Humans come up with all sorts of things to make their lives easier. What could be better than something that does all the work for you? ‘Better Than Us’ is set in a world where robots assist humans in everything. It follows the story of a special robot who can feel emotions and through her eyes, analyses various aspects of humanity. Netflix’s first Russian original takes a deep dive into the meaning of relationships and questions if robots can actually be better than us. People who love series like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ are sure to enjoy this series and appreciate its themes and undercurrents. If you haven’t yet seen it, watch it on Netflix.
Summary of the Plot
CRONOS is a leading robot manufacturer and its CEO, Viktor, wants to introduce a new kind of robot to the world. Her name is Arisa and he has acquired her from the Chinese black-market. He wants to study her code and make more robots like her, but there are some things that he has no idea about. First off, he doesn’t know that she can kill people, which is in direct violation of the three robotic laws that govern the world. As soon as she is brought in, she kills someone and escapes. She finds Sonya, a young girl who takes a liking to her. Arisa assigns Sonya, her brother Egor, and their father Georgy as her family, and her programming makes them her top priority, which means she won’t hesitate to kill anyone if it means saving them.
Meanwhile, there is a group of young people, called the Liquidators, who are anti-bot. They believe that bots are taking over the lives of humans, and want their usage to be reduced, if not completely abolished. The death of CRONOS’s employee lands Georgy in a mess that puts a police officer on his tail. As the story moves forward, we discover that everything leads back to CRONOS.
Robots and Humans
‘Better Than Us’ is set in a future not far from now, where robots have become an integral part of human lifestyle. The world has evolved from the basic functions of assistants like Siri and Alexa. Due to their high productivity and low management cost, they are being used as a replacement for human labour. They have not yet fully attained sentience, but they can think, as much as their programming allows them. They remember things and people. They also seem to acquire certain behaviour in accordance with their masters. A user can customise their robot according to their needs, which makes them as sarcastic, as submissive, as jovial you want them to be. From working at cash counters to serving as the secretary of the CEO of the most powerful company, there is no place where bots can’t be utilized.
They can learn a great deal and can be employed for a very long time. They are especially popular as nannies for children and caretakers for old people. They can carry a lot of weight and are very powerful. Considering their strength, the fear of them attacking humans is prevented by programming it into them. Three laws govern the working of a robot and not being able to harm a human is one of them. All three laws have been drawn in a way that prioritises human life over a robot.
The first law states that a robot cannot bring harm to humans or cause any situation that can cause harm under any circumstance. To prevent the use of humans harming humans using robots, a second law has been put in place. It states that a robot must follow all commands given by its owner, except when it is in the direct violation of the first law. The third law states that a robot can fight to keep itself safe unless it comes at the cost of harming a human.
Basically, robots are slaves for humans and can be used for whatever purpose they want. In fact, there are custom robots for the work you demand from them. People have resorted to using them for sex and intimacy and this has created a unique complication in modern society. For example, if a man has sex with a robot, is he still cheating on his wife? Such questions are addressed at the beginning of the show and are later infused in Arisa’s relationship with Georgy. A lot of people have accepted robots as their partners and treat them as they would their human counterpart. But they find this relationship better because the robot is completely submissive to them. It will do whatever they want because its only motive is to please them. People can enact whatever fantasies they have and model their robot as their dream partner.
Another use of robots, though not as prevalent, is seen in the form of replacement for a loved one. After their son dies, Svetlana becomes clinically depressed. To make her better, Viktor asks Maslovsky to model a robot on their son and presents it as a replacement to his wife. While she is appalled at first, slowly she begins to treat it as her own son, and after some time, completely loses her grip on the fact that he is not real. Through this subplot, the show presents another dilemma to the audience. Would you want a replacement for your loved one who is deceased? Would you rather have a perfect robotic partner or a real human relationship?
How Human is Arisa?
People have gotten used to robots and it feels like the world has hit a stagnation point with it. This is when Viktor comes across Arisa. He wants his company, CRONOS, to defeat all its competitors and serve something that the world has never seen before. On the black market, he comes across a robot that is able to detect human emotions and acts accordingly. He and Maslovsky are awed by her, but the problem stirs when she kills a man. They discover that the Chinese company from where they had bought Arisa hadn’t given the complete details about it. Time and again, they try to shut down and reprogram her, but her programming doesn’t allow anyone to make any changes. It is Lara who is finally able to get through, that too due to her sheer luck. She finds the contact details of the maker in Arisa’s program and on contacting him, comes across the whole truth.
China’s one-child policy helped the country in controlling the exponential rise in its population but also led to a great problem. Because they could have only one child, everyone preferred to have a son. They would abort if there were a chance of a girl. Years after the policy was brought into effect, the results began to show up. The number of girls decreased by a great margin and there were just too many men around. A programmer came up with a solution for that. He made Arisa.
While other robots could do your job and could even serve as sex-bots, they couldn’t provide you companionship. They wouldn’t be the same as having a human around. He decided to get the bots to feel, to learn and evolve, and understand human emotions. To make that possible, first of all, he threw the three laws down the drain. He began his work with the thought that this robot had to be as close as it could be to being human. You can reprogram humans; you can’t delete their data and tell them to be who you want them to be. With Arisa’s programming, he did the same. There is no clause that allows you to tinker with her brain. There is no breaking in.
