Why are these recaps written in this format?
Hi, nice to see you, too. The following is the first of four planned Sense8 recaps. We’ve chosen to write these recaps in installments that address three episodes at a time since Sense8’s high-concept, everyone-is-connected science-fiction narrative actually lends itself to the kind of binge-watching Netflix encourages with its original programs by making every episode of a single season available at once.
Sense8’s narrative also blends together and is very stop-and-go. Some subplots move faster than others. Like, a lot faster. So we wanted to make it possible for readers to follow the show’s story in such a way that they not only can prolong their enjoyment and not get overwhelmed but also read and judge the show’s serial narrative based on its episodes’ individual merits. So we broke our Sense8 recaps up into three-episode installments.
What’s so hard to follow about this show? And why a Q&A format?
The first three episodes of Sense8 have a fairly dense narrative. Its story, co-scripted by J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Changeling) and co-creators/episode directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas), follows eight different characters as they become aware of a psychic connection that allows them to share each other’s abilities, like strength, intelligence, and dexterity.
These recaps are written in FAQ style because after watching a batch of three episodes, you’ll probably have a lot of questions. That’s not just because the show is willfully mysterious but also because its drama is stretched to its breaking point. The fact that the Wachowskis were essentially given carte blanche is, in that sense, a double-edged sword. They’ve entered an interesting phase of their career where it seems like their stories have become deeply entrenched in an alternately bold and insufferable New Age–style positivity. So the pacing for this show is … eccentric, to say the least.
Wait, back up: whatever happened to the Wachowskis?
Good question. Whether you fell in love with or just didn’t see their live-action Speed Racer movie (yes, those are your two options), you probably realize that the Wachowskis’ clout has diminished of late. They essentially went into seclusion and put a lot of their energy (and money) into the making of Cloud Atlas, a half-turgid, half-beguiling adaptation of David Mitchell’s fantasy novel. Earlier this year, the Wachowski-helmed science-fiction epic Jupiter Ascending was released. It bombed. Once again, the Wachowskis’ biggest defenders conflated what the Wachowskis were selling for what they actually made: a progressive, staunchly uncompromising, and cynicism-free brand of science-fiction. The only catch is that the idea of the Wachowskis’ recent work is often more appealing than the reality.
Sense8 also suffers from this issue. So much time in the first three episodes is devoted to character-defining conversations. This is simultaneously refreshing and maddening because these dialogue scenes are the meat of the show, and sometimes the dialogue is either bold as love or hard as a hammer. There are several points where Straczynski and the Wachowskis tell you what the show isn’t going to be, particularly whenever Mexican action star Lito (Miguel Angel Sylvester) flubs a line or two during episode one, when he shoots the kind of soapy, airheaded action films that require him to cover himself in blood and spout corny, revengeful one-liners.
As a result, the pace of Sense8’s first three episodes is rather jerky. Because there are so many dangling plot threads, characters like Sun (Doona Bae, of The Host and Cloud Atlas), the sister of an absentee corporate mogul, and Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Nairobi-based tour guide and son of an impoverished, AIDS-afflicted mother, don’t always get to do anything of note. In fact, while most characters’ stories stall at some point or another, Sun and Capheus in particular don’t get to do much until the show’s third episode, when it’s revealed that Sun is also a kickboxer and Capheus is consequently able to tap into her abilities so he can take out a group of thugs who steal his mother’s extra-legally acquired medication.
Wait, wait: Who is Lito, and how is he connected to Capheus and Sun?
Let’s try that again. So there are a group of eight strangers. They are united by visions that they experience of an imprisoned woman who commits suicide with a pistol in her mouth. This woman claims to have given birth, so to speak, to the show’s main characters.
For the most part, Sense8’s eight protagonists aren’t really aware, or haven’t really grappled with the implications of their connection. Lito seems particularly oblivious, and so do Capheus and Sun. But good-guy cop Will (Brian J. Smith) seems to feel something amiss after he “sees” British DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) in an abandoned Chicago warehouse. And Riley starts to feel like she’s connected to other characters after she takes experimental drugs offered to her by a shady guy that her friends introduce to her and then try to rob (the shady guy, that is). Meanwhile, lesbian writer Nomi (Jamie Clayton) sees visions of Jonas (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), a dangerous, cryptic jive-talking man whom Will is told is wanted by the Office of Homeland Security.
How are these characters characterized?
So far, several of these characters are not defined beyond what makes them different, hence Nomi is a “lesbian writer,” not just a writer; and Jonas is dangerous because he’s capable of taking Will, a cop, out with only a few moves. Naomi has an impassioned monologue in episode two in which she rejects her mother’s paraphrasing of Saint Thomas Aquinas and insists that “pride” is not a great sin.
