"I watch Sense8 for the sex" is a comment I've heard a lot lately. People have their favourite moments of the beautiful multicultural cast banging their connected brains out. (Perhaps I need to just hang out with fewer horndogs.) But sex, while definitely a major part of Sense8, is not all that the show or the characters can be. Thanks to sharp plotting and a great use of its characters, the second season -- which premieres today on Netflix -- feels less like softcore porn and more like the optimistic balm to our collective, conflicted consciousness that Lana Wachoswski no doubt originally intended the series to be.
All images: Murray Close/Netflix
Sense8 started as a tale of eight people spread across the globe who one day see a rough-looking Daryl Hannah standing before them.
After each of the eight suffer a splitting headache they slowly realise that they now share a singular consciousness. They're a cluster of eight crafted into one, individually referred to as Sensates, bound to one another in a dreamy way rarely explored effectively in film. The very concept of eight people in one brain is hard enough to wrap one's head around, and the first season of the show spent most of its 12 episodes exploring what that concept even means.
How can a taciturn thief from Berlin (Wolfgang) share the same headspace as a dramatic actor from Mexico City (Lito)? Or an in touch with her feelings hacker in San Francisco (Nomi), or devout biochemist in Mumbai (Kala)? Or what might an Icelandic DJ in London (Riley) have in common with a Matatu driver in Nairobi (Capheus), or tortured cop in Chicago (Will), or cage fighting financier in Seoul (Sun)?
While light on plot or world-building, the first season of Sense8 was indulgently devoted to answering the above questions, digging deep into each of the clusters' backstories to understand how they might all form this one mono-consciousness.
But there, on the periphery, was a delicious conspiracy that's the bread and butter of many genre shows nowadays. A mysterious organisation, helmed by a man named Mr. Whispers, was stalking the Sensate cluster and seeking to do awful, and unrevealed things to them. Unfortunately, only three of the eight Sensates were actually involved in that plot (and, frustratingly, they happened to be three of the four white people in the cluster).
There's a lot of moments where they all run as a group and it is a goofy delight.
This new season (including the first episode, which aired back at Christmas) picks up not long after season one ended. It's been a year since the clusters' awakening and the eight are much more comfortable in each other's skin. Which means we don't get lots of sudden orgies (though we still get some very satisfying sex featuring characters notably absent from the naked fun last season). Instead, we get that other thing Lana Wachowski does best -- really damn good action sequences.
There's one in nearly every episode, and they're all among some of the best fight scenes you'll see in a Netflix show this side of Daredevil season one. The show has fully embraced that each character can switch bodies with another in a heartbeat, producing wildly inventive action set pieces that are as gorgeous as they are technically complicated. If last season focused on the fun orgies, then this season is about the fun fights.
And, you know, that aforementioned conspiracy plot. With the cluster now feeling very lived in, each member finds his or her own role to play in the overarching story of these mutant empaths being hunted by a shadowy organisation. By the end of the season, every single member of the cluster has become entangled in this problem, and while wordless a new status quo has been established. These characters are not just forced to share a brain. They have become friends, family, and lovers to one another. If one dies, then they all die.
The stakes of each of the eight characters' stories are far higher than they ever were last season. Yet those eight stories haven't stopped being individual or deeply personal. These characters are still wildly different from one another. Some of the best scenes of the season are the eight characters in a room arguing over a plan of action. Now they know what they are, they can all sit in a room and bounce off one another like the best kinds of ensemble casts.
It should feel overwhelming -- that's a lot of characters! -- but Wachowski and her collaborators worked so hard last season to develop each character's personality, that now you feel like you're watching a group of friends. And the best part of all of it is how damn optimistic it feels to watch eight characters with such wildly divergent personalities and backgrounds get along.
At least here in the U.S. there's been a sharp rise in the belief of individualism (a notion that's already deeply rooted in the culture of America). Everyone is out for themselves or for people with virtually identical backgrounds. We've partitioned ourselves off with our ideological beliefs functioning as a kind of armour that we'll allow no other to pierce. But Sense8 posits that maybe that concept is kind of bullshit. Maybe we should take off that ideological armour and empathise with one another more. Perhaps if we just stop and consider the point of view of the person across the table we can find some kind of commonality. A thread endemic to all of humanity that binds us together whether we want it to or not.
Even if you find that philosophy to be overly optimistic bullshit, the show itself is so steeped in it that you'll be hard pressed not to smile when you watch. Sense8 wants us all to just, like, talk to one another. While that might be hard to do in real life, it was nice to take an 11-episode vacation to a world where it isn't.
- I want to avoid spoilers, but any character you felt that got short shrift last season will get a really damn cool spotlight this season.
- If you were frustrated by the lack of answers last season, then buckle in. They answer nearly all of them and then some.
- The finale ends on such a perfect beat that it will be totally fine if we don't get a third season, but the story kicks into such high gear and becomes so fascinating that it will be deeply upsetting to me if we don't get a third season.
- I found myself loving each and every one of these characters and am already looking forward to watching it again on a TV instead of on my browser on my laptop.