The eight sensates, L-R: Riley, Lito, Will, Nomi, Wolfgang, Sun, Capheus. Kala, a Mumbai pharmacologist is hidden behind Will
On my Facebook page was a photo of a moose on an Alaskan highway. I showed it to my wife. In unison, without looking at one another, we said, “Why did the moose cross the road?” We looked at each other, exasperated. This happens more and more frequently the longer we’re together. We will say the most random things simultaneously. I don’t know if there’s a name for this phenomenon – there probably is – but it is both enjoyable and disconcerting, to know another person so well that even random sentences are shared simultaneously.
Imagine such intimacy with someone half-way around the world, who you’ve never met, and might be a man, a woman, trans, straight, gay . . . the possibilities, and the threat of madness, are endless.
From this simple premise – psychic linking among eight persons as part of what is called a “cluster” – comes The Wachowski’s (creators of The Matrix and “V” for Victory) Netflix original series Sense8. Filled with typical Wachowski trademarks, from complex fight scenes that use wire-work; quick-cutting interposition during dialogue and action scenes that attempt multiple perspectives simultaneously without a split-screen; long expository scenes during which characters discuss everything from the plot to philosophical concepts like identity and difference, you’d know this was the Wachowskis work even if you didn’t read the credits. The first season was given mixed reviews, and there seems to be some debate online whether Netflix will continue a series as complex, subtle, maddening, and more than occasionally beautiful as Sense8. Having finished season 1 (and anticipating a second watching sometime soon), I just want to offer my own thoughts on the pros and cons.
Let me start with the biggest thing that gives me trouble, not only with Sense8, but with the Wachowski’s work in general: Rampant gnosticism. That may seem like an odd word. All I’m saying is there seems to be a tendency in their work to portray their heroes not only as persons endowed with particular gifts; these gifts make them superior to the general run of humanity, which is why the forces of the status quo work so hard to destroy them. These aren’t your ordinary revolutionaries, after all. They’re some kind of natural aberration, a genetic mutation that’s spreading. Early on, we learn through the hospitalization of one character, Nomi (a trans woman whose hospitalization and care are forced upon her by an unaccepting mother; it is probably not a coincidence that one of the Wachowski’s is a trans woman, adding an important perspective to the larger narrative) has what is described as a dangerous anomalous condition in her brain: the divisions between the hemispheres, particularly in the frontal lobe (controlling emotion, often considered the seat of “personality”), is gone. The conjoined frontal lobe leads to heightened brain activity that can threaten life and sanity.
Or so we’re told.
In fact, of course, this disappearance of the division between the brain’s hemispheres is actually a sign of superiority, a superiority that others do not understand and so must destroy. Those who share it, called “sensates”, are clustered together in groups sharing not only this odd brain development, but an ability not only to enter one another’s thoughts, but to share together experiences, have memories, know identities, and even control the actions of one another. What the sensates share is something the rest of humanity not only cannot share, but cannot really understand. This, in a nutshell, is gnosticism: the belief that a chosen few have access to secret knowledge that is vastly superior to that of the rest of us.
For the Wachowskis, the idea that heroism is rooted in fundamental humanity is alien. It can only come from difference, specifically difference that makes those who have this difference not only heroic but fundamentally better – more moral, more “human” – than the rest of us. In Homer, heroism was fully human and heroes were as flawed, usually fatally so, as the rest of us. For some reason, it seems important that to be a hero, to be a better person, is to be a different kind of person.
Intertwining eight story lines would be difficult and slow-going in the best of circumstances. It is made all the slower by the amount of time the characters spend sitting around talking about what’s going on. I found it fascinating that, at first, most of the characters seemed to accept their changing perceptions of the world, their ability to see and live through others. Only Nomi, who was told she would experience hallucinations, thought she was going mad. When she learned who was the doctor who told her these things, she accepted the reality as a matter of course.
So on the one hand you have these eight people from Seoul, Chicago, Nairobi, Berlin, Mumbai, San Francisco, Mexico City, and London/Reykjavik who seem pretty cool with this whole thing. On the other hand, they spend an inordinate amount of time talking. They share their backstories, always important; they also sit around and consider far deeper matters. Few things try the patience of people expecting an action/adventure series than all that down time in exposition.
