Well … that’s more like it.
The last time I gave an Almost Human episode a (mostly) enthusiastic review it was the mid-season finale, “Arrhythmia.” Just as I thought the show had once again begun to rest on its laurels, we get “Unbound,” a fast-paced and thrilling mini-action film that demonstrates what this show is capable of in its better moments. Also, there’s a guest spot from John Larroquette. This alone is worth bumping the episode up a few extra points.
The story opens on a rainy night (never a good sign). A seemingly anonymous woman buys flowers from a vendor only to then be held at gunpoint by a hooded figure as she wanders down the street. The woman tries to give away her valuables, but the figure simply shoots her in cold blood. Almost immediately, the LAPD descends and unloads all their firepower on the figure. Once unmasked, we see that the perpetrator is a basic servant robot that seems to have gone rogue. The police place the seemingly malfunctioning robot in the evidence locker where it reactivates, rips off its metallic, cycloptic head and replaces it with the robot head of a black haired woman that it finds in storage. The fem-bot then proceeds to kill the guards and blast its way out of custody. We learn, courtesy of the police force, that the software that the android abducted is from none other than the XRN, a failed police-bot that went on a rampage during its exhibition several years ago. The LAPD managed to stop it but not before the single robot had killed numerous individuals (including 26 cops).
Hoping to understand the XRN (codenamed Danica) and its motivations, Kennex and Dorian dig up Nigel Vaughn (Larroquette), the brilliant robotics expert who not only designed the model but also the DRN, Dorian’s model. For Dorian, this encounter is akin to meeting his birth father. Vaughn explains how Dorian and the other DRNs represented the realization of his life’s work of creating a robot with a soul. Their subsequent failure and malfunctions resulted in him creating the more warrior-like XRN out of sheer desperation. The XRN’s massacre, however, turned Vaughn into a pariah. He was forced to go into hiding and change his name, just for the chance to continue his work in the smallest of capacities.
One of my central complaints about the Almost Human universe is that, while the writers have done a good job of establishing a solid Scooby Gang (give or take Minka Kelly’s Stahl, who runs the gamut from “acceptable” to “woefully out of place”), their villain roster consists mostly of unmemorable psychopaths or interchangeable ganglords. Now, we finally have a worthy adversary in the form of Danica. While part of this villainess’ menace comes from the fact that she’s played by Gina Carano, the real-life MMA fighter who transitioned into acting via Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Haywire, an equally essential component of her dark appeal lies with the performances of the other actors. The moment Kennex, Maldonado and Stahl realize that the XRN has returned, you can almost watch their blood freeze. Moreover, the creative team pulls no punches in showing Danica’s Terminator-like brutality. Though, this being a network show, a mother and her son get off scott-free after the boy comments on Danica being “pretty.” (Fellas, it really works!)
Then, of course, there’s the episode’s ace in the hole: John Larroquette. A veteran of TV, stage and screen (he even played a Klingon alongside Christopher Lloyd in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), Larroquette has that rare ability to play both drama and comedy with equal fervor. He can be a bumbling and endearing grandfatherly type one minute and a somber, cold-hearted monster the next. Here, the writers play to all those strengths. When Vaughn sees Dorian for the first time, his emotional, yet controlled reaction to seeing one of his creations still operational speaks volumes about the character and his history. Even when the dialogue leans a tad too much into “exposition dump” territory—as when he must explain his research and backstory to a star-struck Rudy—Larroquette infuses the words with all the reverence of a Chekov monologue. It’s still somewhat clunky exposition, but it’s somewhat clunky exposition as delivered by a masterful performer. The fact that Vaughn later turns out to be the mastermind behind Danica’s revival and is set up to be a recurring villain is only icing on the cake. Of course, had you listened to the aforementioned info dump from before, you would realize that the writers had basically pointed a big neo-red arrow to him that screamed “BAD GUY.” Vaughn’s eventual villainy also creates a great new emotional arc for Dorian, who now wonders if there’s any element of the murderous XRN in his own programming.
“Unbound” is not a perfect episode, and never is this more apparent than in the final fight. After a good 35 minutes of being built up as the ultimate killing machine, Danica falls victim to the old Raising Arizona-I-secretly-pulled-your-grenade-pin technique. It’s certainly not a bad conclusion but, all things considered, it’s definitely anti-climatic. Here’s hoping this won’t be the last we hear of Danica. (Considering she’s a robot and Vaughn, the true baddie of the episode, escapes, I’m betting she’ll soon be back and stronger than ever.) There’s also the notion of “The Wall,” or a literal barrier that encircles and protects 2048 Los Angeles from some unspecified form of violence and chaos that lies beyond its borders (taking a page from the Game of Thrones handbook, I see). Needless to say, this seems like a piece of world building that we, as an audience, should have been made privy to it much earlier. Or, if my memory is deceiving me and the characters have mentioned it before, the information should have at least been reiterated over the past few episodes.
In spite of its flaws, “Unbound” has thoroughly restored my faith that Almost Human can course-correct itself out of its current so-so batting average. At the very least, I’m certainly glad to have a more interesting villain than the mostly anonymous Insyndicate to look forward to. I’m officially putting my faith in you, Almost Human. Don’t let me down. Please?