Juggling 8 Protagonists: Netflix’s Sense8

This is my third attempt at writing about Sense8, the new Netflix series created by the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski, and likely not my last. The problem is that I feel too much, too intimately about this show to be anywhere near objective; and yet I want to be objective, because I love it with the fire of a thousand suns and am therefore desperate to explain, in glorious, technical detail, exactly why everyone else should love it, too.

Which puts me at something of an impasse with myself: on the one hand, I don’t want to give any spoilers because, well, spoilers, and on the other hand, I want to give literally nothing else, because there’s just no way to discuss the intricacies of this show—the parallels between the characters, their histories and problems; the resonance of this moment with that—without spilling the beans upfront.

Sense8 is a deep, powerful show, its narrative simultaneously simple and complex, enriched by a level of background detail that rewards rewatching despite the comparative slow burn of the overarching plot. Over the course of twelve episodes, it successfully invests the audience in the lives of eight very different protagonists—to say nothing of the truly impressive range of secondary characters—and in the dilemmas they face. It’s a show that can make you howl with laughter and break down sobbing in the space of a single episode—sometimes, even, in the space of a single scene—and if it doesn’t get renewed for a second season, it’ll be because we, as an audience, have proved ourselves unworthy of such awesomeness. Beautiful cinnamon roll, I will say, weeping into my Netflix subscription, should such a travesty come to pass. Too good for this world. Too pure.

Like I said: not objective.

The conceit behind Sense8 is at once both simple and compelling: eight individuals from all around the world—the titular sensates—suddenly gain the ability to share their experiences, memories and feelings with one another, while in the background, a sinister corporation attempts to find and control them. It’s a familiar sort of comic book premise, but rather than focusing on superheroics, megadrama, and campy fun, the primary narrative drive is shaped instead by the lives of the individual sensates: their personalities, parallels, and points of connection and difference.

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Which is, all by itself, a fascinating departure from the norm. Ordinarily, shows of this ilk tend to start with a local focus that steadily builds outwards, growing in scale and grandeur as the passage of seasons—and the desire to increasingly up the stakes—demands a bigger sandbox in which to play. This is why, for instance, Sunnydale, described in S1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as “a one-Starbucks town,” steadily expands to include an airport, a university campus, docks (despite being landlocked) and more monstrous denizens than the original focus on vampires and the occasional demon ever hinted at: the story grew, and the setting was forced to grow with it. Similarly, traditional superhero stories tend to start out in a single, specific location—Gotham City, say, or Metropolis—and build outwards, the local focus only gaining global significance once the immediate, more intimate possibilities have been exhausted. Over and over again, the formula remains the same: establish a local space and a local threat in S1, then steadily make both things bigger, which is how Supernatural’s Sam and Dean Winchester went from tracking down a magic, demon-killing gun in 2005 to unleashing a Darkness that predates creation in 2015.

But Sense8, in direct contrast to this pattern, begins at the global level, with a conspiracy and characters whose stories span the world. As such, not only are the sensates highly diverse in terms their gender, sexuality, and nationality, but also their location. There’s Capheus, a Matatu van driver in Nairobi; Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ living in London; Nomi Marks, a hacktivist and political blogger based in San Francisco; Sun Bak, a businesswoman and secret bareknuckle fighter in Seoul; Lito Rodriguez, a Spanish actor based in Mexico City; Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer; Wolfgang Bogdanow, a criminal in Berlin; and Kala Dandekar, a pharmacist in Mumbai. Rather than having local interests, knowledge, or problems in common, therefore, the sensates are connected on a deeper level: they often face similar problems, but in vastly different contexts, creating a narrative dialogue that simultaneously respects the differences between cultures and individuals while celebrating our shared humanity.

That being so, instead of beginning locally and expanding outwards, the S1 arc of Sense8 begins globally and steadily focuses inwards, the personal journeys of the protagonists prioritised above the science fictional reveal of how they’re connected and why it puts them at risk. Which isn’t to say the latter element is neglected: narratively, it’s always present, with clues being drip-fed across each episode—some of them clearly of long-game significance, others more immediately relevant. But as the sensates are so far apart, the threads connecting them initially both strange and tenuous, the usual team-building trajectory of a (geographically) close group of people first uniting, then striking out at their enemies, is inverted. Instead, the senates draw inwards, steadily recognising their connection, before uniting to fight a defensive, rather than offensive, action, with the emotional catharsis of the finale centering on personal as much as external conflict.

