What would you do if one day—utterly out of the blue—you saw a woman commit suicide? No one else saw her, no one else reacted, and it all has the feeling of a waking dream. And, in the aftermath of this bizarre moment, you start to… experience things.
You hear police sirens in a silent room and pounding club music in an empty apartment. Smell rain on a sunny day. Taste pot brownies and someone else's kiss. See a chicken flutter onto the desk of your immaculate office or a stranger's face in your mirror.
You'd think you were going mad, of course. You'd probably be confused and frightened and more than a little disturbed. Especially when you realize that it's not just you inside your head any more—there are seven other people sharing that space now.
Sense8 has an ambitious, crazy concept driving its story: eight people from all over the world are inexplicably and inextricably linked together and have to come to terms with this newfound connection. And as if that weren't enough, they also have to contend with a shadowy organization that definitely doesn't mean them well.
Created by J. Michael Straczynski (the man behind Babylon 5 and a longtime comic writer) and the Wachowskis (the siblings who gave us the game-changing Matrix series and the gonzo space opera Jupiter Ascending), Sense8 clearly has the pedigree to deliver on this trippy premise. Juggling eight different protagonists, with their own unique backgrounds, cultures, and personalities, is quite the task.
There's Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ in London. Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) is a cop from Chicago. Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) is a German safecracker and thief. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender political hacker from San Francisco with a devoted girlfriend named Amanita (Freema Agyeman).
Sun Bak (Doona Bae) is the CFO for her father's company in South Korea. In Nairobi, eternal optimist Capheus (Aml Ameen) drives a bus rather whimsically decorated on the theme of Jean-Claude Van Damme, his personal hero and inspiration. Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is an Indian pharmacist. AndLito Rodriguez (Miguel Angel Silvestre) is a dramatic Mexican movie star.
The pilot opens with a desperate Angelica (Daryl Hannah) mentally connecting with our eight heroes before taking her own life, alternately encouraged and discouraged by a pair of disembodied men: Jonas (Naveen Andrews) acts the part of the supportive lover while the other, Whispers (Terrence Mann), is darkly sinister and officious. It’s startling. We're bewildered. We want to knowmore. Just what the hell is this show going to be about?!
And we don't get many answers right away. This is a very slow burn, unlike most of mainstream TV. Such pacing is risky: today's audiences want instant gratification or constant action to keep tuning in, and I know several people said they got bored and quit after only a couple episodes. But those who stick with it are amply rewarded.
Sense8 is utterly character-driven, and we're given the time to understand and truly care about the characters. Being a Netflix show, the format encourages a marathon watch—which I highly recommend, as it not only immerses you in the intermingled dramas but it also reduces any frustration you might feel over the initial slow pace. Taken as a whole, the first season feels more like a very long movie rather than a series of individual episodes.
According to the creators, Sense8 came about partially because they wanted to explore the themes of modern technology—which can connect people all across the world, proving that very few of us are truly alone—and because they wanted to see issues often ignored in science fiction presented front-and-center.
Given how not even the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential of science fiction, I've often been frustrated with how narrow the scope is in most movies, TV shows, and books. As the great Jane Espenson (of Buffy fame) says, “If we can't write diversity into sci-fi, then what's the point? You don't create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”
So in Sense8, gender, sexuality, religion, depression, and suicide are all weighty subjects that directly impact the characters in their personal narratives as well as the over-arching story.
Nomi's story centers around bodily autonomy and is easily one of the most nail-biting stories. Her devoted girlfriend, Amanita, isn't considered a family member by the hospital, and so isn't given a say in Nomi's treatment or even allowed to visit her. Instead, the legal right to determine Nomi's fate is handed over to her mother, who coldly refuses to acknowledge her true gender identity and signs off on a medical procedure that would lobotomize her.
For a character who has had to fight for years in order to be who she is, it's a waking nightmare. For trans viewers, many of whom still struggle to be seen and respected for who they are, this has to be especially resonant and terrifying; Lana Wachowski, who is trans herself, had a huge say in this narrative and it shows.
Meanwhile, actor Lito is forced to live a double-life, because his society would be unforgiving of his true self. “You can't play the parts I want to play and be gay,” he confides to Nomi. When a man threatens to out him if he doesn't give in to blackmail, Lito has a true crisis on his hands. Does he rescue his friend Daniela from an abusive situation, standing proudly beside his boyfriend Hernando at the cost of the career he's spent so much time building, or does he sacrifice the meaningful relationships in his life for professional success?
Kala is unhappily engaged and planning an elaborate traditional wedding to please her family. Her fiancé Rajan is practically the perfect man: smart, loving, supportive, handsome, rich. But she can't love him back, and when it becomes clear that his wealthy family is pushing legislation that would criminalize her religion—Kala is a devout Hindu—she has even more qualms. Is it possible to pay respect to tradition without being a slave to it? Can Kala find a happy medium the same way she balances her religious faith with her trust in science?
