Better Than Us is a American feminist’s nightmare, because it relies on discredited ideas about women and their proper roles. But the Netflix sci-fi series is Russian, not American, which makes it all the more fascinating. Set in 2029, a highly advanced female android prototype called Arisa shows up at a sex-bot factory and kills a man who attempts to, er, try her out. Aware of her crime, but child-like in her understanding, Arisa runs away, then attaches herself to a six-year-old girl and her middle-class family.
The killing sparks a complex plot worthy of a Russian novel: dysfunctional marriages, corporate intrigue, and a murder investigation. Throw in a terrorist cell, a dystopian surveillance state, and romance sub-plots, and you get an intricate puzzle of motivation, miscues, and sadly, a predictable ending.
There’s only one reason to watch this show: the “empathetic bot” Arisa, played by Paulina Andreeva, a singer and actor virtually unknown to US audiences. Arisa dominates all of her scenes. She’s a Barbie come to life, but with the internal conflict that goes with her evolution from one level of maturity to the next. She’s also programmed to ignore Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, “A robot may not injure a human being,” under the right circumstances. Andreeva’s subtle facial expressions, melodious voice, and choreographed movements take the character within inches of the “uncanny valley“, the boundary humans instinctively perceive between machines and people. Cross the boundary, and you creep out, but she’s neither the Terminator nor the robot from Ex Machina.
Superficially, Arisa’s family resembles a household you might see on any prestige-TV drama: A dad with his career on the skids, a mom yearning for a new life with a different man, a pimply teenage son infatuated with a rebellious girl, and an adorable, bubbly six-year-old daughter. Much of Better Than Us asks the question, could a robot understand the meaning of “family,” especially in a house where the relationships among the members are falling apart?
The answer is “maybe,” but it’s played out in a milieu Americans would peg to the 1950s, before the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism. Though Arisa’s origins are murky, we learn that she was designed to be an “ideal wife, one who obeys her husband,” according to her Chinese engineers. She wants only to nurture and protect her family, and she’ll kill to do it. At one juncture, the dad, Georgy Safronov (Kirill Käro), orders Arisa to strangle a bad guy. She tries without batting an eye.
Georgy is puzzled by Arisa’s obsessive behavior toward him and his family; she almost becomes a satire of the “crazy girlfriend” trope, the ex who can’t let go after she’s rejected. But the other women in Better Than Us also seem atavistic. The mom, Alla (Olga Lomonosova), has no role in the family except motherhood. The rebellious, independent girl becomes a damsel-in-distress whom Egor (Eldar Kalimulin), the son, must rescue. By the same token, all the characters with decision-making powers are men, including the main villain, Toporov (Aleksandr Ustyugov).
All this may reflect Russia’s hostile attitude toward feminism. The Russian version of Cosmopolitan, known in the west as liberal, almost radical, in its promotion of women’s rights, avoids the words “feminism” or “feminist” because they provoke angry reactions in Russia. In 2015, men at a press conference asked a group of new female astronauts how they would cope in space without makeup. Or men. In the West, such a question would provoke its own kind of anger for its irrelevance and indirect disparagement of the astronauts’ achievements.
So why is Better Than Us still great television? Because every character is multi-dimensional. They strive, screw-up, succeed, fail. They are human, unlike Arisa, who cannot have a soul, though she struggles through her existence in a way not too dissimilar from her human counterparts. Moreover, the near-future world of ubiquitous, camera-toting drones is believable and recognizable, and the producers and writers worry about its imminent arrival. The climax draws on another traditional expectation of women, self-sacrifice, which makes for a predictable ending. though it fits the narrative. Better Than Us may exude conservative values, but it’s still a cool story.
Did you love or hate Better Than Us?