Next, because humans feel all emotions, not just love and loyalty, he allowed Arisa to learn all of them. We see the transformation as soon as she starts to function. Just like a child learns from what happens around them, so does she. When a man tries to get violent with her, she responds with violence; while with Sonya, she exhibits a great deal of innocence. She learns the quirks and small things that make her happy. She learns the difference between love, hate, jealousy and all the complications in between them from Safranov and Alla.
Arisa even learns to lie and understands that it isn’t always a bad act. Her deep-set boundaries about human emotions slowly begin to fade and she understands exactly how to respond when needed, without any necessary instructions from anyone. Her idea of family comes from a tight-knit and balanced unit which makes her wonder about Safranov and Alla’s relationship, which is why she doesn’t like her at first. She believes that since she is a part of their family, she should be the wife and the mother. Georgy, on the other hand, treats her as he treats all other robots. Though after Lara’s surgery, he begins to thaw and even agrees to take her on a date, he still doesn’t think that Arisa could ever truly be human.
In stark contrast to his thoughts, Arisa continuously evolves. After she faces rejection from Georgy, another level is unlocked in her advancement. It is the rebooting that allows Lara to break into her brain and find the contact of the Chinese manufacturer. The maker knew that he couldn’t just program humanity into her. He created different levels to identify the level of her evolution. We see her hit one level, but we don’t know how many more levels there are.
While the previous stage was marked with the basic understanding of human emotions, this stage shows her getting a grasp of the complex ones. She finds it hard to understand why Georgy wouldn’t have the same relationship he has with Alla and Lara. But then she understands that she can’t wait around for him forever. She can’t make him love her if he doesn’t want to, and that’s when she learns to compromise. Her primary function is still to take care of Georgy and his kids. So, she does something that will not only help her do that but also keep her away from them. She surrenders herself to Viktor and allows him to think that he has wiped her memory clean. All that happens after that is her own will. When Viktor asks her to kill Georgy, she doesn’t. He thinks that she remembers him despite the blocking of memories. But there never was any blocking. She had tricked everyone into believing it.
Now the question of why she did it? She knew Viktor was the only person who had gone through so much trouble to harm Georgy and his family. She went by the philosophy of keeping friends and enemies closer. By being around him, she could keep a close eye on him and in case he ever resorted to hurting them, she could stop him.
The Purpose of the Liquidators
With robots taking over people’s jobs and even replacing them in relationships, a certain part of society, primarily consisting of young people, takes to arms against them. They call themselves The Liquidators and vandalise robots and the properties of people they consider are robot-lovers. They don’t aim to hurt people, but with so much havoc, it is difficult to avoid collateral damage. At one point, they end up killing a man.
At first, The Liquidators seem to be an independent organization made of “hooligans”. But later, it is revealed that Viktor had started it with the help of Gleb. This was an ingenious marketing technique that no one but they knew about. Before anyone else could start thinking about such a thing in serious terms, they decided to start one themselves and made them do things that only turned the public more in favour of bots. Even the Liquidators didn’t know they were working for the same organization that they so whole-heartedly hated. Their ideologies and their intentions were real, but in the end, they were just giving a show to the world on behalf of CRONOS.
For a long time, Bars and Zhanna don’t realise this. But when things begin to get out of hand, Gleb attacks them and that’s when the truth comes out. This makes Bars even more violent and he becomes hell-bent on getting his revenge by sabotaging CRONOS as heavily as possible. This obsession leads him away from his sister, whose life hangs in balance because of his decisions. This path doesn’t end well for him either. When caught, he is made to serve time for all the things that he is guilty of and even those that he has not committed. In return for his sister’s safety, he is also made to take the blame for the false charges on Georgy. Despite the massive failure, he does succeed in thwarting some major plans of CRONOS. Viktor and Gleb’s scheme regarding the Liquidators is a nod to the things that some governments or highly resourceful people have done. They are fighting the monsters that they created in the first place.
Better Than Us Ending, Explained
The finale of ‘Better Than Us’ ends on a good note. It ties up all the storylines pretty well and gives us a clear picture of the future of certain characters. Alla and Georgy have come to a mutual understanding. She has taken Sonya to Australia while Egor has stayed back with his father. Maslovsky and Svetlana are together and are now the heads of CRONOS. Viktor has to pay for his crime by spending the rest of his life in prison. He tries to get out of it by giving up the names of all the people who were involved with him. Not only do the cops refuse to give him a break, but he is also killed by Gleb. In the last attempt to save Georgy’s life, Arisa had sacrificed herself. He now lives with Lara and her daughter. We see Maslovsky working on something that looks like Arisa’s brain (I think we are way past calling it some technical robot thing). He still seems to be struggling with it and can’t crack the code. In the last scene, the brain lights up and a message is sent to Georgy that says “Help Me”.
Now, first of all, we know that a robot doesn’t really need a body to function as humans do. The brain doesn’t die, so Arisa is very much alive. When Maslovsky found her, he thought he could study her, but he isn’t able to crack into her programming. This could be due to two reasons. Either the original maker of the code was such a genius that no one in the world has a way around Arisa’s problem. Or, she is resisting. She didn’t want him to get inside her head. She took time to contact Georgy because, with her body, she had lost the network. She got that when Maslovsky connected her with his network. She hasn’t forgotten anything, which is why she doesn’t trust anyone but Georgy. If Better Than Us Season 2 is made, it will begin with his quest to find and recover Arisa.