It’s hard to tell exactly how these characters are related so far, since Jonas hasn’t visited or communicated with all of the show’s characters yet. There’s a vaguely defined conspiracy afoot, one that will undoubtedly lead the show to its grand theme of family, empathy, and evolution. But so far, the series’ themes are coming together incrementally. Some communities are toxic, like Nomi’s biological family, a tribe that Nomi rejects and insists she is not part of when they push her to undergo brain surgery that will stop her hallucinations. But the community that the show’s main protagonists are forming through their psychic link has already proven to be healthy-ish, as we see at the end of episode three, when Capheus uses Sun’s kickboxing skills and Will’s marksmanship to stop the aforementioned drug-stealing thugs.
What a headache. What’s this show really about, and why is everything you’re saying so heavily qualified?
So far, the show is building in a way that is, moment by moment, dissatisfying. There are some very satisfying individual sequences, but also a lot of inert connective tissue. Some characters’ arcs don’t seem to progress, like Kala (Tina Desai), a Mumbai-based pharmacist who laments not being in love with the man her father has arranged for her to marry. Kala’s story is theoretically interesting as a counterpoint to Nomi’s since it shows that biological families don’t have to be cartoonishly evil to be harmful. Sometimes the wrong choices are made for what at the time seems like the right reasons. This is true of Nomi’s family as much as it is for Kala’s, but Nomi’s mother looks evil because she forces Nomi to remain in the hospital against her will while Kala only has to marry someone who is earnest but not husband material.
Likewise, it’s hard to go wild for a show that tries to impress you with how progressive it is when it so far has also sheepishly exploited certain plot points for sensational reasons. It’s telling that in three episodes’ time, we’ve seen two lesbian sex scenes but not one involving Lito and his secret partner Hernando (Alfonso Herrera). This is especially disappointing since the connection between Lito, a closeted public figure who needs a beard to prove his heteronormative masculinity, and Nomi, a proud artist who openly flirts and enjoys time with partner Amanit (Freema Agyeman), should be stronger by now.
Likewise, one shouldn’t vehemently condemn a show that generically shows characters bonding through violent activities (i.e.: the big three-way psychic tap at the end of episode three). But do we really need one more show that espouses peace, love, and understanding but uses the revelation that a character is not who we think they are as a rug-pulling jolt? When we find out that Nomi used to be a man named Michael, it feels like a gross plot twist, not something that just happens to be a natural, normal part of the character’s life. Admittedly, it’s hard to highlight such a major character-defining difference without seeming to exploit it. It’s hard to trust a show that has such big ideals but ultimately does what less ambitious and certainly more generic shows might do reflexively.
Also, do we really need another show that vilifies medicine the way Nomi’s subplot does? The scene where orderlies come in and threaten to force Nomi to take her medication is a cheap potshot at the bureaucracy-fueled hospital system. Yes, bureaucracy is a nightmare, especially when it comes to health care. But come on, look at the scene where Bill is confronted by a bureaucratic hospital manager who tries to turn away a young gunshot victim because, as she claims, treating gunshot victims is a waste of resources. This show preaches spiritual tolerance but nitpicks when it comes to the policy and organization of organized medicine. Does it have to be either a “witch hunt,” as Nomi puts it, or some imaginary utopia where everybody gets their way and nobody faces real consequences? Can’t we find a nice balance?
You seem tense. What’s to like about the show so far?
Sense8 is, so far, at its best when its characters hint at impending conflicts. It’s nice to hear the above-mentioned hospital manager confront Bill and ask him what he’s going to do if the kid he saves winds up taking more lives, a sentiment that is redundantly repeated by Bill’s father Michael (Joe Pantoliano). It’s also gratifying to see Capheus haggle with a black-market drug dealer for his mother’s medication.
It’s similarly exciting to watch any scene that reveals the extent of the Wachowskis’ sublimated pessimism. When German safecracker Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) tries to beat his loutish cousin Steiner (Christian Oliver) to a big score, he becomes energized after seeing a talented singer get down-voted on an American Idol–type competition show. Through a dialogue with his partner in crime, Wolfgang realizes that life isn’t always fair and that merit alone doesn’t always cut it. That sentiment is so bleak that one can’t help but apply an autobiographical reading to it. Here’s what the Wachowskis have learned after being rejected and asked to reshape several projects to suit the needs of an ideal general audience.
In an interview I conducted with the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer for The Village Voice, the Wachowskis insisted that they were artists and therefore didn’t have to deal with such complaints. I see some of that defensiveness in Wolfgang and his psychic buddies. Here’s a group of superheroes who, like the X-Men or the Doom Patrol, are defined and bonded by their mutual feelings of isolation. Their psychic bond is meant to show that universal empathy is possible, and not just in an abstract way. I’m hooked on Sense8, but I’m not sure about the extent of its creators’ vision.