For a complex sci-fi thriller, Sense8 has a surprising amount of levity. The show’s warmth has been a defining quality since the very beginning. It isn’t afraid to be light, fun, or even goofy at times, taking little breaks from the life-or-death stakes to define its characters as real people. The most obvious example of this, of course, is the birthday party sequence in the Christmas special, which finds the sensates dancing, drinking, partying, and having sex for a good chunk of the movie-length runtime.
“Obligate Mutualisms” doesn’t have anything quite like that, but it does open with Will strong-arming someone higher up the BPO food chain into temporarily incapacitating Whispers. With Whispers gone, Will can live life uninhibited for the first time in months, not having to rely on drugs to block his senses. When he’s finally able to venture outdoors, he does so with his cluster right there alongside him. Lana Wachowski captures the characters in brilliant sunlight as she has done many times before on the show, and the scene radiates warmth.
Of course, it’s a short-lived victory. “Obligate Mutualisms” blends the light with the dark, showing the full spectrum of Sense8’s pathos and making for a dynamic and tonally well-balanced episode. Lito is walking on sunshine after Will’s release, but he struts right into a room of disappointment: His team informs him that the studio has pulled their film deal with him, citing a morals clause. Since coming out, Lito’s career hasn’t evaporated quite like he feared it might, but he is definitely noticing changes as the industry reacts. Here, Sense8 strikes an important balance between acknowledging that coming out is hard while also showing that it isn’t impossible or always tragic. Coming out hasn’t ruined Lito’s life, but it has changed it. He can’t afford the apartment of his dreams … unless he and Hernando share it with Dani, which works for all three of them. Between Lito and Hernando and Nomi and Amanita, Sense8 has some of the most beautiful and comforting displays of queer happiness on television.
Things take a much sharper turn for Sun, who is violently pulled out of the bliss of basking in the sunshine with Will by a serious threat. Men posing as guards retrieve her and take her to a room where they plan to kill her. Sun calls on Nomi for help, and the others follow suit. Nomi, Bug, and Amanita handle surveillance, while Will and Wolfgang help Sun try to fight off her killers. But when they use their taser on Sun, all the sensates become incapacitated, including Capheus, who’s driving his bus. The assailants manage to string Sun up in a noose. All of the sensates find themselves dangling, gasping for breath. Lana Wachowski captures this haunting, dark moment as deftly and with as much feeling as the bright opening scene.
Sun’s cluster can’t save her, but her friend can. A woman from her cell murders one of the assailants, giving Sun a chance to take down the rest. Then it’s time for a “jailbreak, baby” — Lito’s cinematic words, of course, which Sun repeats to her new partner in crime. I’ve been waiting for the sensates to help Sun break out of jail since the moment she landed there, and there’s no better time than during an attempted assassination. The jailbreak sequence also allows most of the sensates to show off their gifts: Capheus and Wolfgang are particularly useful for Sun’s escape, Will gets to pull his signature handcuffs move, and Sun even taps Lito for a moment that requires convincing acting.
I’ve always loved the Orange Is the New Black vibe of Sun’s interactions with her fellow incarcerated women, and the fact that her cellmate plays such an essential role in her narrow escape makes this previously small character much more significant to Sun’s arc. They end up hiding out at the home of the older woman’s friend, a prison acquaintance who also got locked up because of the wrongdoings of a man, a recurring theme in Sun’s story.
One of the biggest surprises of the episode comes when Wolfgang suddenly encounters a new sensate. Felix and Wolfgang visit their new employer, who unknowingly has a sensate as his right-hand woman. Lila makes herself known to Wolfgang right away, seducing him telepathically while she sits on the other side of the room, amused by his surprise. “Have you ever played outside your cluster?” she teases. “Am I your first?” Their physical proximity and desire intensifies the connection, makes it feel even more real. Wolfgang and Leila have some fun, all while he also gets swept up in an international money-laundering ring. The man is very good at multitasking.
Meanwhile, Lila’s arrival comes just as Will learns that the total population of sensates is much larger than previously thought. As part of his negotiations with BPO, he secures a one-hour meeting with Jonas, who reveals that all sensates, regardless of gender or age, can give birth to a new cluster at any time in their lives. Lito learns that Raul Pascal, a journalist who interviewed him years earlier, was actually a sensate whose disappearance is tied to Angelica’s involvement with BPO. The flashbacks to Jonas and Angelica’s past further develops both characters, who up until this point were drawn a little too broadly. Angelica is finally coming together as a real character rather than just a dark angel floating on the periphery.
Jonas also reveals that BPO is mired in an internal struggle. “They are, like many of us and our institutions, going through an identity crisis,” he says, rooting Sense8 somewhat in real-life global politics. The idea is taken a step further when Will meets with a higher-up at BPO, who says rather bluntly that 9/11 changed the nature of the group’s endeavors. Envisioned by its founder as a way to bridge the divide between sensates and Homo sapiens to foster a collaborative relationship, the war on terror recast sensates as a threat to secrecy and sovereignty. Their conversation unfolds in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a massive painting known for its dramatic contrasts in light and dark, a quality it certainly shares with Sense8 itself.
Connecting Sense8’s mythology to real-world geopolitical shifts and anxiety over terrorism is an ambitious move. The show excels with the intimate and specific emotions and arcs of its characters, but it can stumble a bit with the bigger ideas. Still, the additional context for BPO is a necessary step toward making the organization a more compelling and grounded villain. The man assures Will that a faction within BPO wants to return to the organization’s more harmonious original vision, but his message gets cut short when Whispers reemerges by way of another sensate (presumably from his cluster), who murders the man and then kills herself. Like The Night Watch, “Obligate Mutualisms” is marked with violent contrasts in light and dark, a jarring juxtaposition that gives the show a paradoxical sense of flow rather than dissonance.