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In this respect, Sense8 is representative, not just of a new wave of storytelling, but of exactly what can be achieved when creators are given license to move beyond the deeply entrenched biases—both narrative and cultural—that too often dictate the formats and formulas of visual media. In terms of its long-game structure and high level of background detail, in fact—qualities that reward both binge- and rewatching—I’d argue that Sense8 is both emblematic and a deliberate product of the changes being wrought on television by the new digital age. There is, after all, a reason why so many of the most impressive, popular and talked-about shows of recent years have been produced, not by traditional mainstream outlets, but by cable networks and streaming services. Above and beyond the greater creative freedom afforded to the writers of such shows, unaffected as they are by advertising pressures or content-limiting watersheds—to say nothing of having a direct, competitive need to make something that free TV doesn’t—there’s a much more practical reason for the difference: technology.

Prior to the advent of the internet, Tivo and DVD box sets, there was no real way for anyone who’d missed the first episode or season of a TV show to get up to date before leaping in, and as such, there was an onus on writers to make each installment potentially accessible to new or casual viewers. This is why so many older shows, especially procedurals and sitcoms, are deeply formulaic, with static characters and short narrative arcs: their structure was established at a time when the audience really was watching just one episode a week—or one a day, at absolute most—which made it much harder to write a long-game plot. Unless you recorded it yourself, manually, on VHS, or until it was released on tape (which not every show was), rewatching and binging your favourite show weren’t viable options, and with potentially half a year or more between when the first and last episodes would air, there was every likelihood that viewers would forget any clues or details dropped over such a long period of time.

But now, shows are streamed constantly: even when they’re free to air, we can usually go back and watch them online, legally, at our leisure, along with any previous installments. Season box sets are readily available and frequently cheap, so that even if a show is in its fifth season, new viewers can start at the beginning before picking up the story, obviating the need for writers to hold their hand. And even if a show does air on a weekly basis, many viewers simply wait for the season to end and watch it in a single go, the better to cut out cliffhangers and remember details—a radically different experience to watching the same story with gaps between installments. And thus the importance of digital and cable sources: producers in these mediums are used to the idea that their audience can watch on demand—and can therefore handle a higher level of sophistication and detail, being able to go back and rewatch—instead of being stuck in an older, week to week mindset.

As such, it’s important not to judge Sense8, with its slow build, big cast, subtle background clues, and long-game premise, by the standards of anachronistic televisual defaults it was never trying to imitate, but is, in fact, actively subverting. By design, it’s meant to be binge-watched, rewatched, GIFfed, and analysed, because the writers were able to count on not only the willingness, but the ability of the audience to go back and look for clues they missed the first time: to engage with the material actively, repeatedly, rather than passively, briefly. And whereas shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood are literary adaptations, expressly taking advantage of the longer run-time of a TV series to tell an existing story that’s too big for the big screen, Sense8 is an original narrative structured to test the outdated boundaries of TV as a medium. This makes it risky, but also wonderful, and wholly unlike anything I’ve seen before.

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As, for that matter, does the unprecedented primacy given in the narrative, not just to the kinds of queer relationships seldom depicted on TV—which is to say, queer relationships whose participants aren’t exclusively white and cisgendered—but to queer narratives, friendships, culture, and solidarity (to say nothing of being that absolute rarest of unicorns, a show written and directed by a trans woman, starring a trans character, played by a trans actress, which expressly acknowledges both transphobia and transmisogyny, even in the queer community). This inclusivity goes a long way towards explaining why, as a queer viewer, I am ready and willing to die on a battlefield for Sense8, and without wanting to imply that this is a universal reaction, speaking personally, while I’ve seen plenty of straight people express ambivalence about the show, or confusion, or hostility, especially given the unapologetic focus on Pride in the first two episodes, I’m yet to see a queer viewer who wasn’t ecstatic at seeing themselves so powerfully and positively represented, regardless of what other criticisms they might have. Sense8 is a show for everyone, but it’s also a queer show: the straight relationships we see on screen are either sexually casual or romantically tentative and slow-burning, but the queer relationships—Nomi and Amanita, Lito and Hernando—are passionate, loving, complex and irrefutable.

