Humanity and its relationship with machines is familiar literary and screen terrain, so how does AMC’s ‘Humans’ attempt to distinguish itself in the longtime debate of singularity? In truth, it doesn’t- but its exploration of a current issue, beauty and objectification, in a not so distant dissonant future is compelling.
It is strange that in a world where a machine’s function is purely pragmatic, it should be aesthetically stunning. Take Anita (Gemma Chan), also known as Mia, who is a synthetic human. When Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), who struggles for five days to keep his household running smoothly while working full time, purchases Anita, his youngest daughter, Sophie (Pixie Davies), worries, “What will we do if she isn’t pretty?”
Fear not, young Sophie– your synthetic human is a jaw dropper… just ask your stunned daddy. But why is that important? Almost all of the synthetic humans showcased in the premier of ‘Humans’ are physically attractive– so what does that say about how we value beauty?
‘Humans’ presents a clever allegory of human’s tendency to objectify and possess that which is aesthetically beautiful. For the allegory to work, it is important to clarify that Anita and three other equally attractive synthetic humans, Fred, Max, and Niska, are sentient entities who are on the run.
It is unclear who they are running from, but Leo is their guide to freedom. It is also clear that their sentience and desire for freedom is the central conflict of the series.
Whether the four synthetic humans are authentically autonomous or are simulating consciousness is fodder for another debate. Three of the anomalies, Anita, Fred, and Niska, are captured and redistributed on the market, most likely by illegal means.
Fred was redistributed as a farm hand. Upon capture and cursory diagnostics, Professor Hobbs (one of ‘Humans” leading scientist) describes Fred as “the Mona Lisa and the Atom Bomb.”
To compare Fred to a piece of celebrated visual art is a compelling choice, a choice that encapsulates a human yearning to possess that which is visually superior– not to celebrate it, but to capitalize upon it. Equating such beauty to an agent of annihilation is equally intriguing; dangerous beauty is another tried and true literary and screen motif.
Niska’s (Emily Berrington) story arc manifests the exploitation of beauty, possession, and destruction in the most devastatingly clear manner. After Niska’s capture, she is sold into sexual slavery. Leo locates her, but cannot immediately rescue her. He asks her if she “shut off her pain,” but she refuses because, “she was made to feel.”
Niska’s story creates new questions. Does she allow herself to feel the pain as a means to survival- a reminder of what’s at stake for her if she reveals her true self? Does it matter if “feeling” is innate or programmed…is there even a difference between innate and programmed emotions or instincts?
At the close of the episode, we see her used by a faceless man– her face simultaneously blank and enraged. At this point, we are forced to ask the question, does it matter if she is human or a synthetic human? Is suffering universal or subjective? What does it say about humans that would use something that looks, feels, and behaves human for their personal gratification?
An artificial housekeeper, a farm hand, and a sex toy need not be beautiful to serve their intended purposes, still humans would be less inclined to use them if they were aesthetically displeasing, yet functionally proficient. What human trait does this ugly truth reveal?
‘Humans’ airs on AMC Sunday evenings at 9 PM. You can share your first impressions and predictions for ‘Humans’ in the comment section.