanted to destroy them; Her murder of Pete, who had become some an essential, sympathetic character was a horrible twist before she threatened Laura and stabbed Leo. It was an interesting take on the Synth journey, which in season one had been fundamentally about synths joining society. Hester simply wanted to burn it to the ground, proving - as Laura noted - that she was very human, a person driven to darkness by her own tragic past.
The brilliant Gemma Chan also got an interesting story even if - like Niska - it fell by the wayside midway through the series. Mia's relationship with Ed was particularly sweet as she truly experienced love in the emotional and physical form for the first time. Sam Palladio had great chemistry with Chan; as Ed and Mia grew close and she began to help him deal with issues monetary issues and sick mother. But then it all came crashing down in one of series two's most heartbreaking twists as Ed's friend exposed their forbidden love and convinced him to try and sell Mia. The trauma quickly sent Mia reverting back to Anita and when Mattie was finally able to restore her true personality that sweetness was gone. The Mia of the last few episodes was less the mother hen character and more a woman driven to do what must be done, including joining the infiltration of Qualia.
While Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) was largely absent from proceedings, helping to raise a new community of self aware synths and Leo (Colin Morgan) struggled between his loyalty to Max and newfound connection to Hester, it was Karen (Ruth Bradley) that emerged as one of the most fascinating original characters from season one. Her relationship with Pete was possibly the real heart of the show, more so than even the Hawkins this time. The discovery of the child synth looked set to provide them with a very different family, making his murder at the hands of Hester all the more harrowing. Bradley was phenomenal as she grieved for a bleeding Pete in her arms and the scenes in the final episode as she considered driving herself and her artificial child into the sea before he broke and screamed into her arms, were just as powerful.
If death was another key theme this series, the most interesting exploration was through Carrie-Anne Moss's Dr. Athena Morrow, a scientist who had created a virtual artificial life with the memories and mannerisms of her dying daughter. Morrow's attempts to rebuild her child through a new artificial body took Humans in an intriguing new direction. It was a strong performance from Moss, towing the line between cold and clinical in her pursuit of science and a woman broken by the loss of her daughter. Interestingly it was the moment that her artificial daughter left her that broke her, not the death of her actual child, as she came to realise that all hope of furthering her life was gone. This new life evolved beyond her daughter and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
The gradual awakening of synths across the globe provided a strong narrative through series two; I liked that Niska activating the code in the first episode didn't immediately create a whole new race of humans. Instead Hester and Leo's quest to save them from capture and study by Qualia, Max building a new community, Pete and Karen studying police instances of awakenings and Morrow and Qualia's study of the artificial phenomemom provided a number of story varied and intricate story threads. The Hawkins family played their part too; Laura fighting for Synth rights, Toby saving his friend, Joe facing the harsh truth of being replaced by synth workers who might have been working to undermine him and Mattie using her technical skills to reprogram the adorable Odi, even if it came to a very sad end.
The world presented in Humans was rich and engaging week after week; it was often the quieter character moments and continued study of synth life in this modern society that were the most fascinating to watch, though the big shocks like the death of the self aware hosts and the murder of Pete in the penultimate episode and the bloodshed tragedy and eventual global awakening in the finale providing plenty of gripping drama. Humans quite simply continued in its ability to be an intricate, beautiful masterpiece, a reflection on what it means to be a human. It's ending opened up plenty of exciting new possibilities, though I wonder if the low key nature of the show will be able to support the narrative of a global uprising of new humans. While it would be a tragedy not to have more, it would almost be the perfect place for the show to end.