I first heard about Sense8 a couple of weeks before it aired on Netflix. Instantly, I was intrigued: a story about eight different people, all over the world, who become psychically linked in some way, who can share thoughts and abilities and even their own bodies with one another, eight people who are also somehow one. I thought it sounded fascinating.
Then reviews started to trickle in and they were . . . mixed, at best. Critics didn’t seem to like it at all, complaining that the show was slow, muddled, and confusing. At the same time, my Twitter feed was blowing up with mad love for Sense8, praising their in-depth, complex characters, particularly their multiple queer characters.
I figured, Well, there’s only one way to find out for yourself.
Overall, I agree more with the Twitter folks than the critics.
Eight strangers around the world are suddenly telepathically linked to one another, sharing thoughts and experiences and often even jumping into each other’s bodies. At the same time, there are shadowy, government-like people led by an evil Sensate named Whispers (Terrence Mann) who’s busy hunting down and eliminating their kind.
1. I’ll be honest — I was a little worried that I actually wasn’t going to agree with the Twitter folk on this one. As awesome as the show sounded, I found myself a bit uneasy when I kept read this same sentiment over and over: “This is a character-based show, not a plot-driven one.”
Now, I’m a character-based kind of girl in a lot of ways. If I don’t give a shit about any of the characters, I’m probably not going to care about your story, no matter how great the language or cinematography is. And as a serial medium, I think TV has probably the biggest advantage towards telling character-based stories, which might explain why I’m often so obsessed with it.
However, sometimes when people describe a book, film, or television show as specifically “not plot-driven,” I find that the story is detrimentally aimless, that there is no forward movement, no interesting choices, and often not so much of a story but a music video or beautiful word salad. Character-based I tend to like. Avant-garde, not so much, and I knew that if Sense8 was going to be twelve hours of beautiful shots and thematic significance without actual events, it wasn’t going to be my kind of thing.
2. Not to mention that Sense8 was created by the Wachowskis, who I’ve had something of a mixed track record with thus far. (It was also helmed by J. Michael Straczynski, but I’ve never seen so much as a scene of Babylon 5, so I’ve got no opinion on him one way or the other.) Which is to say that I loved the first Matrix, didn’t like the second, never saw the third (though was unimpressed when I heard what happened), and had some pretty serious problems with Cloud Atlas. And, honestly, it was my dislike for Cloud Atlas that I found most concerning because it seemed like this show wanted to play with some similar issues and themes: gender identity, racial identity, love, more love, and the human connection.
But it seemed to me that Sense8 was everything that Cloud Atlas wanted but ultimately failed to be. Sense8 told interesting stories about diverse and complex people, tying them all together so that no one person shaped the narrative, so that this wasn’t a story about one straight white cop or one gay Mexican actor, but a story about interconnectivity, about humanity, about how — despite our different ethnicities, classes, sexualities, genders — the commonalities in our experiences, the love and loss and joy and sacrifice, bring us all together as a species. (Which sounds corny as hell, as I type that out. But Sense8 didn’t drive me nuts the way Cloud Atlas did.)
3. There are approximately a dozen important characters to discuss. We’re going to stick to our eight Sensates (plus one slightly dubious mentor figure) for now.
Of the many, many characters I love on this show, Capheus might actually be my favorite. He is utterly endearing. He is easily the most optimistic of the Sensates, full of wonder and joy despite how dangerous and awful a lot of his life is — and really, that’s a pretty hard character to rock because let’s be honest: nobody actually likes incessantly cheerful people, do they? Incessantly cheerful people just make you feel bad about your own cynicism. But Capheus is so damn charming that you like him despite yourself.
I feel like I owe it to Capheus to watch more Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I’ve still only seen Street Fighter, and now that just feels wrong.
Sun’s storyline takes a while to get going and, taken individually, is not one of my favorites. (Though I wouldn’t characterize it as problematic, not the way that I find some of the others.) Still, I like Sun herself. She has a couple of really nice moments that I unfortunately can’t discuss here, and she’s usually instrumental in all the best fight scenes. I’m curious to see where her story will go in Season Two. (I’m just assuming there will be a Season Two, although that hasn’t been announced yet and reviews were definitely mixed, so who knows.)
Nomi is a transgender blogger/hacker living in SF with her completely awesome girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman, of Doctor Who fame), and she’s pretty great. Her gender identity is a very important part of her character and her story, but it’s not the only important part, and she’s one of the few Sensates that’s really instrumental in moving the Being Hunted plot forward. She’s funny and resourceful and, seriously, her love story with Amanita is easily the best romance in the whole show. Not that I want a spinoff of Sense8 — cause, why — but if there was going to be one, I’d want it to be about these two playing detective. The Nancy Drew shit is just the best.
