This is a tricky one.
As someone who reviews and discusses my views on movies and tv shows, my job is to point out the merits and shortcomings of how a story gets told visually. In that respect, the series finale of Sense8 is quite problematic, to say nothing of the series as a whole. However, as a lifelong resident of the most multicultural, ethnically diverse city on the planet, who has long harbored frustration with Hollywood’s limiting portrayals of so-called marginalized peoples, I found much to enjoy about the show, and found its climax immensely satisfying.
Sense8 is the brainchild of Matrix wunderkinds Lana and Lilly Wachowski, and legendary film, tv and comics scribe J. Michael Straczynski. As unique sci-fi concepts go, it’s a strong one: eight adult strangers, scattered across the planet, suddenly find themselves psychically linked to one another. This means they each can be in each other’s minds to experience what the others are experiencing, tap into each other’s memories, and most crucially, help each other in moments of crisis by “sharing” their individual strengths and talents, be it computer programming, hand-to-hand combat, language skills, acting, scientific knowledge or proficiency with a handgun. The show cleverly portrays this last phenomenon with creative editing of shots, whereby a character we know to be in Germany, for example, is suddenly swapped out in a scene by another character we know to be in Korea; the Korean character is “sharing” her gifts with the German character, so that he may get himself out of a precarious situation. We eventually learn that these sensates are the next stage of human evolution, homo sensorium, and not only are they everywhere – always in linked “clusters” of eight – but that there are powerful, nefarious forces at work seeking to either manipulate, weaponize or eradicate them.
The show’s eight leads are as diverse in their skills and life experiences as in their nationalities: San Francisco computer hacktivist Nomi (Jamie Clayton), German gangster Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), Indian pharmacological scientist Kala (Tina Desai), Kenyan tour bus driver and aspiring politician Capheus (Toby Onwumere), Icelandic deejay Riley (Tuppence Middleton), Mexican movie star Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), Korean businesswoman and street fighter Sun (Doona Bae), and Chicago cop Will (Brian J. Smith). Each has their own life, complete with loved ones and trusted allies, but their new existence as sensates, and the new dangers inherent to that new reality, encroaches and threatens to alienate each from all they know and love.
It’s a compelling concept, but from the first season, the main problem Sense8 has stumbled with is balancing its world-building and main plot with the need to service eight separate story lines (remember, these people are nowhere near each other, physically). Episodes have dragged on with a sense of begrudging obligation to check in on each character’s life, even if not all of the sensates are relevant to a particular episode’s focus. What’s worse, though, is in the increasingly convoluted plot revolving around the antagonists’ scheme, coupled with the tortured recounting of past sensates whose sacrifices hold the key to . . . something or other. These wacky and unnecessary machinations made finishing Season One feel a bit like finishing a marathon. And to be honest, I soldiered through the first few episodes of Season Two, in which even more mythology and complications are added to the crowded story, before tapping out altogether. Complex storylines are all well and good, but only if all the elements are working with each other harmoniously, in service to the story (hello, Breaking Bad, Seasons One and Two of The 100). Sense8’s many moving parts were often competing with each other instead of contributing.
Watching the series finale, the initial fifteen minutes are near-incomprehensible if, like me, you haven’t kept up with the entire run of the show. The only point which makes sense in those initial minutes is that one of our eight heroes has been abducted, and that the remaining seven are formulating a plan to rescue him, their only bargaining chip being the fact that they themselves have their arch-enemy, an evil sensate nicknamed Whispers (Terrence Mann), in custody. But you have to wade through a thicket of sensate jargon and trivia in order to suss this out.
So why bother at all with this tiresome-sounding exposition and narrative contortion, for something that sounds, on paper, like a watered-down version of X-Men?
Because, as with all science fiction worth discussing, the fantastical premise of Sense8 illustrates its creators’ concerns and hopes for the state of our world and the kind of world we would want to live in. And it achieves this by bringing several different cultures, nationalities and sexual orientations together to share and work toward a common goal. Visually, and culturally, you’ve never seen anything quite like Sense8 on television before.
