SENSE8 kicked off its second season by giving us a two hour Christmas special titled “Happy F*ucking New Year.” The rest of the season is reported to come out May 5th, so we’ve got to wait sometime before diving back into this interesting yet confused show by creators Lana and Lily Wachowski. Like most of their other work, Sense8 has a very compelling premise that doesn’t know what direction it needs to go. It’s a show that waxes poetic on the regular, but then doesn’t have the patience or discipline to follow its philosophy to the logical end, constantly trading off character development for action set pieces or clunky plot mechanisms.
Season one asked many questions about consciousness and the limits of human empathy, but as it progressed through the end of this special, those questions have been diluted by the basic needs of what a TV show has to do to keep an audience, leaving us with what is basically a live action version of “Captain Planet.” A show where all the leads are “Good” people, while anyone in conflict with them is “Bad.” It’s in that dynamic that the show suffers its biggest failure, because for a story that’s about the need for human understanding and empathy in the face of a cruel world, it doesn’t bother to examine that cruelty, and in fact seems to attribute all of it to poor choice or inherent character. “Happy F*cking New Year” doesn’t show us anything different or move the plot forward, in fact it hammers away on the moralizing and holier-than-thou feeling it has been expressing from the first episode.
Sense8 has been a tonally uneven show that from episode to episode is only as strong or weak as the individual storyline on which you happen to be. When you contrast the farcical Lito narrative with the whimsical Kala story, or the somber Wolfgang journey, you get vastly different feelings that only get more muddled by the intrusion of these characters into each other’s worlds. It begins to feel very gimmicky after the first few episodes have finally set up what is happening and the mystery is gone. By the time we’re at the Christmas special, everyone knows what they can or can’t do, they’ve effectively learned each other’s “powers,” and now know how to get out of any difficult situation.
The first problem with that is we now know “Whispers” is the only thing to worry about, and so there’s no suspense left with any of the other villains. The second unfortunate effect of them understanding their powers, is that it familiarizes it visually to us in a way that is often goofy. The first use of camera tricks that blended the characters between their locations proved disorientating, yet intriguing. But when you finally have all the mechanics laid out in front of you, it opens up a lot of questions. The main one being, what is the body doing back when the consciousness is somewhere else? Also, are they physically taking over each other’s bodies? How long can they do that for? If they can feel everything the other is feeling, why do they need to talk at all to each other? Is that simply for the audience’s exposition? Etc. etc. I don’t want to get caught up on that because it’s not ultimately important and I want to return to its larger issue: what it’s trying to say.
A very cursory reading of the show would say it’s about persecution, the lack of empathy in our world, and the need to evolve to a higher state of understanding. At one point, Nomi says to her girlfriend, “Why can’t the rest of the world see what we see?” The implication that free sex, free love, pure empathy, is the way to live. And that’s fine, it’s a lovely idea that should be delivered more frequently. But the problem is this show constantly undercuts its own message. For one thing, this premise only works because these people are not together or really connected with each other’s lives. If Wolfgang shared a life with Kala you can believe he’d be using his skills on her new husband Rajan!
The central paradox of closeness is that to feel connected you often have to be disconnected. To maintain an objective love and sympathy you need to have distance from all the daily grinds that wear people down and make partners cheat, friends betray, and children rebel. I would say that’s why Nomi and Amanita’s relationship feel fake to me. They are constantly professing their love to each other in a way I’ve only seen people do when they’re in a co-dependent spiral. The intention here is obviously to make their relationship seem even stronger because we know that transgender relationships still deal with a lot of discrimination and abuse.
And we can of course understand why the Wachowski’s would highlight that specifically, but they do damage to their cause by making the relationship so unrealistic. They go to such lengths to make the Nomi character multi-faceted that it screams out its own agenda. Jamie Clayton for example has not proved to be the most talented actress, and giving her all this dialogue as a former hacker just shines a light on that fact. There’s a preciousness to the LGBT characters that diminishes the stakes for them and makes them more symbolic than real. Take for example Aminita inviting Nomi out for a “sexnic,” which sounds like the kind of thing they were hoping might take off as a catch phrase amongst viewers. And maybe it has or will, but it carries with it the sort of TV currency that counts against the larger purpose of the show.
I applaud and support the intention, but the way it’s handled simply isolates the characters. Imagine for example if a Chicago cop were given the gift of being a sense8, you could imagine him at first having a very hard time coping with having been in an orgy and having sex with other men or transgender women. What the show misses is giving him an opportunity to grow in front of us. Let us hate him for his ignorance at first, and then love him as he learns to love. In making the characters immediately connected and empathetic we lose the reality of growth. And that’s a consistent point of the show: that you’re either already empathetic and a good person, or you’re not.
The friends or loved ones of the sensates are all good people and immediately understanding of their situation. There’s no nuance, it’s only completely accepting people, or violent villains. The good are always saved, while the violent ones are killed. It’s a militant kind of liberalism that can be interesting as a viewpoint for the show’s philosophy. But they don’t follow through all way and fall back on this idea that the characters are in a sense persecuted for their virtue. There’s a montage scene when every sensate responds to a word they hate when Lito sees “Faggot” written on his driveway. It’s an awkward moment of moralizing from a show that has not at all earned its right. I’m not just joking when I compare it to “Captain Planet,” these characters are “Good” in the way you teach a child to be good before they realize how complicated the world actually is.
When Capheus is watching “It’s a Beautiful Life,” with his mother. She asks him why he likes to watch it so much, and he responds: “I like what it believes in….people.” He’s telling us that Sense8 is a show that believes in people. But believes in only a very specific segment of people, the more evolved. Yes they’re evolved emotionally and the show makes the case that makes them kinder and gentler, but they tell us that without providing the evidence for it. They can be as violent and aggressive as the lesser evolved humans, but of course they’re justified with some Machiavellian underpinnings. You only have to look at the casting to see how little the show believes in its own message, because the idea of free love and pure empathy seems a lot easier when everyone is attractive. How about having one character be overweight? Or disabled? It’s like the show was cast by the same firm that designs every university pamphlet in America. It’s diverse sure, but in a carefully curated way. The core of this show would be more interesting and effective if it really pushed its conceit to its furthest and most uncomfortable ends.
I don’t have a lot of hope for the rest of season two. I do think however that it might be fun as we watch the group finally confront Whispers and the BPO. The show at this point is better off punting on the emotional and moralistic aspects, and double down on the mystery and thriller elements. At this point I don’t think it has any right to continue down its pretense to be “interested in people,” and needs to realize that with what it has set up and what the Wachowski’s are best at, action adventure is the way to go moving forward.
A couple specific points of annoyance about the show after finishing this episode:
– The reveal of the change of actor in the Caepheus character is out of an Eighties afterschool special or Dr. Who. It’s so annoyingly self aware I’m not sure why the creators felt they needed to draw so much attention to it.
– Why didn’t Nomi hack into Joaquin’s phone to delete the photos earlier in the season?
– The university scene where Hernando gives his “art is love made public,” is cringe worthily heavy handed. Who are these students who go to art school in Mexico City? They must be the least emotionally in tune art students on the planet! The set up is a ridiculous moment to have a speech like that.
– Lito’s skill is to help others is his acting, but it’s also the main problem his character faces and hurts those around him. It’s jarring to have that be the source of his issues on one hand, but also it being his version of being amazing at martial arts on the other.
– Using English across the board immediately makes me take this show less seriously than its perceived premise asks of us. It cheapens any empathy I feel for the characters and I’m confused by the rules of the world.
Season 2, Episode 1 (S02E01)
Sense8 streams on Netflix
Greg Brecher | Contributor