Kala, like Capheus, is quite endearing and I like her a great deal — but her story is definitely one of my least favorites, mostly because there just isn’t a lot to it. One review I read argued that her story seemed like it belonged to the wrong genre (Bollywood romantic drama, instead of SF action), and I don’t actually agree — one of the neat things about the whole concept of this show is how many different genres it can naturally tie together — but Kala begins the season with a dilemma on her hands and by the end of the season, not very much has changed. That annoys me, especially because the dilemma she’s facing already seemed pretty stretched. I don’t need Kala’s personal storyline to be as action-heavy as, say, Wolfgang or Will’s, but there were opportunities for much more interesting discussions about class and religion, opportunities that I think were missed.
Unfortunately, Riley is easily my least favorite character, the one that I’d care the least about if she was unceremoniously killed off for some reason. And it’s not that I dislike her, exactly, or that I don’t sympathize with her at times — because she’s gone through some pretty tragic shit — but she’s definitely the one I get the least sense of personality from. I don’t care much about the first half of her story, which kind of meanders, and the second half actually ends up getting a bit repetitive, particularly in the season finale when we keep getting flashbacks of stuff we’ve already figured out. (There’s a reason for it, I know, but there’s still something about it that doesn’t quite work for me.)
This isn’t to say that I couldn’t like Riley in future seasons, but right now she’s the only main character I haven’t really connected with in any particular way.
Wolfgang turns out to be a lot violent fun, so yeah, I enjoy this guy. Like Sun, he’s also involved in some of the best action scenes — I particularly like the one where he needs Lito’s help because Wolfgang can shoot people and blow shit up but doesn’t know how to bullshit, particularly when his pride’s on the line. He’s also one of the only characters who has an important, non-romantic relationship outside of the cluster, a brother “by choice,” which I quite like (even if I like Flashback Felix a lot more than Current Felix).
Miguel Ángel Silvestre
Lito’s quite funny at times, and I like him, even if there’s one scene where I want to slap the shit out of him. (I get why he does what he does and I even feel sorry for him, a bit, but seriously. Screw you, guy.) His boyfriend, Hernando (Alfonso Herrera), is also just spectacular — seriously, Amanita and Hernando are way high up on my favorites list, particularly for people who aren’t even technically main characters.
But Lito does feel the least connected to the others for a very long time, so much so that when he finally starts directly talking to Nomi, it feels super jarring — like, wait, you know who Nomi is? You actually have some idea of what’s happening to you? I’m hopeful that second season will be able to figure out some of these occasional balance problems.
Brian J. Smith
Will’s the guy you’d expect to be the protagonist of this piece — heterosexual white male American cop — and he, like Nomi, is instrumental in moving things along. But the story never feels solely about him, which I really like. Also, there’s something about Will that’s enjoyable. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but there’s something about his performance or maybe his reactions that keeps him from being a generic action hero dude. Will’s actually one of my favorite characters, though I’d be hard-pressed to say why, especially since he’s the one constantly being caught talking to himself when he’s actually talking to someone halfway across the world. Due to my ongoing sympathetic embarrassment syndrome, this meant I had to watch at least half of Will’s scenes through my hands.
Dear God, people. Stop doing shit like this in public. You’re hurting me.
Finally, we have Jonas, who’s a Sensate like everyone above but doesn’t belong to their main cluster. He’s more like a mentor figure, I guess, except even now I’m not sure I fully trust this guy. Still, he’s interesting. Naveen Andrews sort of just oozes intrigue. Which is great because he’s the show’s main Exposition Fairy, and you’ve got to find something to keep that shit interesting.
4. As far as exposition goes — this show might actually benefit from a little bit more of it here and there. Not too much: I generally like that Sense8 forces you to work things out for yourself, and I never find the main story particularly confusing. (More on that in a sec.) But it wouldn’t hurt in Season 2 to remind the audience of some of the Rules: just who can talk to who, why this person can’t see that person, etc.
5. One of the main criticisms I’ve seen of Sense8 is that it’s either too slow or too confusing. (Or possibly both.) Personally, I don’t think it was either. The very first episode did drag a little for me, which is perhaps not surprising, considering it’s over an hour long. But while it does move at a slower pace than some shows, it really didn’t take very long to pick up, especially once the Sensates really starting interacting with one another, having actual drawn-out conversations instead of just feeling their emotions and shit. (Sense8 is probably not helped by the fact that, right now, fast-paced holy shit WTF TV is in high demand. That’s not a criticism, by the way; I like plenty of fast-paced WTF holy shit TV shows too; in fact, I find value in all kinds of pacing. But Sense8 isn’t quite on trend right now, which is probably hurting it in reviews.)
