Wachowski Rewatch

Working Toward the Empathetic Revolution: Sense8

We are living, according to many critics, in the Golden Age of Television. The shows available to us are many and varied, and the quality they meet is something the television twenty years ago would have never dreamed of. And yet, with all that variety, I have only one message for you:

Watch Sense8. Watch Sense8 now. Watch. Watch it.

Sense8 may not be the show you want, but it is the show you need. The show everyone needs. The show that might solve humanity’s problems in one fell swoop. Okay fine, it won’t do that. But it’s the closest I’ve ever seen a far-reaching piece of art come to it.

The story (in case anyone is unfamiliar) revolves around eight individuals on five different continents who have their “sensate” abilities activated, allowing them to telepathically link with one another, and experience each other’s lives and emotions. These four women (Riley Blue, Sun Bak, Nomi Marks, Kala Dandekar) and four men (Will Gorski, Caephus, Wolfgang Bogdanow, Lito Rodriquez) have to learn to contend with that connection in the midst of their daily lives, while separately accounting for a threat to their kind—a man who wants to control everyone with their gifts.

Sense8, season 1

This is a show that should be binge-watched, of course, and it was written to that end. Because the series was picked up by Netflix, creators and writers of the show—the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski (of comics and Babylon 5 fame)—had the ability to write unconventionally, refusing to set up the rules and format on a pilot episode, thus allowing the audience to feel the same confusion that the eight lead characters were experiencing. To be fair, the choice didn’t work for every viewer, and some were put off by the format. But for anyone who enjoys carefully sifting through a fictional world, Sense8 offers a stunning immersive experience.

There are action aspects to the story, and an overarching threat to keep things moving, but that’s really not what Sense8 is about when all is said and done. The Wachowskis and Straczynski said that the idea for the series sprung from conversations they had about how empathy was the natural result of our continued evolution. That the more we develop, the more we are required to come into contact with larger circles of people, giving us the ability to empathize outside of our smaller circles. The concept of sensate ability widens those circles to a global scale.

Sense8, season 1

As a result, the show is an international tale the likes of which has rarely—if ever—seen its equal. It was shot in each city that the narrative takes it to: London, Berlin, Reykjavik, Nairobi, Seoul, Mumbai, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Chicago. (Having been raised right outside Chicago—where the Wachowskis themselves come from—there was something particularly surreal about watching Will and his partner grab hot dogs for lunch and suddenly shrieking “Oh my god THEY’RE AT SUPERDAWG.”) A good number of the actors hail from the countries that their portion of the story is set in, and the transgender member in the sensate cluster, Nomi Marks, is played by a transgender actress (Jamie Clayton). It cannot be stressed how rare that is—to have a transgender character on a mainstream show that isn’t primarily about being transgender, and for that character to have been partly conceived and written by a transgender woman and then played by a transgender woman? Barring Orange is the New Black, which still doesn’t tick all of those boxes, that’s nearly unheard of. These are generally the roles that Hollywood has decided should go to cisgender men like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne, so they can receive accolades and awards. With the creation of a character like Nomi, perhaps another door will open, and more like her will follow.

What’s remarkable about Sense8 is how an international story featuring such vastly different people is used to explore the joint trials of humankind. All of these people are separated by so much—language, nationality, sexuality, employment, beliefs, relationships, gender, class—and yet, their ability to connect eventually proves that there is very little separating them at all. They’ve all experienced suffering, betrayal, joy, fear, and love. Even when they are divided by context, they are united by trials of living, by people that they care for, by memories they try to bury.

Sense8, season 1

All the same, the lives of eight unique people aren’t likely to be fraught in the same ways. And here lies another impressive feat performed by Sense8; the characters whose lives are comparatively less challenging are given the same consideration as those whose lives are desperate and dangerous. Caephus is constantly working to get his mother the AIDS medication she needs, Sun is coerced by her own father into taking the fall for her little brother and going to prison, Nomi is being held in a hospital against her will and about to be lobotomized, Wolfgang is working through the grudges of his violent criminal family. Not everyone’s troubles are quite so dire or immediate, though; Will is haunted by a murder he witnessed as a child, Riley is running away from a painful past, Lito struggles with the decision to come out and potentially lose the ability to play the roles he prefers as an actor, and Kala can’t decide if she should marry a good man who she just doesn’t love.

