All the initial reviews of Sense8 said that it was confusing. This is why I decided to review the whole season rather than trying to tackle it episode by episode (that and I don’t think my schedule could handle episodic reviews, especially not with Orange is the New Black having returned). But it’s not a confusing show at all. Maybe I’ve ingested too much genre television to be phased by the ambitions of the Wachowskis in taking on such a sprawling and complex series. It’s really not that complex, not with the grander mythology taking a backseat to the personal issues of the various Sensates. The last show I saw attempt the intersecting characters amidst genre television was Heroes, and we all know how that ended. But while Heroes lost itself in its mythology and its sprawling comic book aspirations, Sense8 is rooted in its characters first and foremost, and the mythology isn’t overly complicated so much as it just simply isn’t there.
The first episode “Limbic Resonance” begins with that mythology at the forefront, Angelica (Daryl Hannah) “birthing” a new cluster of Sensates in an abandoned building. She’s joined by Jonas (Naveen Andrews), who encourages her to kill herself to avoid capture by Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann), another Sensate who’s made it his mission to find and kill other Sensates. Though the show drops us in the mythology first, it soon pulls us back out and we don’t find out way back into it for quite some time. It doesn’t rear its head again really until “W.W.N. Double D?” and then falls back into old patterns, more interested in unraveling the personal issues eahc of our main characters are currently grappling with.
Capheus (Aml Ameen) has a mother suffering from AIDS and dangerous people in Nairobi out to get him. Sun (Doona Bae) is a Korean businesswoman with a terrible father and brother to call her family. Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) is trying to maintain his acting career while hiding the truth about his sexuality., and German criminal Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is coping with the challenges of his crime family. Kala (Tina Desai) is getting married to a man she doesn’t love and Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is still dealing with the past death of her husband and daughter. The only two without these separate isseus to combat are Nomi and Will, whose issues eventually bleed right into the mythology. Nomi’s (Jamie Clayton) forced hospitalization and imprisonment seem to be consequences of her mother’s transphobia but turns out to be a machination by Whispers. Will’s the most active in trying to investigate what’s going on as Whispers, Jonas and Angelica begin to collide with his professional life, but their unraveling of the mystery progresses so slowly that it begins to feel unimportant.
The cluster’s biggest draw are their connections to one another which make for touching and poignant viewing. The first time they connect as a cluster is in “What’s Going On?”, the first great episode of the season, where they sing the same song. It’s an ambitious show, to dive into a mythology packed story like this one with so many characters to juggle, especially as those characters begin to intersect. The visiting and sharing aspects of being a Sensate become clear fairly early on, as the Sensates are treated to inconvenient instances of overlap with one another like Riley dropping in on Nomi and Amanita’s date and Lito experiencing Sun’s period symptoms.
The Sensates’ stories all move at varying speeds and eventually all even out to something satisfying. Riley’s story is the most aimless. It begins with an ambitious and annoying boyfriend, moves into drugs and Riley being tortured to find it and then into a hex she thought she’d been cursed with and then the deaths of her husband and child. The sudden turnaround, and it becoming so vital to Riley’s story in the end, is jarring, but Riley having to overcome this trauma to save herself and the cluster, makes it mostly triumphant. Will’s story begins with him dealing with Chicago’s gang warfare before that all but completely disappears. His ongoing Sara Pattrell saga is much harder to follow as there’s no resolution to what that was aside from Sara going missing as a child and a young Will seeing her everywhere. It’s fitting then that’s Will and Riley make up the season’s main pairing, though their romance doesn’t hold much of a light to the humorous and romantic coupling of Kala and Wolfgang (though I’m surely biased). Capheus overcoming gang Superpower, Lito reuniting with Hernando and Daniela, and Wolfgang killing his way through his family end up being much more satisfying storywise.
Narratively Sense8 could use some work, but thematically it’s one of 2015’s best shows. It pusehs the benefits of people working together, learning from one another and empathizign with each other. If people valued one another and understood each other the way Sensates did their clusters, the world could be a much better place. The Sensates lean on one another for protection, for emotional and mental stability, and are all the better for it. Sun and Riley comfort each other when they’re both isolated and lonely, Nomi provides the words necessary for Lito to decide to accept himself, and when Capheus finds himself in various near death situations someone always comes through to help him. We could learn from one another, help each other, if we only valued one another as the Sensates do their clusters. They are kept safe by their connections to each other and their abilities to embrace their differences, their skill sets and their experiences.
All these people are varied and interesting, but Sense8 limits itself by not having more of them interact. The most exciting moments are when they do, but the show works itself into easy grooves, having the same characters share the screen over and over. The most Wolfgang interacts with the cluster are in the orgy in “Demons” and walking through a maze in “What is Human?”, when there’s plenty of potential to be explored in his relationships with others. He and Will, lawman and lawbreaker, could be an intriguing combination that’s never fully tapped. Kala’s feelings on faith could have been interesting to see juxtaposed with Nomi’s, who’s had nothing good happen to her when it comes to religion. And I waited all season to see Lito and Nomi meet, and when they finally did, and her being able to provide him with the push he needed was one of the season’s best moments.
Though I ended Sense8 feeling satisfied with the emotional beats the show hit, the narrative ones were a bit more difficult to enjoy. There are a lot of loose threads, and they don’t feel as though they were left intentionally so much as just not expanded upon. Whispers plan is never fully fleshed, ANgelica and Jonas’ allegiance is still up in the air. We don’t know what the deal is with Sara Pattrell (or if it even matters), and I’m not terribly interested in it. I’m more concerned with if Kala’s really going to marry Rajan, how Sun’s going to get out of prison, what Wolfgang’s going to do now that he’s killed everyone he knows and what Lito’s career will look like once the truth comes out. These aren’t bad things, since those are all goods things I want to see and things that the show’s second season (if it gets one) will likely provide, but for a genre show there seems to be very little of the genre present.
- Next season: More Capheus because he gives the best advice.
- Is there a reason most of the cluster has such complicated family dynamics? The only ones with fairly decent familial relationships are Riley, Capheus and Kala. The rest are fraught with tension and drama. Hell, Wolfgang killed his own father when he was just a kid.
- Let’s talk about what I didn’t need. A shot of all the Sensates leaving their mother’s wombs. Child birth is beautiful yada yada yada but the sight of a human coming out of a small hole is very upsetting to me.
- Sun’s dog was so cute!
- “Drugs are like shoes. Everybody needs them, but they don’t always fit.”.
- Lito: “I see you villain!”
- Capheus: “The bed keeps you in the slum, the flat screen takes you out.”
- Felix: “Wolfgang? No one’s named Wolfgang.”