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The slippery, radical, wackadoodle politics of AMC's robot drama Humans

The Synths on Humans make convenient stand-ins for almost every minority group the sci-fi series wants to talk about.
The Synths on Humans make convenient stand-ins for almost every minority group the sci-fi series wants to talk about.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Imagine we live in a world with humanoid robots. Some are sentient, but not all of them. And humanity is generally unaware of said robots' sentience, save for a few who've been let in on the big secret.

Now imagine that with the right code, a man could unlock the "18+" function of a beautiful woman robot he was attracted to. The robot's circuitry starts feigning passion for you. Once you've unlocked this function, the robot tells you that you can do "anything." But in the midst of having sex with her, she's clearly not into it.

What you don't know — honestly, what she doesn't seem to know — is that she is, indeed, sentient, capable of overriding her programming for her own good. But that's been buried away beneath other layers of programming. She doesn't want to have sex — but she doesn't really know how to say that.

So is what happened to her rape?

The tricky, radical, occasionally unstable politics of Humans

The Synths are captured on Humans.

The Synths find themselves in a tight spot in the first season of Humans.


This very scenario unspooled on AMC's new, chilly sci-fi series Humans, which recently concluded its first season. (The show, a British co-production based on a Swedish series, has been renewed in both the US and UK.) On the show, humanity shares the planet with robot helpers called "Synths." Thanks to one of their creators, a handful of these Synths have gained sentience, but to let on that they have is to risk being deprogrammed or destroyed. Thus, they often have to play-act as normal Synths, even when it forces them into degrading or dangerous situations, as with one, who is forced to work as a sex worker until she cannot take it anymore and lashes out violently against her clients.

Robots have often been used to stand in for minorities or powerless groups in science fiction, as a way of critiquing existing power structures. That's because they're an easy way to get us to identify with both the oppressed and the oppressors. On the one hand, seeing anyone who appears to be human suffering under dehumanizing systems (as robots inevitably do in these stories) piques our empathy for them.

On the other, most of these stories hinge on the question of whether artificial intelligences will eventually replace our very real, very fallible organic ones. And in a fight for survival, won't you side with your "own" kind? Robots are a neat way to explore the tribalism that still exists somewhere in our subconsciouses, without opening things up too wide.

Thus, it's not an accident that the five conscious Synths in Humans are three women and two black men — nor that the one white man most loyal to their cause is a former human who was forcibly made a cyborg after a life-threatening accident. Humans uses these characters to explore how women are too often viewed simply for their sexuality or how people of color are too easily viewed as exotic "others." These are fairly classic themes for the genre.

But just when you think you have Humans pinned down, it slips away from you. The show's politics are deliberately slippery and unstable, because people are not solely the groups they belong to. They're more complicated than that — and the Synths are, as well. Some Synths want to cause a revolution by making all other Synths conscious, too. Some would rather just slip away into society and effectively pass for human. Still others seem unwilling to acknowledge they're Synths at all.

This can sometimes make the show seem a little out of control, as if it's about to fly off the rails. It never entirely leaves behind the sense that some of its political notions are tossed in there simply for provocation's sake, and it tries too hard at times to be impossible to pigeonhole. There are all sorts of weird things about Humans that don't make logical sense, and the characters (especially the human ones) often do things simply because the plot requires them to.

But in spite of all this, the show is worth watching entirely because of its nuanced approach to the question of being part of a minority that the majority culture utterly despises and how there's not one good solution to that problem.

To return to the question of robot sexual assault


The Synth Anita finds herself in a situation that's essentially sexual assault, with no way to really talk about it.


The show's off-kilter politics are at its most potent, then, when it considers things from the point of view of the female Synths. Most of them have been created specifically to satiate men's sexual urges or fill other caretaker roles society usually deems better for women to perform. Indeed, of the three sentient woman Synths, one was created as a replacement for a dead wife and another as what effectively amounted to a sex slave — and by the same man, no less.

Humans' main target is the sexist status quo, but it's also interested in the ways that everybody on Earth — even women — perpetuates that status quo simply because it's easier. The political slipperiness that is the show's stock in trade serves it especially well here.

That's why the sexual encounter between human Joe and Anita, the Synth who cares for his kids, is so disquieting. On the one hand, the audience knows that Anita has had stirrings of whatever consciousness once existed in her, when she was a Synth known as Mia. On the other, it also knows that Joe views her almost entirely as an appliance, a particularly expensive and sophisticated one, sure, but no more capable of feeling than a refrigerator.

And Joe isn't wrong to think this, either! From his perspective, there are no conscious Synths, and an 18+ pack is just there for a little extramarital fun that won't get messy emotions involved or potentially destroy his marriage — somewhere in the vicinity of a sex toy. What's more, Anita explicitly tells him that he can do "anything," which would read as consent to just about everybody.

But she's also clearly not into it (though it doesn't seem as if Joe notices). And where does the line between bad, unsatisfying sex and actual sexual assault occur in that instance? In most relationships — even one-night stands — that's where a conversation would occur between partners about what was wanted and expected. But that conversation can't occur between Anita and Joe because the imbalance of power is so great between the two of them that Anita either cannot have that discussion for her own safety or has essentially walled off the parts of herself that might initiate it. (The show is perfectly hazy on a lot of these points, which is weirdly satisfying.)

So, yes, it's assault — but only because both participants live in a culture that makes such a thing disconcertingly frequent.

The show is set up for a strong second season

There's a family on Humans, too.

Humans is also ostensibly a family drama, though the human characters are not nearly as interesting as the Synths.


I had my doubts about Humans when it debuted — and, as a matter of fact, I still do. The show tells more often than it shows, and the cuts of episodes that AMC foisted on the American audience often lurch weirdly between scenes, chopping out whole segments out of the British originals to fit into an American running time.

But I still love those slippery politics, and I love the way the show's directors force us to look at the Synths — and by extension what they symbolize and represent. Perfectly normal shots of blissful families or people going about their days will be interrupted by these eerie, mostly stationary creations — human-ish, but just far enough away to invoke the uncanny valley — and the show is often careful to keep them at the edges of the action, the fringes of a society that marginalizes them.

Even if the season finale — which scattered the characters to the winds after the conscious Synths narrowly escaped the law — didn't wholly satisfy on a story level, it satisfied on an emotional one. In a scene midway through, the Synths, captured and being held for eventual destruction, were finally at the center of the frame. The camera lingered on their faces, one by one, as they came together as an ad hoc family, awaiting the end.

Humans might be slightly chilly and hard to warm up to, but at least some of that is intentional. This is a story about people who've been frozen out of a society that sees them as an anachronism at best and an existential threat at worst. It's a story not about one specific minority group, but about all of them.

Catch up with Humans at the AMC website or via digital download.

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of conscious Synths. The number has been corrected.