Sense8 Recap: Empathy Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Photo: Netflix
Episode Title
What is Human?, Just Turn the Wheel and the Future Changes, I Can’t Leave Her
Editor’s Rating

So, now that season one of Sense8 is over, what's the verdict: admirable folly or ballsy success?
Admirable folly, alas. Episodes 10 to 12 of season one are ultimately disappointing, particularly when it comes to the fast-and-loose way that co-writers J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis play with the few rules they set up. As usual, the Wachowskis score big points for chutzpah (who else but the Wachowskis would insist on being as graphic as the blood childbirth scenes in episode 12?). But it's hard to root for a show with so few hard-set rules to it. Dramatic consequences are relative, a constant fact of life in the Wachowskis' rocky post-Matrix films. While Speed Racer is in fact inspired and often flat-out exhilarating, both Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas are two tons of great ideas in half-ton bags. The Wachowskis often have visionary and daring ideas, but the ending of Sense8 is frustrating for its predictable lack of consistency.

One of the biggest problems these episodes have is a wishy-washy attitude toward violence. The show has had, until this point, a rather ambiguous take on blood-letting. On the one hand, there's all the goofy directors that Lito works with on mindless shoot-'em-ups. These guys don't have a single discerning bone in all of their bodies combined. On the other hand, Capheus idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme to the point where he and Kala bond by watching Van Damme's Lionheart (seriously; if this particular JCVD was chosen for any other reason than its title I'll eat a sombrero).

So what? Violence is a staple of Sense8 since it is an action-adventure, no?
If we accept that violence can solve problems in Sense8, then the show's central conceit — that the next step in human evolution is revisiting an imaginary evolutionary detour that rendered humans incapable of killing — just looks silly. Bear in mind: This is a show whose appeal is, in large part, its shapelessness. It doesn't have the contrived episodic, character-specific structure of a show like Lost, but it also doesn't have much structure at all. Which is a shame since Sense8's twelfth episode features some of the best scenes in the series to date, particularly Will and Riley's escape (up until they get into the ambulance), Will's childhood flashback, and almost all of Riley's flashbacks. These scenes are directed with a level of focus that much of the show lacks. Seeing Will and Riley's stories juxtaposed like that suggested that Straczynski and the Wachowskis were on their way to a breakthrough. For a moment, you believe that these characters are actually united by common goals, and shared experiences. But then the moment passes, and the characters' bond never jells beyond a couple of terrific isolated scenes. 

A perfect example: The episode ten scene where the Wachowskis show the Sensates experiencing each other's biological births while listening to a live performance of Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat." That scene is wonderful for how bullishly drawn-out it is: Everybody gets a turn. This scene reminds me of the one in Alejandro Jodorowsky's seminal midnight movie Holy Mountain, where each of that film's spiritual pilgrims are introduced at great length in a similarly drawn-out montage sequence. One of the things that makes the Wachowskis so endearing is the fact that they have inherited so much of Jodorowsky's devil-may-care attitude. They treat genre-entrenched movie rules like suggestions that not only can be broken, but always must be. Which is unfortunate because when they make the rules, they often lose interest in enforcing them. That is, realistically, the biggest problem with the Matrix sequels. Both films are packed with exciting ideas, but Matrix Revolutions didn't even try to provide answers to their larger questions. At that point, it seemed like the Wachowskis weren't interested in doing anything more than provoking viewers intellectually and thrilling them viscerally. Which is frustrating for anyone who wants to enjoy their shows for their ennobling progressive values.

... and?
And this brings us back to the problems introduced in episode 11. At this point, Jonas spells out the most clear-cut difference between Sensates and normal human beings: Sensates are so empathetically sensitive that they are nigh-on incapable of killing. "Killing is easy when you don't feel anything," he scoffs. In an eight-point tutorial at The Wall Street Journal, Straczysnki expanded on this notion:

"Our theory on Sense8 is that we all began that way. Early in our evolution we were able to share telepathic contact with other people, but a mutation caused people to be born without that ability, and they became more effective and ruthless killers because killings easy when you feel nothing [from your victim]. 

This is a fine and intriguing sentiment, but it's quashed in the same episode when Wolfgang blows up his rival Steiner with a rocket launcher. And then again when Capheus is possessed by Sun and lops off a guy's hand with a machete, twists a guy's arm so he shoots another bad guy, and then proceeds to kill and maim his way through a warehouse full of Nairobi thug Githu's heavies. 

So, to recap: Violence can solve problems in Sense8, which negates the notion that the Sensates are inherently different from and/or superior to humans because, well, they don't really mind killing when they have to. In fact, Capheus is righteously pissed off right before he dispatches Githu by slamming on the brakes of his Van Damn bus and side-swiping Githu. So yes, while the warehouse kill spree is kind of fun, it also seriously undermines the show's big ideas. Because it's not really empathy if you can pick and choose who deserves to live.

But what about the earnest expressions of love on this show? Don't they prove that the show's heart is in the right place?
Not really, no. The fact that the Sensates love each other — and not always in a Platonic way — is striking. But the plot threads that are left dangling — particularly the lack of consequences for Lito's bold decision to nuke his career by choosing to come out of the closet (at a later date, presumably?) — at the end of episode 12 are maddening. Like, what happened to what Yrsa said about the narcissistic nature of love among a Sensate cluster's members? Yes, I get that it was an especially vinegary joke, but why can't Kala love Wolfgang despite his nigh-psychopathic urges to hurt people? And why is Wolfgang's merciless drive toward violence something that can be blithely utilized for good without anyone batting an eyelash? Will uses Wolfgang when he has to get Riley away from Whispers, but can't bring himself to directly hurt Whispers. So he lets Wolfgang do his dirty work ... but somehow, Will and Riley get to pair off at the end, but not Kala and Wolfgang? Why isn't Will's role in using Wolfgang's anger and violent tendencies a bad thing? Oh, right, because Whispers is bad, and therefore doesn't deserve to live.

Why does the open-ended nature of the show's finale imply that Wolfgang is right about his incompatibility with Kala? Many of the show's characters don't have an ending. Why is the show's optimistic, but anti-neat finale a bad thing?
The show's open-ended finale is more annoying than bad because it once again refuses to give the audience any real closure. So while Sense8 still isn't like Lost in the sense that it doesn't leave viewers with more questions than answers, Sense8 is unfortunately like the last two films in the Matrix trilogy. There are moments of admirably daring filmmaking here, but as far as holistic experiences go, the show's stridently all-over-the-map vibe just gets tiresome in its home-stretch. Closure wouldn't have necessarily made these episodes better, but they probably would have forced Straczynski and the Wachowskis to cut way too many corners. If a group of eight strangers can bond, then kill without remorse, then bond again, then Sense8 isn't the alternative action show it wants us to think it is: It's just very good at selling itself as such.