Aside from the two Americans Nomi and Will, the remaining sensates are all, as mentioned, from different countries. And, though the story is largely spoken in English, the viewer can reasonably infer that the other six heroes are not literally speaking English, but that rather their psychic connections permit them to transcend language barriers. And from the start, unlike most films and show which depict cross-cultural interaction, the eight leads never judge or comment ignorantly on each other’s different cultural specifics. The situation in which they find themselves is far more pressing than any racial or xenophobic hangups; besides which, as the show makes very clear, these are just very good, decent human beings. And aside from speaking English, the non-Anglo sensates are not whitewashed; they are plainly, proudly, of their home countries. In fact, it is worth mentioning that Sense8 was filmed (beautifully, I might add) on location in each of those nations, an expensive detail that, I’m sure, factored into the show’s cancellation.
Tolerance is clearly Sense8’s mission statement, not only with regard to race relations, but also as pertains to the diversity of sexuality. One of Lito’s challenges is the collateral damage to his acting career from his being outed as a gay man, in a culture which still largely looks down upon homosexuality. Nomi, as well, is gay, but she is also a transgender woman (as is Clayton, who plays her, as well as both Wachowskis), and endures frigid, passive-aggressive treatment from her estranged parents. Both characters have loving partners who, after the initial shock and disbelief of learning of their new abilities, nonetheless believe and support them fiercely and unconditionally. And of course, sexuality is not an issue for the rest of their “cluster”; in fact, it takes almost no time at all for the eight to become a kind of family. A word of caution, though, to those with a prudish disposition: Sense8 is a hard TV-MA, as it is, periodically, a very horny show, depicting loving acts of copulation, usually between sensates and their lovers, but, because of their special abilities, there are moments where the entire cluster experiences the sexual act simultaneously, and you can imagine how that would get depicted.
At this point I imagine I have lost a few readers, due to the last couple of paragraphs. There is a segment of the sci fi fan community that is less than receptive to the notions of diversity and feminism being slipped into their entertainment, and especially in light of the significant storytelling shortcomings I have outlined here, I would likely get labelled by such folks as a “social justice warrior”, peddling some p.c. bullshit. And considering that Sense8 has issues with pacing and exposition, I suppose it’s a fair point in this case. The prevailing conventional wisdom dictates that art should be judged strictly upon its artistic merits, and not on whether it aligns with the reviewer’s political beliefs. Again, a fair point.
And yet I would clarify that artistic merit is found, in part, upon whether the art elicits an emotional response in its audience, and whether that was the expected or hoped-for response. Focusing strictly upon that criteria, Sense8, and especially its finale, succeeds with flying (rainbow) colors. It succeeds because it desperately wants us to know that, regardless of how awful things may get, love will win. Through science fiction, Straczynski and the Wachowskis propose that, were we thrust into the shoes of others, without warning, and were our language and geographic barriers rendered inconsequential, our capacity for empathy and compassion would be limitless, and there would be nothing that we cannot achieve.
Again, the eight sensates are deeply kind and principled people, and would risk anything for each other. And when they have some down time and celebrate together (even though continents apart), it is joyous and kind of beautiful to watch. Combine that with the gorgeous photography, sumptuous soundtrack and, above all, the performances from the eight leads, and Sense8 becomes required viewing for a weary, battle-scarred world.
My critiques of this show remain, but if you can power through the first fifteen minutes, the finale becomes ever more gratifying, especially as it wraps up all the individual storylines and brings back supporting players from throughout the series’ run.
Look, at this moment in time, our democracy is under attack by an elected official who regularly denigrates women and people of color, and who has surrounded himself with like-minded bullies. Sense8 fulfills an almost visceral need to see a world where people of different cultures are helping and taking care of each other in equal measures, with grace and bottomless compassion. We need to be reminded that such people are out there, and that we can be such people as well.
Sense8, while flawed and messy, ends its series by proudly proclaiming what it truly is: a sci-fi protest song. And we can stand to have some more of that these days.