Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm not a professional reviewer, just a fan who likes to share his opinions. If you're looking for a penetrating essay on the psychological symbolism in this show you'll need to look elsewhere, I'll just talk about why I love it. Sense8 is possibly the most important, meaningful, most thought-provoking television series I've ever seen, particularly for this point in time. I am sure it is no coincidence that other than the Christmas special, all of this show was made available in June, Pride Month. The LGBTQ issues are dealt with in an honest and sincere way. At least two of the eight main characters are queer, their lives respected by the others, as well as by many of the supporting players. Some comments by outlying characters might be negative toward them, but that is a reflection of the real life struggles for those outside heteronormative situations. The show can be viewed and appreciated on several levels. The production values are second to none; acting, cinematography, editing, stunts and choreography. Then there's the surface story, a fantastical, science-fictional tale of a sub-species known as homo sensorium, or sensates, people who have the ability to share thoughts and experiences mind-to-mind with others, who can "visit" them even while thousands of miles apart. You can also look beyond and below the surface to see how it relates in metaphorical ways to everyday life, the struggle for identity and autonomy of self, the forces of darkness which want to control and punish. The eight sensates at the heart of the story come from different parts of the world, different economic backgrounds, different life experiences, and yet there are commonalities between them. All are struggling with problems, and from within societal structures, which prohibit them from fully being themselves.
The group includes Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), a policeman who has a hard time staying true to his ideals amid the squalor of South Chicago and the indifference of the system; Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a transgender woman in San Francisco, rejected by her parents; Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a closeted Mexican action-movie star who has to keep his personal life a secret; Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai), a devout Hindu woman engaged to a man who does not share her faith, and possibly not even her sense of morality; Capheus Onyango (Aml Ameen), a poor Kenyan man whose father had been killed due to tribal rivalries, who now has to care for his HIV+ mother; Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic woman who fled her home for London because she thought she was cursed and responsible for her mother's death; Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt), a German who can't seem to escape his family's criminal past; Sun Bak (Doona Bae), a Korean woman living in subjugation to a patriarchal society, who has to suffer for her brother's crimes. They slowly learn of one another after experiencing what they first think of as a dream, but which was the result of their sensate cluster being born from the suicide of another sensate, Angelica (Daryl Hannah). Some viewers might be confused by most of this, but being familiar with many other SF concepts I got it right away, except for maybe a couple of things. Several of the sensates later experience some of Angelica's memories from different times in her life. It was implied that it was somewhat like inherited memories, but I couldn't help but wonder if she might still be alive and her suicide had only been projected into their minds by her (or someone else) for an unknown reason. At the end of the second season I was still not sure about that. I could nitpick a few other points, and I might later, but the main thing to stress is the characters and their interactions, how they cope with such life-shattering events. They all have their faults but also their virtues.
In the real world we have over-reaching government agencies obsessed with surveillance, as well as private corporations working alone or with governments on various scientific or military projects. In the Sense8 world we have BPO, the Biologic Preservation Organization. It may have started differently, for altruistic reasons, but Milton Brandt (Terrence Mann) seems to think of it as his personal stockpile of sensate puppets to manipulate at will. We see at least two incidents where he controls a sensate to commit murder, then suicide, and his grand project seems to be the creation of a 'zombie' army of sensates. This relates to how almost any new technology will be thought of as a weapon to some. Angelica had apparently been Brandt's protege, but rebelled against his tactics. Another of her cluster, Jonas Maliki (Naveen Andrews), also appears to Gorski, giving him advice on how to avoid "Whispers," his nickname for Brandt. My perception of Jonas fluctuated from episode to episode. At times he seemed sincere in wanting to help Will and his cluster, at others that he was deceiving them. It may be a bit of both, wanting to rebel as Angelica had, but unable to resist Whispers' control. As the sensates slowly get to know each other and are drawn into the drama of other lives, they also learn of other clusters, some older and more organized (and sinister), as well as individuals who have tried to remain hidden. And of course most of the rest of the world unaware of this going on all around them.
