Robots and artificial intelligence are the words of the day, thanks to Westworld. Before HBO’s sci-fi epic, though, came Channel 4’s Humans. And so it’s with no little anticipation that the show returns for a second season – and, judging by its opener, the series is knocking those expectations out of the park.
Season 1 raised some big questions over its short runtime, as the discovery of a hidden identity within house servant Synth Anita (Gemma Chan) threw the unsuspecting Hawkins family head-first into the birth of consciousness within machines – not to mention questions of inter-human-robot relationships, trust, memories, grief, government control and the ethical and philosophical implications of all of the above. We left the show with Niska (Emily Berrington) running away with the code to give consciousness to all the Synths on the planet – a cliffhanger full of unanswered mystery, as we wondered whether our awake Synths would ever come out to the world.
Season 2 takes those big questions and expands them across an even wider canvas – literally, as we open on Niska abroad in Berlin, where she’s hiding out. Six months on and she’s still grappling with whether to give life to Synths around the world by uploading the code to the mainframe – a trepidation that already marks her out from the calm, efficient Synths working in the city around her without pause or internal conflicts. But upload it she does and, slowly, we see its effects, as a random handful awake.
That gives writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley the chance to introduce some new faces in the form of Hester (Sonya Cassidy) and Ten (Raphae Acloque). Leo (Colin Morgan) and Max are on hand to shepherd them both into this strange new world; they’re still on the run from shady authority figures, who chase down the outlaw and his fresh recruits through empty buildings and industrial warehouses.
But while humour (“I’m attracted to the word radiator…”) and suspense is still present and correct, this is far from a retread of familiar territory; that landscape only emphasises the contrast with the pulsating, neon, sleek modernity of Berlin and, moreover, the shiny surfaces of San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. Here, we meet Athena (Carrie-Anne Moss), a smart scientist who seems to have invented artificial intelligence without ant connection to Leo’s dad, David Elster – something that makes her of immense interest to wealthy entrepreneur Milo (Marshall Allman). While his motivations are automatically suspicious, though, the fantastic Moss (between this and Daredevil’s Hogarth, she’s enjoying something of a Carrie-Annaissance) shows that she’s just as capable of lies and deceit – a trait that, as Season 1 proved, is perhaps the most human of all.
While the upgrades to the ensemble step up the show’s ambition and excitement levels, though, it’s the development of its returning characters where Humans really excels. Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) are still repairing their relationship, after he slept with Mia out of a sort-of angry revenge. Encouraging them to be honest, rather brilliantly, is a Synth marriage counsellor – a situation that is full of wry humour and gentle pain, while also subtly showing how much Laura’s attitudes have changed towards Synths since Season 1. At work, meanwhile, Joe is only destined to become more hostile towards them, as the bitterly amusing prospect of him being replaced by a Synth looms.
That ongoing marital breakdown is contrasted beautifully with burgeoning romance – a reminder that Humans, not unlike Black Mirror’s latest season, can do happy as well as bleak. In Berlin, Niska forms an attachment with Astrid (Bella Dayne), a relationship borne out of her desire to prove herself as human as, well, us – and the episode’s direction and script capture that rush of attraction with an all-too-recognisable intimacy.
If Berrington is becoming the MVP of the show, though, Gemma Chan remains fantastic as Mia, who is now working under her Anita persona for a cafe owner, Ed. Well aware that she, too, is developing feelings for him, she spends all her processing power trying to surpress her human qualities, striving to imitate the dead-eyed, monotonous interaction of most Synths. That way, she reasons, she can continue to work there and be near him.
Chan has always been brilliant at this balance between eerie and emotional, but here, that takes on a heartbreaking new dimension – where once, it was a source of intrigue and suspense, now, it’s a font of anguish, as she is forced to hide her feelings. All of this, of course, is conveyed in Humans’s signature style of never spelling things out explicitly – everything in the world is rendered with such detail, from Chan’s eyes to the sight of Synths routinely stacking things in the background of a factory. It’s no wonder, then, that our rogue robots are so good at blending in. But as Niska turns to less illegal lengths to announce her humanity, Season 2’s smart, gripping opener gently moves the Humans narrative to the promising next step: Season 1’s tension stemmed around the question of whether humans would become aware of the rise of artificial intelligence. Season 2 asks an even more ominous question: now that a growing number of humans know, what will they do next?
Humans Season 2 is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. You can also stream it for free on All 4, or buy and download it on pay-per-view VOD, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play.