Nor is it irrelevant that, for all their differences, each of the eight protagonists is shown to struggle with various axes of oppression, such as gender, class, ability and sexuality. In the first episode, Riley’s DJing is described as being good “for a girl,” an opinion which is instantly called out by a secondary character, Nyx, who says that “she’s good, period.” Both Wolfgang and Capheus—whose criminal attachments are yet another parallel, given that they’re both good men caught up in the violence of others by, respectively, heritage and circumstance—exist in situations rife with toxic masculinity, where men are dehumanised and mocked by being compared to women. Nomi is fiercely defended from the transmisogyny of others by her girlfriend, Amanita, while Lito is continually forced to present as straight, the heteronormative assumptions of others a constant psychological burden. Will is impacted by negative stigmas about mental health, consistently being told to keep quiet about his experiences and feelings, lest he be written off as “crazy.” Kala, engaged to a man she likes but doesn’t love, is forced to navigate the class differences between his family and her own, as well as enduring judgment about her faith. Sun experiences both institutional and familial sexism, relegated to the sidelines in her father’s business, finding equality only when she fights. In ways both overt and subtle, Sense8 is consistent in its commitment to discussing intersectionality, and while it doesn’t always succeed, it nonetheless manages an extremely compelling discourse.

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Fascinatingly, given the films the Wachowskis are most famous for making, this emphasis on queerness, oppression, and the purposeful rejection of heteronormativity is also used to expressly debunk the overwhelming straight-white-cismaleness of traditional action movies. Capheus is a die-hard fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme; Lito stars as an action hero in various films and telenovellas; Will is a good-guy cop, the archetypal hero of many such films; and Wolfgang and his best friend, Felix, have a childhood love of Conan the Barbarian. It is therefore significant that when Capheus has to fight for his life, it’s Sun, rather than Will or Wolfgang—which is to say, a woman of colour, rather than a white man—who lends him the skills to do so; just as it’s significant that we’re deliberately invited to contrast Lito’s gratuitous, glamorous action sequences with, on the one hand, his own lack of fighting prowess in real life, and, on the other, Will’s undignified scramble to chase a fugitive child into gang territory.

Making Lito a queer action hero is, by itself, a deliberately subversive act, given the type of straight, hypermasculine characters he portrays; but so too is the decision to have both him and Will, who actually is such a character, consistently share the physical experiences of women. Not only does this give us the comically brilliant moment of Lito feeling Sun’s menstrual cramps without knowing what they are (and worrying that he’s got a tumour), but it also means we get Will using his skills and strength, not in gratuitous displays of violence, but to help Nomi and Riley escape abusive, oppressive situations, before being helped by them in turn—just as Wolfgang, a career criminal, uses Lito’s expertise to survive a fight with his cousin. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: Wolfgang can fight, but he can’t lie; whereas Lito can lie, but he can’t fight, and in their respective confrontations, the two men draw on each other. Similarly, when Wolfgang is pinned down in a firefight in a kitchen, it’s Kala—his love interest, a woman of colour, and a professional chemist—who comes to his rescue, showing him how to construct a bomb from household cleaning products. Over and over again, we’re presented with instances where an otherwise traditional action hero moment hinges on the egalitarian provision of help either to or from someone not nominally associated with action heroism—which is to say, someone who isn’t straight, white, cisgendered and/or male—and in such a way that, even when a character like Will is helping someone like Nomi or Riley, it’s never as blandly clear-cut as White Knight Rescues Damsel.

And here’s where we reach the limits of what I feel I can say without entering major spoiler territory: because try as I might, there’s no way to discuss one of the single most important aspects of the show without sharing a little of what happens—or what’s revealed, rather—at the finale; which is to say, the narrative arc of Riley Blue.

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The first time I watched Sense8—and I’ve watched it twice now, the second viewing even more enjoyable than the first—I remember thinking that Riley seemed like a simple, familiar character: a pretty, waif-like white girl falling sweetly in love with Will, a handsome, white, good-guy cop. And, to an extent, that’s true; but it’s nowhere near the whole truth, and as such, the difference between watching their relationship develop on my first viewing, when I didn’t know where it was headed, and again on the second, when I understood everything, was staggering.

