“What Family Actually Means” is bookended with two beautiful displays of familial love. Family is a recurring theme on Sense8, as well as a driving force behind the characters’ actions. While their biological families range from oppressive and toxic (Sun, Nomi, and Wolfgang) to loving and discerning (Lito, Capheus, Kala, and Will), their cluster is a family in and of itself, and their chosen families are equally important. Amanita is Nomi’s family, just as Diego is Will’s, and Felix is Wolfgang’s. Family on Sense8 means empathy. It means courage. It means showing up when someone needs you.
In the episode’s opening scene, Nomi gives a speech at her sister Teagan’s rehearsal dinner. Even though we haven’t seen much of Teagan, we know from season one that she’s the only member of Nomi’s family who consistently refers to her by the correct name and pronouns. It speaks to both Jamie Clayton’s abilities and the strong writing of the speech that this opening scene has such a powerful emotional resonance despite Nomi and Teagan’s relationship not being super developed. Nomi gives us a glimpse of her childhood, of the way she used to think and feel growing up in a family that didn’t accept her for who she is. She gives us a glimpse of Teagan’s role in all that, how she showed up for her when she needed it most. The flashbacks are short, sweet, and evocative, showing a lot without saying too much.
The episode similarly ends with a scene that brings the past into the present, as Will sits next to his dying father as Riley, whom his dad eventually sees as Will. Despite being a bit rough around the edges, Will’s father has always shown compassion for his son, and his heart truly broke when Will disappeared, as evidenced by the phone call Will made to him in the Christmas special. His dad doesn’t care whether he did something bad or not; he just wanted him to come home. And Will finally does in a way, able to say his good-byes to his father, his desperate pleas for his father not go blurring with the past, when he was a young boy begging his father not to go to work so they could keep playing catch. The sequence is just the right amount of cathartic and gutting, and like Clayton’s performance in the opening scene, Brian J. Smith does a lot with a little.
Given the strength of the opening and closing scenes and the show’s recurring use of family as a motif, I expected a little more from “What Family Actually Means,” which doesn’t directly engage with the concept of family as much as it could have. When the episode does engage, it does so in strange ways: After Agent Bendix barges into Teagan’s wedding ceremony to arrest Nomi and embarrass her in front of everyone, Nomi’s parents immediately blame her, her mother continuing to blatantly misgender her. Amanita steps in and gives a rousing speech against male ego, throwing shade at San Francisco’s “upper tax bracket” and demanding a warrant from Bendix, who suddenly fumbles, unable to pull up anything since Bug and Nomi wiped it all with her “e-death.” His lack of a warrant is apparently enough to get Nomi’s father on her side, and he uses his law firm to threaten Bendix, standing up for Nomi and calling her his daughter for the first time ever. There’s no real character development that allows any of this to make sense, and it’s an awkwardly forced scene that undercuts the significance of Nomi feeling accepted by her father. Even when Sense8 is over the top, it’s usually more fluid than this scene, which is just too messy to make any of its points ring true. I’d like to say it’s all worth it for Teagan’s little “woo!” when Bendix is escorted out, but it isn’t. And Nomi’s father’s self-aware apology for the “theatrical misunderstandings” comes off as a cop-out excuse for a borderline farcical scene.
For most of the characters, “What Family Actually Means” just sets the table for what’s to come. Although Sun begins her plan to bring down her brother, nothing actually happens yet. (She doesn’t get a lot of screen time in the episode, although she does show up at the wedding — after a groomsman misgenders Nomi — to ask if Nomi wants her to hurt him. (Cracking a dude’s hand for being transphobic? Now that’s what family’s for!) Wolfgang tells Felix he needs to get out of this city, and Felix replies, “India plan?” suggesting the Berlin boys might be moving on to a new adventure, so perhaps Wolfgang and Kala will soon be in the same physical place at last. Kala’s mother offers her some advice about Rajan, and Kala’s perpetual uncertainty about what to do about her loveless marriage is starting to feel like one of the season’s more static story lines. But Rajan’s supposed friend who keeps showing up randomly appears with a late wedding gift that represents, again, more table-setting for something on the horizon.
Capheus has doubts about running for office when Silas Kabaka informs him that there’s a price on his head, but Silas also points out, as others have already, that dropping out of the race would only further empower Mandiba and his corruption, ensuring that no one else would go up against him. Silas insists that he’s helping Capheus out not only for business but because of family; he intends to marry Capheus’s mother, whom he’s in love with. (That’s another one of the odd places the episode goes in its exploration of family.) The character development for Silas has been weak, and the manipulative, murderous man we saw last season seems gone entirely. It’s a shift I don’t entirely buy, but I’m even less sold on Capheus’s casual acceptance of Silas becoming family.
The pacing of the episode is all over the place, with too much time allotted to fluffy scenes and not enough attention given to more meaningful moments. Dani’s impressive but redundant attempts to get Lito a sit-down with a hotshot Hollywood producer could have probably been cut in half and had the same effect. Witnessing Lito and Hernando watch her in amazement makes it a little more exciting, as they finally release their pent-up anticipation when she’s finally successful. It’s also refreshing to see Eréndira Ibarra in command of a scene. But in an episode so full of setup, the “58 minutes” sequence is especially overly explanatory.
The episode does have some of the season’s most haunting imagery, reigniting the stakes of Riley’s mission in Chicago. With Diego’s help, she finds the name of the woman within B.P.O. who helped her: Carol Cumberland. They pay her a visit, only to find an empty house and maggot-covered food plate on the dining room table. The place only gets creepier: In the basement, they find an abandoned makeshift operating room, where Whispers used his procedure to turn Raul into a zombie. Riley feels Raul’s pain, recalling the memories in hazy, whispery bursts. When she and Diego go upstairs, they find Carol in the bathtub, her wrists cut, her mouth open in a silent scream. Riley realizes Jonas was there just before Carol killed herself, further obscuring his intentions in all this. “What Family Actually Means” unsettles and excites, like any strong, dynamic episode of Sense8. But it’s too busy with buildup to really hook. Aside from the first and final scenes, it simply doesn’t realize the full potential of its questions about family.