Humans Synth Niska Is Revolutionary, In More Ways Than One
How one of the sentient synths rose above the rest.
As soon as we meet Leo and his crew of special synths in the first episode, it's clear that Niska's different not just from all the other synths we've seen cheerfully going about their menial business, but from her fellows. They're walking through woods, looking for a place to camp, when they hear an alarming noise. Instantly, Niska reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of metal that for all I know is a real tool but which, in her hand, is a human eye-gouger or possibly jugular vein tap. Immediately, Leo tells her to put it away: "If it's him, we run." Well, flight is one approach. But Niska's ready to fight. This noise turns out just to be a fox, but when Leo and Max leave camp in search of fuel, the three remaining synths are captured by bounty hunters. It feels significant that when Leo departed, Niska was the one whose battery charge was the lowest: it's hard not to wonder if things might have ended up quite differently for her kidnappers if she were at 100%.
When Leo finds Niska again, five weeks later, she's been sold to a synth brothel, and well programmed in poses and attitudes that approximate lust; keeping her eyes blank is her survival method to keep her secret.
For someone who's (a) regarded not just as subhuman but non-human, and (b) has powerful motivations to conceal not just what she's feeling but that she's feeling, slavery in a brothel would seem to be the worst possible fate -- definitely worse than being a domestic in a comfortable house, like Anita/Mia, and possibly also worse than being probed by curious engineers, like Fred. One assumes that one of the first, say, five questions Dr. Elster was asked about his first android models was "Can we fuck them?," though one also assumes sex work isn't among the jobs touted on billboards promoting synth ownership. If a standard-issue synth is subject to getting shot in the butt with BBs, as Mattie does her neighbour's, then one can assume much worse is being done to synth prostitutes in private.
So when Leo appears, Niska's pretty sure he's there to bust her out, and VERY disappointed to learn that he's not. Through gritted teeth, she tells him that Fred and Mia -- the synths she was scooped up with -- are gone, and that she doesn't want to stay in the brothel any longer in the hope that they reappear so that Leo can gather them all together and remove them to "a new home somewhere," rather than try to survive on the streets with Leo and Max in the interim. Leo argues that Niska is safer staying at the brothel, where no one knows her true...well, nature seems like the wrong word. Design? Unlike Max, she can hide it -- she can even "turn off [her] pain," and given her situation, Leo's suggested that she do so, but she won't: "I was made to feel." Leo's way is just to get by, no matter what compromises that may entail. Niska's prepared to do what it takes to keep herself from being recycled, but from what we can see, this is an android with consciousness. Turning off her physical pain response won't make rape painless for her.
Episode 2 mostly just presents Niska with more ways for the brothel to violate her non-human dignity. When we rejoin her, she's staring off into space, forcing us to imagine what happened to her face to smear her lipstick like that.
She, along with several of her colleagues, are marched into a tiled space and disinfected with something sprayed on them with a high-pressure hose. And when we see her with her first client of the episode, it seems like possibly even this will be an insult -- this time against the viewer.
Colin is awkward and nervous -- this is his first time -- and is even kind enough to express concern that Niska's stuck in her crappy room, never allowed out. Niska has to tell him she can initiate contact if he asks her to, but when she starts slow, running a hand up his inner thigh, he jumps away. She asks if he just wants to talk...and I get preemptively annoyed that this show is going to try to soften its portrayal of Niska's current assignment by trying to sell us the hoary old pop culture trope of a client who's just so nice and friendly and lonely that there's nothing wrong with his buying a block of time with a block of silicone. But no: he's only been stalling as he worked up the nerve to tell Niska what he wants: "I want you to act scared, like I'm-- you know? And I want-- I want you to be young, too."
If their positions were reversed, what would Leo do when confronted by a client like Colin? Would he think no further ahead than the next few hours, maybe the next morning, and affirm this pervert's desire by participating in its satisfaction? Maybe Leo would, but Niska's not like Leo. She was made to feel, and she feels revulsion. When Colin lays out his directions for their time together, she shakes off his hands: "No." Colin is, of course, confused by this response: "What do you mean, 'no'?" "No, I won't do that," says Niska firmly. "You'll do whatever I tell you to!" Colin sputters. "I paid a hundred pounds up front. For the next hour, you belong to me." "I don't belong to anyone," Niska heatedly replies. Somehow, Colin still doesn't grok that the synth he's dealing with here is different from the one who sold him his tea this morning, and makes a tactical error.
"Who taught you to talk like that?" he demands. "My father," grits Niska. And then she goes to work.
We all abhor violence, but boy, it's hard to get mad about the fatal strangulation of a guy who was (a) a pedophile and (b) dumb enough to pick a fight with an android.
Niska's spent the past five weeks thinking she needed to wait for Leo to let all possible stars align before she could leave sex slavery. Colin's request -- presumably the worst thing she's heard since she arrived -- has snapped her out of her bitter complicity with Leo's plan and reignited the fight we've known was in her since we first saw her. She puts on the least costume-y garment in her closet...
...uses what's left of Colin's human body heat to open the door to her tomb...
...and easily dispatches the madam's attempt to stop her from leaving with a handy knife from the bar.
Niska's parting gift to her soon-to-be-ex-pimp is a warning: "Everything your men do to us, they want to do to you." Then she digs what is presumably a tracking device out of the back of her neck and stomps out to freedom, like a boss.
Leo wasn't wrong about everything: Niska was safer when no one knew she's been endowed with consciousness, and when Niska makes her exit, her madam can tell from her behaviour that someone's "been muckin' about in [her] head," which will be of interest to the Inspectors of the Special Technologies Task Force, possibly drawing more heat to Leo and Max. But when Niska was ordered to help bring a hideous fantasy to life, she didn't just decline: she created a different choice for herself, and followed it through to freedom. Maybe she could have tried being patient for longer, like Leo wanted her to. But that's not what she was made for, and it's what makes her, for me, an early breakout for the title of the show's smartest, toughest, most admirable, and all-around best character.