From the start of the very first episode, we’re inclined to see Riley as something of a lost soul: a kind, quiet woman with an asshole boyfriend seeking refuge in drugs. We know she’s attempted suicide in the past, though it’s easy, at first blush, to disregard exactly how significant this is to the plot, as we’re shown her scarred wrists only in flashes, usually as she tries to cover them, and when another character finally asks her about it, she doesn’t answer. We see her surrounded by criminals and dissolute friends, and without knowing the source of her sadness, it’s easy to mistake her—as her friends mistake her—for someone who, like them, is merely disaffected. It’s easy, too, to miss the significance of Riley’s music to her fellow sensates: the scenes where Sun shares her fighting skills with Capheus, for instance, are a much more traditional way of demonstrating the possibilities of the sensates’ connection, the extraordinary things they can do by sharing minds and memories, than eight people worldwide singing along to What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes because Riley elects to play it.

But in the end, that’s precisely the point: we dismiss Riley because, like her dissolute friends, we assume we know her, and because we don’t know what she’s wrestling with. Narratively, we’re so used to characters like Riley being superficially constructed—and, what’s more, constructed for the ultimate benefit of guys like Will—that it’s not until the last few episodes that we understand the magnitude of what she’s experienced; the truth of what she’s lost. Once upon a time, Riley was young and married and pregnant, and as her husband drove her through a storm to give birth at the hospital, their car crashed in the mountains. He died on impact, leaving Riley to have their daughter in the wreck, beside his body, before finally stumbling out into the snow, where her newborn child died of exposure before anyone came to rescue them.

The flashbacks where we see this happening constitute about a third of the final episode, paralleling Riley’s capture by the sinister organisation that’s been tracking the sensates. It’s not just that Riley’s loss happened in Iceland, where the organisation has now imprisoned her, or that the climactic rescue scene involves Will trying to drive her through the same mountains where she lost everything: the point is that Riley, whether we initially recognised it or not, has spent the entire season wanting to die, to lie down in the cold with her husband and daughter, and even though it’s Will who rides in to free her, ultimately, what saves the entire cluster of sensates is Riley’s decision to live. Riley’s backstory is emotionally harrowing to watch: a visceral, raw inverse of the endless narratives about men whose revenge arcs are predicated on the loss of a wife and child. All at once, we understand the significance of her music to the cluster: at a time when she’s been isolated from everyone around her, the music she’s shared with the sensates has been a point of joy and connection, anchoring her to a world she otherwise wants to leave.

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And thus its importance to the show as a whole: because S1 of Sense8 is about what happens when we choose to live; and why, though this isn’t always an easy choice, it’s ultimately the right one.

While this sentiment is most apparent in Riley’s arc, it’s also echoed in the actions and dilemmas of the other protagonists; is, indeed, foreshadowed from the start of the very first episode, when the woman who births their cluster, Angelica, eats her gun to keep them safe. Having spent the season warring with his violent criminal family, Wolfgang spends the finale in a bloody shootout with his uncle and his men. Resigned to his death, he visits Kala one last time to say goodbye—but Kala refuses to let him go, wielding love and expertise in equal parts to help him live. The same is also true of Capheus, who, having been caught up in the criminal dealings of strangers, calls on the other sensates when he fears he’s about to die. But with the help of Sun and Will, he lives, saving the life of a father and daughter in the process.

And so it goes with Lito, too, the closeted actor who spends the season wrestling with the necessity of keeping his beloved boyfriend, Hernando, a secret. At his lowest ebb, when Hernando leaves him, Lito drunkenly contemplates suicide—even putting a gun in his mouth; like Angelica first and Riley later, the visual similarity a deliberate evocation of the parallel—but is thwarted when it turns out to be a fake. Lito’s decision to live means making things right with Hernando, finding the courage—through an impossibly powerful conversation with Nomi, a trans woman—to lose his fear of being outed. For very different reasons, Riley and Wolfgang, Capheus and Lito all have moments where they accept their own deaths, however briefly—but when they do, Will and Kala, Sun and Nomi are there to talk them back again. Both singly and collectively, in the face of overwhelming grief and daily oppression, the violence of family and violence endured for the sake of family, the sensates choose to live; because Sense8 is a story about choosing life.

There’s so much more to the show than this—to the characterisation, the settings, the narrative and context—but even if I spent ten thousand words explaining it all, I couldn’t do it justice. Sense8 is an amazing, game-changing show, one whose many complexities defy easy categorisation. Which is why, to paraphrase another iconic Wachowski creation, no one can really be told what Sense8 is.

You have to see it for yourself.

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. As well as being the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she reviews for A Dribble Of Ink and Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate; her writing has also appeared at The Mary Sue and The Book Smugglers, and in 2013, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. She like cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, liquorice and waking up.

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