And yeah, I don’t find Sense8 hugely confusing, either. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have moments where I’m trying to figure out exactly how something is happening — for instance, in the very first scene, when a woman is talking in her head to two different men who can’t hear each other — but I understand the overall story just fine.
Which reminds me — if you’ll permit the brief digression — of Inception, actually. I recently watched this movie again (because Arthur/Eames 4EVER!) and while I still have moments where I have to remind myself who’s the current dreamer or who’s filling the dream with projections, the actual story itself seems pretty straightforward to me, to the point where I’m a little nonplussed when people tell me that they didn’t get it at all. (Though Troy’s breakdown about it will never not be funny, as all of Troy’s many breakdowns are.)
And it’s not like I’m some Story Genius who always understands everything — cause, HA — so I wonder if those technicalities are the hangup, if for some people they’re pivotal to understanding and appreciating the story, whereas for me they’re more like background noise, like — I don’t know — the science of FTL travel in science fiction. For some people, improbably handled FTL just kills the story. For me, what the fuck do I care, I barely understand how my television works, can we get back to the alien language that’s entirely centered around myth and metaphor, or at least give me some ships going pew pew pew and BOOM, please?
6. Finally, the car chases and fight scenes and all the big action stuff? They’re pretty awesome.
What’s really great about this show is that everyone has a different talent or ability to help out the others. Some are more action-based than others (Wolfgang and Sun beat the crap out of people, while Kala primarily has science on her side and Lito’s best weapons are deception and flirting) but they’re all pretty useful, and it’s exciting to see all of the characters come together to help each other towards the end of the season.
It also, unfortunately, led Mekaela and I to the disheartening realization that if either of us were to become Sensates tomorrow, we wouldn’t have a lot of practical things to offer the team. I’m not bad at snarky one-liners, provided I don’t get flustered, and I could probably write the hell out of your English assignment, but yeah. That’s about what I’ve got.
I think I need to work harder on my kickboxing videos. Someday, somebody might be relying on my ability to throw a cross that’s actually worth a damn.
I will now switch to the ABC system to discuss a handful of random things I couldn’t mention above.
A. I was well-prepared for the orgy scene; in fact, in true Carlie fashion, I found myself asking, “Hey, I wonder when that psychic orgy I keep hearing about will happen,” right before we watched the episode where it did.
I was not, however, prepared for the multiple delivery scenes.
Honestly, I wasn’t actually a big fan of this scene, and not just because I was startled by actually witnessing a baby crowning. (I may work in Labor & Delivery, but dudes, I’m generally at the desk, not the delivery room. I didn’t even actually watch that Health Education video.) I’ve seen plenty of things on my television that I didn’t feel a deep, abiding need to see in HD, though (read: penises), and survived. I just figured this was more of that.
No, the real reason I didn’t care for this scene was that the logic of it tripped me. So far (and since) the Sensates haven’t remembered anything beyond their own natural ability to recollect; that is to say, they can experience each other’s nonsense, sure, but there’s nothing about their telepathic, body-swapping powers that indicates that any of them would have the capability to remember their own births. Remembering Riley giving birth, sure. Remembering Riley being born, what?
Maybe this is something they’ll go into further in second season, but right now it feels like a mistake to me. Also, I’ll be honest: there’s one other thing about this scene that bugged me, too, and it’s one of those times when I know I’m probably reading too much into it . . . but it just needles me anyway.
So, we see all of our eight main characters get born, some of them home births or water births or accidental cemetery births. (Seriously, Sun’s Mom. Did you have one contraction and your kid fell out? I’m seriously raising my eyebrow at this.) And they’re all painted as pretty miraculous . . . except the one hospital birth, the C-section that Nomi’s Awful Mom gets. It’s not terrible, I guess, but it’s clearly the most traumatic of all the births (saving Riley giving birth to her daughter, for obvious reasons), and . . . look, this is just one of those things I get tetchy about. There’s a lot of bullshit with our healthcare system in America — one of my friends is constantly dealing with it right now, and it’s infuriating and awful to see her suffer because of it — and I do my best to never deny anyone else’s experience in the hospital because, hey, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see their treatment.
But it grates me a little when my experiences don’t count, when I see a lot of hardworking healthcare employees get summarily dismissed as invasive or even threatening — and I feel like this happens especially with Labor & Delivery. The narrative that nurses will try to force you to get an epidural or that doctors will just rush you into C-section for no reason at all or that midwives won’t try other delivery positions with you — that might resonate with your experience, but it sure as hell doesn’t resonate with mine. Not to mention, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting either a home birth or a hospital birth. I don’t think that either has to be less miraculous. So, yeah. Like I said, tetchy.