Eternal optimist Capheus has been knocked down hundreds of times before: he's lost his father and sister, been beaten and robbed, struggles in poverty in order to buy medicine for his beloved AIDS-stricken mother, and is finally forced to work for a very bad man. And yet he refuses to give up hope or accept defeat. It's hard to complain about your day when Capheus can survive all of that and still look forward to tomorrow.
Sun feels invisible at her father's company. Businessmen refuse to talk to her because she's a woman, and she struggles to make appointments with her own father, who only cares about her useless brother. When it comes to light that said brother has been embezzling the company, Sun offers to take the blame in order to preserve the family name, because what could be more important than their reputation? After all, she's only a woman…
In jail, Sun meets others who were similarly ignored or mistreated because of their gender, like the woman who was driven to poison her abusive husband in order to escape their marriage. “Sometimes I think the only honest women are in prison,” she says.
Wolfgang finds himself in over his head after he cracks an “uncrackable” safe with the help of lifelong friend Felix, stealing a stash of diamonds his cousin had planned to lift. The retaliation is swift and bloody, and the natural fighter finds that sometimes fighting isn't enough. Luckily, he has unexpected aces to pull from his sleeves now that he's a Sensate.
Meanwhile, Will is trying to dig into the conspiracy surrounding Angelica's death and the medical organization headed by the ominous Whispers. Aided by Jonas and daring the wrath of his superiors, he also finds himself falling for the wounded Riley (just as the brash Wolfgang starts to melt for the kind Kala).
And then there's Riley, who gets mixed up with a nasty drug dealer and barely escapes with her life. But will her native Iceland be any safer than London, when the ghosts of her past are waiting for her?
Every character's story is different. Their personalities and cultures are often clashing opposites. It would be difficult to imagine a more disparate group of heroes. But it's this variation that gives the show its emotional resonance. Is there another show with this much diversity and representation currently on air? Is there another show that could tell these kinds of stories all at the same time?
In essence, Sense8 is eight different shows all in one. It's a political/medical drama with Nomi's hacktivism and hospital horror, as she's chased by shadowy government agents. It's a conspiracy thriller as Will decides to trust Jonas when his superiors claim the mysterious man is a terrorist. It's an action/crime movie when Wolfgang brings a bazooka to a gunfight, and Capheus deals with a gangster and his thugs with the help of Sun's martial arts training.
Lito's story unfolds like the loudest telenovela, full of melodramatic dialogue, sex, secrets, blackmail, violent exes, and the most endearing little found family. Sun is dealing with a prison drama—more Orange Is The New Black than Oz, thankfully—while Kala's story would fit right into Bollywood (there's even a dance number!). Over it all is the supernatural, sci-fi theme of interlinked consciousness at a downright mystical level, the message that we're all more connected than we might think.
And Riley? Well, Riley's story is the hardest to pin down, and I know many had a difficult time warming to her when compared to the more vibrant, exciting characters who are actively struggling with obvious problems. Yes, Riley's story is less exciting than Lito's or Nomi's or Sun's. For most of the series, it seems like she has very little to do but look waifish and flirt with Will. It's not until the final three episodes that Riley becomes very important. In fact, she's the glue that holds the others together.
Spoiler Alert: Read on, forewarned.
After she's captured by the nefarious Whispers, the other Sensates have to pool their abilities in order to save her. It's a climactic, triumphant, extremely satisfying sequence which highlights just how important even “insignificant” skills can be. Without Nomi's hacking, without Lito's ability to charm the pants off anyone, without Sun's physical prowess or Capheus' hotwiring knowledge, without Kala's chemistry background or Wolfgang's ruthlessness, and without Will's determination, Riley would never have escaped.
But then comes the turn, and it's all down to Riley to make the defining choice: to live or die. And we see how much strength it takes to resist the temptation to quit. Riley, who has lost everything she loved and wanted, who has longed for death for so long, instead chooses to live and therefore saves the entire group.
For anyone who has struggled with depression and grief and suicidal ideation, Riley is a heroic figure. She may not have roundhouse-kicked a man in the face, or constructed a chemical bomb, or fired a bazooka at a car. But she still shows incredible strength when it matters the most.
Come back. It’s safe now.
With its commentary on hugely important and timely issues, diverse cast, ambitious premise, and clever filming techniques, not only is it exciting watching different Sensates swap lives at unexpected moments, I also enjoy how the main storylines are so often intercut with flashbacks to fully illuminate the characters. Sense8 is one of those shows that really has to be seen to be believed. Netflix announced on August 8th (the Sensates' birthday) that there will be a Season Two, and I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. I'm looking forward to seeing where the cluster's stories go next and how everyone interacts when they face a whole new set of hurdles.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.