Created by J. Michael Straczynski, (Babylon 5) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas), Sense8 is a 12-episode Netflix original science fiction series that is staggering in scope. Sense8 explores the themes of gender, identity, empathy and privacy in a way that both science-fiction and mainstream television traditionally ignore.
The plot device is, let’s face it, ridiculous, even for sci-fi. Eight strangers from around the world suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionally connected in a ‘cluster.’ Aside from being able to hear and see things other people are experiencing they are now being hunted by a mysterious organization. It’s a rough week for our Sensates, (this is what they call themselves) each of whom have their own uniquely developed plots with an almost overwhelming number of supporting cast members to track.
Developing a story of this size is time consuming and the first few episodes are confusing but hang in there. Sense8 is a complex, immersive, character-driven story that will give you the feels and leave you wishing you had a cluster of your own to carry you through life, if you can just get past the first incredibly cheesy scene and suspend your disbelief. It’s also, arguably, one of the queerest shows ever made.
The opening credit sequence is a lavish, dizzying mosaic of images from around the world.
Shot on location around the world in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, Nairobi and Iceland, Sense8 is a massive undertaking that few but the Wachowskis would have the ambition to undertake. Location is as important to the story as plot and underscores the universality of the character’s experiences.
The first episode bounces around the Sensates and it’s hard to catch their names so here’s a cheat sheet in order of appearance: Will is a police officer in Chicago; Riley is a DJ in London, Lito is an actor in New Mexico, Sun is a chief financial officer in Seoul, Kala is a pharmacist in Mumbai, Wolfgang is a thief in Berlin, Capheus owns and drives a Jean Claude Van-Damme themed bus in Nairobi and Nomi is a political blogger and hactivist in San Francisco.
Supporting characters are Angelica (Darryl Hannah), the Sensate’s…mother? (it’s complicated), Jonas (Naveen Andrews, Sayid from Lost) and the reason you will fall in love with this show forever, Amanita (Freema Agyeman, Martha Jones from Dr. Who).
Half the cast are women and half the cast are people of colour, which shouldn’t be as exciting as it is but is still to be celebrated. Some of the Sensates and supporting cast are queer and Nomi is a ground-breaking character; a trans* woman written and directed by a trans* woman (Lana Wachowski) for a trans* actor (Jamie Clayton).
The opening scene is meant to explain the existence of the Sensates but is more confusing and silly than informative. Angelica writhes around on a dirty mattress in an abandoned church having nonsensical conversations with people only she can see and then commits suicide which doesn’t prevent her from appearing throughout the rest of the episode. It might be best to just let this scene wash over you and suspend your disbelief.
The rest of the episode is spent trying to establish characters with some getting more screen time than others. Some scenes are titled by location while others are linked by audio cues, for instance in one scene Will is woken from sleep in Chicago by the music Riley is spinning in a London club; in another scene Kala hears a thunderstorm on a sunny day in Mumbai through the ears of Wolfgang who is at a rainy funeral in Berlin. As the series progresses and the Sensates are able to feel and hear more of each other’s surroundings, there are more of these overlapping cues.
FEMINIST MOMENTS THAT MAKE THE EPISODE
In a huge office building in Seoul we meet Sun Bak (played by Bae Doona from Cloud Atlas, also by the Wachowski siblings) and get our first taste of the crap sexism that Sun puts up with on a daily basis. She is told by a client that she is no substitute for her brother, who has not seen fit to show up to an important meeting and that he is here to close and “women don’t close things.” He then leers at her and whispers, “they open them.”
“Excuse me,” Sun responds, her fist tightening. We are not treated to what would hopefully be her glorious rebuttal by the interruption of her brother but stick around for later episodes because Sun is an incredibly bad-ass character.
In a busy restaurant in Mumbai, Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is flustered and late for work. Her father then asks her if she should be going to work so close to the wedding. “You know work is important to me,” she replies. “You sent me to university to get a degree, not to find a husband,” she reminds her father and the audience does a tiny, internal happy dance because university degrees are more important than husbands.
San Francisco. This is THE scene that separates Sense8 from anything that’s ever been on TV (which is probably why it’s on Netflix) and cements it as firmly queer. In a super hot and realistic sex scene we are introduced to Amanita, who you wish was your girlfriend, and Nomi, who is having a fantastic orgasm. Let us all squeal and high five each other as Amanita unstraps her rainbow coloured strap-on dildo and drops it to the floor because, A RAINBOW COLOURED STRAP-ON DILDO IS ON TV and two women just used it to have amazing sex. This one scene alone is a feminist victory but wait! Sense8 offers so much more. “Happy Pride” they wish each other and could this storyline possibly get any better?
YES IT CAN because later we are treated to flashback sequence of Nomi and Amanita’s first Pride together, where Amanita introduces Nomi to her friends for the first time, some of whom are less than impressed. (Content warning for some transphobic dialogue):
“Wait, I know you,” one of Amanita’s friends says. “You’re the tranny who blogs about politics.”
Nomi mumbles a response. “You’re just another colonizing male trying to take up any space left to women,” Amanita’s horrible ‘friend’ continues.
“Say one more thing about my girlfriend and I will colonize your face with my fist,” Amanita declares, taking off her fabulous sunglasses for extra emphasis and see why she is the best girlfriend ever? Nomi walks away and Amanita follows her and is surprised to find her crying.
Nomi explains that she is not crying because of the garbage Amanita’s ex-friend said, she’s crying because no one has ever defended her before.
“That’s the day I knew I’d always love you,” present day Nomi says to Amanita and can we all get in on this beautiful kiss that’s about to happen?
While “Limbic Resonance” doesn’t really work as a stand-alone story and is confusing, it’s also intriguing. By the end of the episode we still have no idea how or why these eight people can suddenly hear and feel each other but we’re at least interested in their stories. Also, Amanita.