B. Related (though less of a rant, hopefully): Nomi is briefly kept prisoner at what I’m assuming is some kind of private hospital, and Evil Doctor Dude is going to lobotomize her for Whisper’s people. This obviously isn’t a normal situation, so I’m trying not to call bullshit on too much — especially since I’ve only worked in one hospital, so maybe certain details about her treatment aren’t as ludicrous as they seem to me. But between the hard core old school leather restraints, the locked door which is clearly a fire hazard, and the ridiculously fast power of attorney/patient declared incompetent shit that apparently all happens while Nomi’s unconscious . . . yeah. I was definitely making my WTF face.
C. I generally like how most of the stories resolve — Wolfgang gets bloody vengeance, Lito makes up with Hernando (and stops prioritizing his career over an abused woman and friend) — but the fact that Kala doesn’t definitively decide to marry her dude or break off the engagement drives me nuts.
This isn’t okay. This is, at best, a season-length arc — and honestly, it probably could have resolved even earlier than that. I thought they might go more interesting places with Rajan’s family’s possibly shady connections, not to mention the brewing conflict between Rajan’s Daddy and the devout Hindus — but Daddy’s stabbing feels a little abrupt and almost like an aside, like the showrunners realized that Kala just didn’t have enough to do to fill a whole season. Seriously, you can only hem and haw about if you want to marry a guy for so long, especially when you clearly don’t.
And can we be clear about something? When Wolfgang’s all, “You have to marry this dude that I’ve telling you not to marry ALL season because I’m a monster?”
Seriously. I can totally see Kala having second thoughts about dating a dude she just watched brutally execute his own uncle; that seems perfectly legitimate to me. But it’s not like she only has two choices in the world, you know? Wolfgang and Rajan are not the only XY fish in the sea, and Kala was clearly having second thoughts long before Wolfgang and his giant German penis popped up to interrupt her wedding. This whole one-or-the-other horseshit? Unacceptable. Kala, I need you to climb up on that cross Wolfgang’s busy hanging himself on and knock some damn sense into him. Please, cause I just find that shit infuriating.
D. So far, the cluster has two romantic pairings: Wolfgang & Kala, and Will & Riley. I think Wolfgang & Kala have better chemistry, but Will & Riley are okay — I’m just not particularly invested in them as a couple. (I think they actually meet each other before Wolfgang & Kala do, but somehow their love connection feels even more sudden. To be fair, though, the very nature of Sensates makes me buy into Instant Love more than I normally do.)
Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Riley is really the only character who hasn’t been able to contribute much to the other Sensates. That’s okay for now, but I hope in Season 2 that changes — and maybe that means I’ll like her more?
E. Though I’m still bothered by one thing: what the hell even happened to Riley, anyway?
Okay, Riley’s at her father’s concert when everyone starts reliving their own births for whatever reason. And Riley relives not only her own birth but the holy shit traumatic delivery of her own child, which happens like so: her husband, trying to get her to the midwife, crashes the car in the middle of snowy nowhere and dies, leaving her alone to give birth. Unfortunately, she’s still in the middle of the aforementioned snowy nowhere, and the baby dies of exposure.
So, Riley’s rocking an impressive case of depression and PTSD, which I’m fine with. How these things lead her to have the most epic nosebleed ever, though, I have no idea. Seriously, did I miss something? It’s okay if I missed something — I just don’t understand how a PTSD flashback apparently caused a stay in ICU, and it’s kind of a Thing, considering this leads to Whispers coming for her and the big rescue mission of the finale.
F. Going into the finale, I was pretty worried about Will — specifically, that he would finally look at Whispers and have to kill himself to save the rest of the cluster. So when Will does, indeed, accidentally see Whispers, I was like, well, fuck.
But when Jonas tells him he has to kill himself to save the cluster, Will’s like, “Yeah, no.” Admittedly, Jonas is telling him to kill Riley too, and we all knew that wouldn’t happen — I figured her rescue was pretty much guaranteed — but I really did think Will was going to bite it, so I was very happy when he found another way out. Admittedly, drugging yourself into unconsciousness for an indefinite amount of time isn’t, like, an awesome solution, but it beats eating a bullet. Anyway, I was very happy the story didn’t go to the predictable place.
What will happen in Season 2? Will Will — heh — be asleep until the others can pull off some daring mission to kill Whispers? Or will he be able to wake up, so long as he’s kept in a room he doesn’t recognize without windows? And how about everyone else — will anyone rescue Jonas? Will Sun bust out of jail? Will those papers she signed come into play? Will Kala finally call off her engagement?
