Thursday, June 20, 2024

So You Want to Watch Sense8

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The past few years has seen an explosion of content on streaming sites like Netflix. This is a new model of distributing television, and has been very successful. These shows embrace the tendency of viewers to “binge watch” by releasing full seasons worth of content all at once, rather than the more traditional weekly episode. The structure is still vaguely episodic, but let’s face it, a lot of these shows can be watched as giant 12-hour long movies.

This is certainly true of Sense8, one of the most binged shows on Netflix. And I can’t really see this as anything other than an indication of its success at storytelling, more specifically how immediately engaging the characters are. You just don’t want to leave them.

The care and effort that went into this show is also obvious from first viewing. It’s shot entirely on location in nine cities around the world, and its cast is diverse along as many intersections as possible. There are flaws—creative, technical, all that—but in general this is a show worth watching.

Luckily, the Powers that Be agreed because after a long period of uncertainty, the show was renewed for a second season consisting of a Christmas Special and ten regular episodes. Said Christmas special drops tomorrow (December 23) and I have dedicated myself to making sure you have the information necessary to enjoy it, even if you’re too busy making Christmas Pudding and wrapping presents to binge right now.

The Premise

Since the beginning of time, there have been people who have to ability to mentally and emotionally connect with one another over distances. These people are called “Sensates.” They occur in groups of eight people, called “clusters”, who were all born at the exact same moment. The members of a cluster retain their individuality, but in many other ways they have a shared mind. They can not only communicate with each other, as all sensates can, but also directly feel each others experiences and take control of each others bodies, and actually experience the physical places where the others are.

Sensates seem completely ordinary (though they do seem to have some telepathic ability) until they’re “given birth” by another. (It’s not clear how this works exactly.) Then they slowly start to integrate with each other. Along the way, they’re guided by an older Sensate named Jonas (played by Naveen Andrews) who’s in some kind of trouble with a powerful organization called BPO, and a Sensate called “Whispers” who seems bent on destroying, or at least exploiting, his own kind.

The Cluster

Our cluster is made up of seven cinnamon rolls, and Wolfgang. They live all over the world, but they have in common that they were born on August 8. And they’re all awesome.

Capheus Onyango

Capheus (played by Aml Ameen) owns and drives a van for commuters in the slums of Nairobi. He’s obsessed with Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, so his van is called “The Van Damme.” It’s punny.

His main motivation in life is to make enough money to get medicine for his mother, who’s sick with AIDS. And if you hijack his van and steal that medicine, he will channel Jean-Claude and chase you down to get it back. Much to the horror of his partner, Jela.

His heroics get him on the radar of the local crime-boss Silas Kabaka, who hires Capheus to drives his daughter to and from medical appointments. He accepts this job, despite knowing it would get him in a world of trouble, because Kabaka can get him access to the best drugs for his mother. Of course, he ends up entangled in a vendetta that leads to a machete fight. You know, as one does.

Moral ambiguity abounds, as the crime-boss he saved is not much better than the comically over-the-top street gang he saved them from. And I somehow doubt there will be no consequences.

When Capheus was a little boy, he wanted to be a zebra.

Bak Sun

Sun (played by Doona Bae) is the CFO of her family investment firm by day, and a badass MMA fighter by night.

I like her, and not just because she is totally a Dutiful Princess. Well, maybe mostly.

Sun finds out that her poop-hole younger brother has been embezzling from the company and faces jail-time. Because of of Dutiful Princess nature, Sun takes the fall, despite the fact that both her brother and her father have treated her with gender-based indifference/scorn her entire life. Mostly because she promised her dying mother she would take care of them.

She spends some time in jail, getting in with a little clique that also got fucked over by the patriarchy and using her MMA skills to protect her new friends from bullies, ending up in solitary confinement. And she learned how to sew.