By rights, none of these characters belong in the same story, which is part of what makes the show so captivating. It forces people with different bearings, different pasts, different needs to confront one another on equal ground. It creates roads between people who would likely never meet otherwise. Because these characters are joined as sensates, there’s never a question of whose lives are more important or even more interesting. Their ties to each other promote a kind of perfect alignment, prompting them to aid each other without hesitation.

sense8-8

They do this by briefly integrating with one another to assume each other’s skills and knowledge. It’s impossible not to get a thrill from this trick, a large part of what makes the show’s slow burn premise work for it—the more they foster the connections between the group, the more capable they are of visiting and advocating for each other. The show does a beautiful job of indicating these moments through cinematography; one moment a person is calling for help, and suddenly someone from the cluster is available to them. When Nomi needs to escape her would-be captors, Sun and Will arrive, offering their abilities as fighters and Will’s know-how as a cop. When Nomi then ducks into the car they direct her to and proclaims that she doesn’t know how to drive, Caephus is instantly at her side.

While these connections begin due to a need for tapping another’s skill set, they soon extend to the emotional realm; Caephus talks to Sun about family, Kala tries to encourage Wolfgang away from violent solutions, Nomi shares some of her painful past with Lito to help him realize the freedom of living a life that’s honest. These moments have equal weight to points where the sensates call on one another to pick a lock or knock out a foe. The emotional work of the story is given equal importance to the action, not given attention in spite of it.

Sense8, season 1

The series is imperfect as any show in its first season, and the momentum unfortunately slows down a great deal once it begins relying too much on the larger plot at hand. Because Sense8 is international but primarily directed and written by Americans, it’s also harder to judge where a certain lens might be off-base; for example, Nairobi is depicted as a largely lawless country, which plays into many western stereotypes about Africa overall, and the Chicago gang violence we witness, while still handled with compassion, is ultimately observed from Will’s point of view as a white cop. There are also areas where the depictions fare better than usual; while western narratives often address eastern marriages in order to turn their nose down at the concept of the arranged marriage, Kala’s parents (who are together as a result of an arranged marriage) are depicted lovingly, and Kala herself is shown having a different problem altogether: She is the first person in her family to marry “for love,” but it turns out that she does not love her fiancé at all—that everyone simply assumed she did and she couldn’t bear to tell them differently. In this way, the narrative veers away from passing judgement, and instead focuses on how the desire to please others can cost a person.

Sense8 is primarily concerned with effectively portraying the complexities of human relationships, and there aren’t many characters who can be defined as purely good or evil. Regardless of where they fall on a moral spectrum, the audience is typically shown what shaped each individual; while Sun’s brother is a truly awful human being, we can see how his lack of decency is a result of overindulgence by their father. Lito and Hernando’s live-in pal Daniela initially plays the cringeworthy role of a young woman who fetishizes the relationships of gay men, but we later find that a dangerous past relationship is her primary reason for taking refuge with the couple, and the trio come to form a unique family of mutual support. Nomi’s old hacking buddy, Bug, knew her pre-transition and continues to forgetfully dead name her and make awkward passes, but he comes through for her every time she needs his help. Some of these characters do serious damage, some of them can be forgiven due to circumstance, and some are given reprieve through action. All of them refuse simple categorizations or tropes.

Sense8, season 1

I’m barely skimming the surface here. I could ramble on for hours and fill up pages, and it still wouldn’t do the show justice. And it’s funnier for the fact that there are some people who bounced off the show so hard. The the effort that the experience requires is worth it, to my mind. More than worth it. It’s essential.

Pointedly, the deepest moments of Sense8 often come from the most unassuming places. Perhaps the greatest of all of these comes at the end of Episode 4, when Wolfgang is prodded onto stage at a karaoke bar to sing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” Each of the sensates in the cluster cue into his performance and begin to sing along, eight souls spread out across the planet and united by musical catharsis. The song’s clarion call is particularly apt, as each of them call out: “I said ‘Hey! What’s going on?‘”

Sense8, season 1

At a time when the world is in danger of becoming more polarized than ever, when reactionary fear can shape our opinions while globalization presses onward like a steamroller, this bid for consideration, for compassion, is the most important idea any of us can internalize. Every moment of perfect contact in Sense8 comes with a feeling of triumph—a reassurance that we can overcome our darkest fears, that we can learn to live together, and most important of all, that we can love one another. No matter the distance or differences between us.

The revolution must be empathetic because the revolution is empathy. If we refuse to lose sight of that, we will truly evolve beyond our wildest dreams. Sense8 believes that we can.

Sense8, season 1

It seems a natural summation of everything the Wachowskis have created up to this point. A story about identity, about transformation, about love. A story that encourages us to seek solace in each other, to share the painful burden of being human, and lighten the load by giving of ourselves without question. These messages are bold and they are brave and they are messy. They are at the center of every Wachowski narrative, and that matters. These siblings, both of them trans women at a moment in time when it is often perilous to live that truth, bring a vernacular to mainstream film and television that is often neglected. And who knows where they might take us in the future?

So here’s to love and vulnerability and empathy. Here’s to evolution. Here’s to singing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar at three in the morning. Because when all is said and done, these are the things that make make humanity worthwhile.

Emily Asher-Perrin says hey—what’s going on? You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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