Now that we’re halfway through Sense8’s first season, does it feel like we’re headed for a Lost-like non-conclusion (i.e., a show that answers questions with more questions)?
Thankfully, no. Until now, Sense8’s pacing has been rather jerky. There have been several instances where characters have dropped off the map and haphazardly resurfaced without clear reasons. Riley’s story only picks up after she’s threatened by the mysterious drug-dealer her friends introduced her to, and then ripped off a few episodes ago. It’s also hard to tell what’s going on with Wolfgang (beyond his growing attraction to Kala and annoyance with Steiner’s father), though his character gets some much-needed development in episode four, arguably the best episode of the first six so far.
In fact, one of the main reasons why episode four is the most satisfying of the first half-dozen is because it lays out more rules and explanations. Characters become more aware of their psychic bonds, and that culminates in a sappy but surprisingly effective kumbaya moment where all the Sensates sing Four Non-Blondes’ “What’s Going On” together. Will learns a little more about “visiting,” the Sensates’ ability to psychically transport themselves to any other group/cluster member as long as they’ve previously made eye contact. And Capheus learns that he can’t rely on his innate connection to Sensates like Sun, a fact he is reminded of when the Superpower gang returns and robs him again.
Still, while these interactions are not as substantial as they could be, they do suggest that the show’s focus is not, as Lost apologists have often unsuccessfully claimed, on establishing the rules that govern the Sensates’ powers. Right now, we’re in the slipperiest phase of Sense8’s narrative, the part where the Wachowskis and co-writer J. Michael Straczynski run the gamut of emotions that their main characters can share with each other. Not all of these interactions are strictly necessary, like when Lito experiences Sun’s period-induced emotional roller-coaster. But even that scene establishes the looseness and charm of the show.
Sense8 is, in that sense, very much an acquired taste, a fact that has become a little easier to swallow in episodes four through six. Here’s a show that will (and maybe should) be cut a lot of slack by viewers who don’t mind the messiness of its narrative and can easily forgive myriad little lapses in logic. For example, are you the type of person who doesn’t care that Will pretty much accidentally helps Nomi avoid a lobotomy after Jonas explains to him the rules of “visiting”? If you crave narrative coherence, you might feel cheated by this development, since Will doesn’t really choose to rescue Nomi, he just does it instinctively. Straczynski and the Wachowskis make up for this in episode five, when Will checks in with Nomi’s mom, and thereby tries to take responsibility for his actions. But still: Jonas explains one of the Sensates’ powers to Will, gives Will a mission, and then Will promptly accomplishes the mission without having the ability or even making a conscious effort to employ his newfound knowledge. It’s a bit like saying, “A, then B, but screw C, here comes R.”
Long answer short: Sense8 is not yet like Lost in the sense that I don’t think that we’re going to wind up being stranded without satisfactory answers by season’s end.
That was a much longer answer than I wanted. What’s this about an orgy?
As you can probably tell, Sense8’s sprawling, unfocused scope is, depending on your perspective, either a part of the show’s charm or an unavoidable fact of life. Sense8 is also a very gutsy show given how hard it pushes its inclusive, neo-hippie humanist agenda. For example, it’s interesting to see Straczynski, the Wachowskis, and episode director Tom Tykwer dramatize Kala’s struggle with her Hindu* faith.
You can tell that Kala’s story is told from the perspective of outsiders, especially when a religious zealot asks Kala to pray with him for “Ganesha to destroy our enemies before they destroy us.” This line is especially ironic since it pretty much explains the reactionary attitude that the show’s creators have struck throughout the first six episodes of Sense8. The Wachowskis and Straczynski preemptively and broadly vilify any character who threatens the Sensates, since the Sensates are (so far) presented as the next step in human evolution toward empathetic enlightenment. For example, Dr. Metzger, the E-vil surgeon who elects to cancel all his appointments just to operate on Nomi, is a mustache-twirling villain, as is Githu (Lwanda Jawar), the heartless Superpower leader who adds insult to Capheus’s injuries by jeering “Van Sham!” after he robs Capheus (again).