Her father, because he has some redeemable qualities, eventually is consumed by guilt and visits Sun to tell her than he’s not going to let her rot in prison because he was a bad parent and will come clean. However, soon after her brother, still a poop-hole, arrives to tell her that their father “committed suicide.”  Sun, probably rightly, suspects foul play, then beats him to a pulp.

I don’t think she’s getting out of solitary any time soon.

Kala Dandekar

Kala (played by Tina Desai) is a cinnamon roll. She’s a scientist working at a pharmaceutical company in Mumbai. She’s about to get married to fellow cinnamon roll Rajan, the son of the owner of the company where she works.

Even though Rajan is a cinnamon roll, and is clearly over the moon about her, Kala just isn’t in love with him, but can’t bring herself to disappoint him or her family by admitting it. (Dutiful Princess #2 alert?)

Kala’s wedding is delayed because he faints in the middle of the ceremony after seeing a naked Wolfgang ask her what the fuck she was doing. Her fiance is totally into the idea of trying again, but conflict emerges when it turns out that his father is one of those atheists that give atheism a bad name who wants to outlaw certain religious practices, like pledging your weight in bananas. This earns him the ire of a group at the temple where Kala likes to go to have the most adorable conversations with Ganesha. Eventually, when Manendra Rasal comes to the temple to tell her to call off the wedding, he gets stabby-stabbed and ends up in a coma.

Meanwhile, Kala and Wolfgang are spending more and more mental time together, and are obviously grossly in love. But Wolfgang encourages her to marry the mole Rajan because, well, no one should be in a relationship with Wolfgang.

Wolfgang Bogdanow

Wolfgang (played by Max Riemelt) is a German of Russian descent who is a locksmith by day, and a safe-cracker by night. He comes from a family of Russian mobsters who include his uncle Sergei and his cousin Steiner, the most annoying character in the history of television. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s the writing or the actors scenery-destroying performance, but I was not at all sad when Wolfgang and is BFF Felix hatch a plot to steal some diamonds that Steiner had been casing for month out from under him.

Steiner unfortunately, does care and after Felix ends up in the hospital with a shotgun wound to the guts, Wolfgang proceeds to shoot-up the entire Russian mob. There’s a bazooka involved at some point. This might be a little ridiculous, especially considering how rare gun violence is in Germany, but the point is, Wolfgang is an anti-hero at best.

He also has massive father-issues, stemming from the fact that his own father was an abusive piece of shit. Wolfgang murdered him when he was, like, 12.

Wolfgang is a little fucked up. You love him anyway, since he’s a protagonist on Sense8, but he may be a tad problematic.

Lito Rodriguez

Lito (played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a telenovela actor in Mexico City who is very deep in the closet. Fortunately, he and his boyfriend Hernando are the cutest couple ever.  Their search for a beard leads them to Daniela, a fellow actor who’s very supportive of the love-birds, but also not too strong in the thinking box, I suspect. She likes to take pictures for her yaoi-fangirl spankbank and that gives her jealous, and abusive, exboyfriend Joaquim the opportunity to blackmail the trio, threatening to expose Lito, and thus end his career.

At first Lito plays along with this, allowing Daniela to go back to the guy who regularly punches her in the face, but Hernando is so disappointed with him that he breaks up with Lito, leaving him devastated.

After a rather awesome montage of sad that involves drinking frozen margaritas right out of the blender, Lito finds the courage of his convictions and goes to punch Joaquim and take Daniela home. Thus earning Hernando’s forgiveness.

Riley Gunnarsdóttir

The last three sensates are the ones most heavily involved in the central plot, at least for this season.

Riley (played by Tuppence Middleton) is an Icelandic DJ working on London, who’s haunted by the death of her husband and newborn baby in a car crash several years before. Some trouble in London sends her back home to Iceland, but unfortunately, that’s where the bad guys have their secret base.

BPO has been hunting sensates for years, and a fellow Icelandic sensate from another cluster named Yrsa, who I’m not going to lie, is kind of an awful grumpy-pants, pretended to be an elf (like, actually) and told the child-Riley that she was hexed and that terrible things would happen to her loved ones if she stayed home.