Renew this series, Netflix. It’s not flawless but it’s definitely engaging, and I want to know what happens to these people next.
Capheus: “Spirit of Jean-Claude Korean Lady, I know you have more important things to do, but for me nothing is more important.”
Will: “Do I know you?”
Lito: “We had sex.”
Jela: “How can I tell them apart if you keep calling all my friends ‘motherfucker’ . . . oh, it’s this motherfucker.”
Hernando: “In the end, we will all be judged by the courage of our hearts.”
Prisoner: “Do you miss your family?”
Sun: “No. I miss my dog.”
Wolfgang: “He’s my brother. Not by something as accidental as blood. By something much stronger.”
Wolfgang: “By blood.”
Capheus: “It worked better in the movie.”
Sun: “I take everything I’m feeling, everything that matters to me. I push all of it into my fist, and I fight for it.”
Will: “My dad was shot.”
Will: “Some parts of him.”
Nomi: “The real violence, the violence I realized was unforgivable, is the violence we do to ourselves when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.”
Lito: “I see you with your fucking villain mustache!”
Capheus: “Maybe he’s right.”
Capheus: “Maybe Jean-Claude’s time is over.”
Jela: “No, never, come on, Capheus! Van Damme is a man. He doesn’t need costumes and gadgets to fight. He fights with his fist and with his heart.”
Jela: “Everyone must pay.”
Jela: “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Customer: “This is worth more than the fare.”
Jela: “Look, I believe you, but how am I to make change out of a chicken?”
Customer: “Send me an egg.”
Sun: “I do not understand this. So, if you do not mind, I prefer to assume you’re a hallucination.”
Sam: “You’re just another colonizing male trying to take up any space left to women.”
Amanita: “Sam, say one more thing about my girlfriend, and I’m going to colonize your face with my fist.”
Kala: “I mean Rajan is, according to everyone — including my mom’s astrologer — the perfect husband for me.”
Hernando: “I’m sorry. You know I’m just jealous. I want to be your arm piece.”
Lito: “Why to be jealous of the arm when you already have my heart?”
Hernando: “. . . what movie’s that from?”
Hernando: “I think perhaps I misjudged Ms. Valesquez.”
Amanita: “Something is going on. I don’t know what it is, but until we do, I will burn this building down before I let anyone touch that beautiful brain.”
Daniela: “Oh, I see. So as long as I didn’t know the truth, you were fine with using me, making me feel like you cared about me, but now that I know the truth, you prefer to dump me, move on, and use someone else?”
Lito: “No, no, no, no.”
Hernando: “Interesting. I’ve said the exact same thing to him. Lito, I like this girl.”
Bad Dude: “Shut the fuck up!”
Jela: “Love to! Happy to! Shutting the fuck up is a specialty of mine!”
Uncle: “It would be an irony of Shakespearian proportions if a son fucked his own life cracking the safe his father failed to crack.”
Female Prisoner 1: “You stole all of those investors’ money.”
Female Prisoner 2: “Shamed her father and brother.”
Female Prisoner 3: “And almost destroyed their company.”
Female Prisoner 2: “Well done.”
Capheus: “How amazing is this, huh? I’ve never been on a plane. You are so lucky.”
Riley: “No, I’m not lucky.”
Capheus: “Of course you are! You are flying above clouds.”
Riley: “Privileged, not lucky.”
Amanita: “Oh wow, it worked!”
Nomi: “You read that in a book?”
Amanita: “The power of literature.”
Nomi: “We make such a good team.”
Amanita: “Maybe Bug’s right and we should become a crime-fighting dynamic duo.”
Nomi: “I think we already are.”
Nomi: “This guy is as interesting as a mouthful of sawdust. He doesn’t even have any porn stashed away.”
Amanita: “No porn? He is weird.” (gasps as she picks up a picture) “Oh, my God, Nomi. BFFs with Cheney. He’s gotta be evil.”
(Amanita finds Nancy Drew book.)
Amanita: “Uh-oh. He can’t be all bad!”
Kala: “My love for science doesn’t preclude my faith.”
Will: “Shit, there’s four guards.”
Sun: “Is that all?”
Riley: “Death doesn’t let you say goodbye. It just carves holes in your life, in your future, in your heart.”
Fun. Interesting. Some balance problems, one or two convenience issues, and I am seriously unhappy with Kala’s lack of resolution. Still, the concept is fascinating and the characters, for the most part, are really well drawn. Excited to see where this one goes.
Jamie Clayton, I think. Other contenders: Aml Ameen, Brian J. White
Glass elevators are the worst.