Thankfully, the show’s climactic, boundary-pushing orgy scene (in episode six, for all you horndogs) is satisfying, though a little frustrating, too. Capheus, Sun, and Riley are all strangely missing during this setpiece, which is bewildering and a little disappointing. But it is exciting to see Will, a character who hasn’t previously shown signs of homosexual questioning, simply allow himself to be swept up in a polyamorous dog-pile. That’s a huge risk that the Wachowskis, who are credited with directing this scene, took, since Will, a Chicago cop who is presented as the most macho Sensate, doesn’t bat an eye after he’s kissed by Lito. There’s no momentary recoil, no jokey, “What’s goin’ on” reaction, and no signs of significant reluctance. There’s just a sweaty guy lifting weights … and another man kissing him.
But is the orgy scene sexy?
Your mileage may vary, but yes, the sight of so many pretty young things engaging in tantric bonding is sexy.
A word of caution: This scene wears its corniness on its sleeve. This stands to reason since these characters have group sex shortly (one episode) after Lito is told by a dim-witted filmmaker that “tears aren’t sexy.”
And yet: Isn’t it nice to see at least one male member in a scene full of comely thighs, breasts, abs, and rears? The fact that Max Riemelt’s dong is present is a welcome corrective to the show’s first three episodes’ emphasis on Nomi and Amanita’s coupling over Lito and Hernando’s sexy time.
So, yes, the orgy feels relatively democratic, even if two of the show’s people of color are conspicuously missing (that could just be because the missing actors weren’t comfortable with the scene, who knows).
Based on your previous answers, it seems like Sense8’s uneven tone and execution has becomes easier to swallow. But: Why still three stars and not four?
Because there is still too much of a gap between the show’s ideas and its creators’ follow-through. Many subplots feel dramatically inert, particularly Riley and Wolfgang’s stories. At the end of episode six, Riley and Wolfgang are still struggling to realize their potential. They are both coming closer to, to paraphrase Hernando, confronting the one thing that’s stopping them from “finding peace.” But Riley is still a largely underdeveloped character, and Wolfgang’s not doing much of note. Of these two stories, Wolfgang’s is more frustrating since the spree he’s currently on with buddy Felix is more prominently featured than Riley’s idle ruminations. Wolfgang seems adrift, even after he’s confronted by Steiner’s father. And while not every subplot needs to be action-packed, there’s not a lot going on in Riley’s story at present, making it feel like a wasted opportunity.
By contrast, Sun and Capheus’s stories have both developed admirably. The scene where they finally talk with each other and Capheus tries to figure out how he can help her is terrific, as are the handful of scenes that lead up to Sun’s sacrificial public statement regarding her brother Joong-Ki’s embezzlement. These latter scenes give viewers the impression that they’ve lived with characters who are on their way to making major life-changing decisions. That doesn’t mean that Capheus and Sun are always thinking about what they’re about to do. But watching Sun meditate, search for her brother, and exercise did give me the impression that I knew who she was. Wolfgang’s story has a similarly relaxed hangout vibe, but right now it feels like we’re stuck waiting interminably for the other shoe to drop, and for Steiner or his father to do something horrible (probably to Felix, though that’s just a guess).
Capheus’s story is, however, the most well-developed in Sense8. You know what’s at stake for him, as we see in the scene where mother Shiro (Chichi Seii) laments that her son is wasting his money on her medication. Capheus’s story is necessarily more fraught with peril since his quest to get ahead has higher stakes than most (Nomi’s story is similarly engrossing, and its San Francisco–as-sunny-LGBTQ-utopia atmosphere is equally endearing).
But Capheus’s story isn’t just compelling because it has significant narrative momentum behind it. The presence of multiple interested parties (the military, Shiro, the Superpowers, Silas Kabaka, and best friend Jela) helps to paint a fuller picture of Capheus’s world, making it that much easier to invest in his character. One can only hope that Sense8’s other subplots, particularly Will and Kala’s stories, catch up to Capheus’s narrative soon.
* An earlier version of this recap stated that Kala is Muslim. She is Hindu.