Imagine sharing the thoughts of other people so intimately that you can hardly tell where you end and they begin. If only it was that simple to connect to others in real life. I don't have to share experiences with characters in order to identify with them. I'm not a cop or a gangster, in fact I'm a pacifist and abhor violence, and several scenes in this series were more graphic than I like. Yet I could sympathize with Will and Wolfgang. I've never been rich nor truly poor, but know that neither situation defines the person, that Sun and Capheus share similar positive traits in spite of their different stations in life. I've never traveled outside the United States, but I can imagine that people all over the world are essentially the same, sharing the same types of hopes and dreams, frustrations and fears. I'm a cisgender straight man, but can still relate to both Lito and Nomi, in fact some of their scenes were my favorites. I cried when Lito found the courage to speak at the Săo Paulo Pride Parade, again when Nomi's father finally acknowledged her as his daughter. My personal situation is certainly different than any of theirs, except I've always felt apart from others, with hardly anything in common with family members. I suppose we all feel alone in our own heads occasionally, and wonder if anyone really understands us. It would be encouraging to know there were seven other people who would have my back if I was ever in trouble. Until I meet my cluster, I'll think of these characters as family.
As with most Netflix shows, all twelve episodes of Season 1 were available on the same day, June 15, 2015. Probably due to the expense of the production, which has been filmed in all the locations mentioned above, it was more than a year and a half before there was another episode, a special for Christmas/New Years 2016. Because of that time span, and since I did not rewatch the earlier episodes, I didn't notice at first that they had switched actors for the role of Capheus, to Toby Onwumere. Both Netflix and IMDb list that special as the first episode of Season 2, and it was another five months before the other ten episodes were available. I didn't start watching those right away, and by the time I did, Netflix had announced they were not renewing the show for another season. Since I had read it ended on a big cliffhanger, I held off watching the final two because I didn't want it to be over. When the 2˝ hour finale special was announced I knew it was okay to go back and watch it from the beginning and through those episodes I had yet to see. I just finished that rewatch, so I thought it was a good time to talk about it. One more day to the finale, June 8, 2018, and I will update this page after I watch that, which may again not be right away, because as before I do not want it to end. As with many other genre shows, it might not have been able to sustain its premise much longer anyway, at least not at the high level we've come to expect. But still, it is a tremendous loss knowing there will not be more.
Now I've seen the special. I am both sad there may never be any more episodes produced, as well as sad I didn't enjoy the end as much as I'd hoped. Two main reasons for that. First, I don't know how many seasons they had originally anticipated, how much plot was compressed and/or discarded to wrap up the main story lines in the special. Even at 2˝ hours it was extremely rushed. We didn't get the resolution to the corruption investigation in India, whether or not Kala's father-in-law was involved. How did Wolfgang and his friend Felix extract themselves from the criminal organizations fighting over control of Berlin? Did Sun go back to her father's company or walk away from it? Did Capheus win the election, and if so was he able to make things better for his people? My other complaint harks back to what I said about abhoring violence. Yes, it is part of life, and it's necessary in certain types of stories. But there's almost as much gunplay in the special as in all the other episodes combined. I would rather have seen the cluster use more deceptive strategies to defeat their enemies. If the 'good' guys have to resort to the same methods as the bad guys, are they still the good guys? That's like if we stoop to the level of terrorists, then the terrorists have already won. Besides, just because Brandt, the BPO Chairman, and a rogue cluster are killed, does that mean there aren't any other evil ones lurking about? I could have done with less blood-letting, more scenes like when they were all sharing Riley's music even though they were scattered over several different locations. And of course, Nomi and Amanita's wedding, but even that had some eye-rolling moments. I think it would take more than just a hash brownie to get Nomi's mother to come around to a more enlightened view.
In the end, I'm still grateful for this series, still think it is a remarkable achievement in both story-telling, and social commentary. I know I'll watch it again at some point, but might fast-forward through most of the violent scenes the next time. I'd rather concentrate on the times two (or more) people come together in harmony, mutual respect, and love.
Long live the cluster!
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