Naturally, this kind of fucked her up. She blamed herself first for her mother’s death and then for her husband’s and daughter’s. When she does return home, a trip to the hospital after a mysterious collapse (possibly brought on by unprocessed trauma) puts her back on BPO’s radar and the other sensates have to race to rescue her before Whispers does something horrible to her brain.

Will Gorski

Will (played by Brian J. Smith) is a police officer in Chicago who has that cop quality of always having to investigate things. This started when he was a child and he made contact with a missing girl and witnessed her death. In hindsight we know that the girl was another sensate, and the man who killed her was Whispers, while going at her brain.

After the cluster’s “birth” he has an in-person encounter with Jonas which prompts him to start poking into Whispers and BPO. This gets him in a world of trouble at work, but Will is a man of strong conviction who kind of doesn’t give of shit when he knows he’s doing the right thing.

At the same time, he and Riley are falling in love, despite the grumpy Yrsa telling them that love within a cluster is nothing but “narcissism.”  When she’s in danger in Iceland, he drops everything to go rescue her, because of course he does.

Nomi Marks

Nomi (played by Jamie Clayton) is some kind of computer wiz/former hacktivist who is just trying to enjoy San Francisco Pride with her girlfriend Aminita when she faints and ends up in the hospital where she not only has to deal with being told that her brain is doing something funky and killing her, but also has to put up with her truly horrible mother.

Seriously, I hate her more than I hate Sun’s poop-hole brother. Not only does she constantly and pointedly misgender her daughter (Nomi is trans), but she also likes to hold the fact that brain surgery is expensive over her head. Ugh, what a jerk.

Nomi starts to suspect that the neurosurgeon, Dr. Metzger, doesn’t have her best interests at heart, a feeling confirmed by Jonas and the other Sensates in her cluster. She escapes the hospital after her girlfriend tries to burn the place down then spends the rest of the season running away from whispers while also helping the other Sensates (especially Will) with the investigation into what the hell is going on.

Where we Are

The climax of the season has Will going to Iceland to rescue Riley from the BPO facility there. It’s mostly Nomi’s (and Aminita’s) hacking skills that get him in, but all eight of the sensates use their skills to get them out safely. (Lito can act to get info! Sun can beat people up! Kala had medical knowledge! Capheus can hotwire a car! Wolfgang is amoral enough to play chicken with a helicopter!)

The two managed to hijack an ambulance and get out of BPO’s reach. But there’s a problem. You see, sensates outside of their own cluster usually can’t “visit” one another unless they’ve made physical eye contact. And guess what happened during that daring escape?

The only solution Will can think of, short of suicide, is to keep himself drugged up so that Whispers can’t use his mind to get to the rest of the cluster. Indefinitely, I suppose. We end the season with Will unconcious in Riley’s arms, the fellows of their cluster around them, as they motorboat off into an uncertain future.

I’m Dreaming of a Sense8 Christmas

Tomorrow’s Christmas Special has a lot to do if it intends to be a worthy follow-up to the first season.

For one thing, the first season took place at the beginning of July (Fourth of July fireworks featured prominently in one episode) and the Christmas special seems to take place, well, at Christmas. It’s going to be quite the feat to bridge those six months and have a new story in two hours. Was Will unconscious this whole time? Poor guy, he’s gonna lose all his gainz.

And I know it’s technically a Christmas special, but I really do hope it’s not too, like, Christmas-y. Not just because I literally am the Grinch, but also because I think that would be a bit of an odd choice given the consciously multicultural focus this show is supposed to have.

Speaking of, I also hope that a conscious effort is made to address something that made be moderately uncomfortable at the end of the first season. Every character undeniably has their own personality and arc, but when the time came for the action of the climax, the three most prominent and active characters were all white.

It was a little weird. But it’s also something that can be easily fix, presumably when characters who are currently on the periphery of the story are drawn into the centre.

They all belong together, after all.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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