Finally, while the general nature of the threat and its face – a multi-named “Doctor” referred to as “Whispers” who seems both to share this psychic ability yet pursues the destruction of others who have it – is clear enough. What isn’t clear enough, however – and perhaps will be made more clear if the show’s picked up for another season – is how the threat is specifically constituted. Specificity creates both plot direction as well as story-opportunity. So far what we have is a kind of generic early-21st century villain.
The premise of psychic connection is hardly new. What is new is the skill and creativity used in executing such a complex, intricate set of inter-relations. Without the use of split-screens, we are offered the opportunity for simultaneous POV shots, even whole scenes. Both the cinematography and editing demonstrate a clarity of vision and ingenious, and ingenuous, overall vision of the possibilities for film. While the mechanics of what we see is sometimes obscure, and we are offered irrelevant descriptions (with the exception of one quite funny moment when Will, one of the Sensates, is discovered by a friend kissing nothing at all), these become less and less important as we become bound to these characters, their personal and increasingly interwoven lives.
One Sensesate, Sun, an executive at her father’s large corporation, has a semi-secret life as a bare-knuckled mix-martial arts fighter. She only fights men, and as the ref tells the first opponent we meet, “The smart money’s on the skinny bitch”. At the same time Sun’s preparing for a late-night fight, it’s early morning in Nairobi and Capheus, a private coach driver, faces a gang threatening his life. He asks for help, and suddenly Sun is not only there, she is Capheus, and proceeds to beat both her ring-opponent and the gangsters threatening Capheus to a pulp. Thus Einstein’s idea that simultaneity isn’t a cosmological concept is refuted.
Early on, viewers learn there are pretty explicit sex scenes in the show. I tend to find such scenes both gratuitous and distracting. As one of the themes of the show is intimacy, and how these deep human connections create bonds deeper than love, it becomes clear that when one or another of the Sensates is in the mood, or actually having sex, the rest get pulled in. This results in one of the most beautiful, beautifully shot, mind-altering and mood-altering scenes I’ve ever seen. Nomi and her partner Neets are making love while Lito and his lover Hernando are as well. In Chicago Will is working out while in Germany Wolfgang is relaxing in a public bath. They are dragged in as well, with all of them intertwining, interweaving, making love not only to their partners, but to the other Sensates as well. It isn’t erotic, at least not in the conventional sense. It is, in fact, a celebration of human sexuality and intimacy and its infinite variety displayed all at once. The result is more than beautiful; I was crying before it was over (not least because the Wachowskis went the distance, showing two men making love with as much love and passion as two women, and a man and a woman.)
It was this scene, more than any other, that convinced me this is a show worth keeping. Not out of any prurient interest in seeing polymorphous perversity on screen. Rather it was because this scene convinced me that the Wachowskis are brilliant technical film makers, creating an enduring image of the varieties of human intimacy that surpassed our tendency to limit understanding to our personal experience.
Later in the series, as Riley (one of the Sensates) sits in the audience at the symphony hall in Reykjavik where her father is performing a Beethoven Piano Concerto, each of the Sensates in turn join Riley and through the power of the music, see their own births choreographed to the beautiful music. Like the characters, I was brought to tears by the beauty and power – yet again – not only of the whole scene, but the idea behind what we see. Not the whole “vision” thing; rather both the power of music to move us beyond the mundane as well as the mutual, interpenetrating sharing of deep memory that makes sharing lives with others something more than just figuring out how to put toilet paper on the roll.
I’m a romantic at heart. There’s plenty about love in this show. There’s also action. The characters are fully developed, with their flaws and imperfections as visible as their virtues. Episodes show how the Sensates lives overlap in multiple ways, offering each and all opportunity to help and hinder one another, to join in laughter and sorrow (in one memorable scene, Sun has her period while Lito, a Mexican action-adventure actor, begins to have an emotional breakdown unable to cope with what Sun seems to deal quite easily). The things that distract me, cause me to make faces and mumble, I am quite sure will continue. The things that make this a beautiful show, with all sorts of possibilities, can only expand, and I do so hope Netflix renews the show for at least one more season. Despite the mixed reviews, this is a show filled with both ideas and images worth exploring.