Sense8 recap: I Am Also a We
In my recap of the first episode of Sense8, I mentioned how scattered it felt. I mentioned that the show, while throwing out a lot of story lines in its premiere, did little to establish an overarching narrative. I chalked that up to the Netflix binge model, but perhaps that’s not entirely the cause here. Maybe Sense8 is more interested in telling smaller stories. After it’s second episode, there’s still no clear long-term narrative that, ironically, connects all of these characters.
There’s the increased presence of Jonas (Naveen Andrews), and his role seems to be integral to the development of each sensate, especially considering he was there when Angelica/Angel “birthed” them. Still, his role is ambiguous. We now know that Homeland Security is looking for him, and that he’s working on using Will to help Nomi, but what else? The show hasn’t dug very deep into its mythology yet, and while that’s fine, it also leaves something to be desired. Right now, these are all disparate story lines that could use a connective tissue.
With that said, the second episode improves on the first by revealing more about these characters and by focusing in on a select few of them. While more mythology would be beneficial, it’s undeniably compelling to see these story lines unravel slowly, revealing bits and pieces of the mystery with each episode much like Lost did some years ago. In this episode we learn a bit more about the characters, about who they are and where they come from.
That makes sense considering that Sense8 is largely about identity and how we define ourselves. It’s a theme that permeates just about every story line here in both big and small ways. On a smaller level, we see Riley working to escape her life in London after the robbery and shootout in the previous episode.
She doesn’t know what happened, but someone is after her, and she sneaks out of her apartment just as someone breaks in. When she’s outside and opens the bag she’s taken with her, stuffed with money and drugs, you can sense (sorry) her battling with herself, figuring out where she goes from here. She understands that she has decisions to make and that they’ll define her perhaps for the rest of her life.
Lito is also dealing with not only how he defines himself, but also how society and the industry that he works in defines him. After turning down the advances of his co-star after a successful movie premiere, Lito goes home to his boyfriend. Lito has been hiding his sexuality from the press (and presumably from everyone else in his life), and his reckoning with what that means to him and to his partner makes for emotional, stirring television.
His story devolves into a little too much comedy when that same co-star shows up at his apartment and finds Lito with his boyfriend. She’s almost too eager to take on the role of being Lito’s beard, too into the arrangement that would see her be Lito’s girlfriend out there in front of the cameras. Still, from a storytelling standpoint, it further implicates Lito in his own oppression of identity while also vilifying the media and the movie industry, suggesting that such spaces aren’t necessarily safe for homosexual men.
This is underscored when Lito is on the red carpet and fawning over his co-star while deflecting rumors of their relationship. He slides into a sort of exaggerated masculinity that underscores the pressure Lito feels to be someone else while critiquing the Hollywood system that puts certain physical and cosmetic demands on leading men and women. Such pressure is also evident when Lito’s co-star blasts him for turning down her sexual advances, telling him that he’s “acting like a girl.”
Within Hollywood, Lito’s sexuality makes him feminine, which in turn makes him less of a man, weaker. Challenging that kind of coded language, which presumes certain qualities are inherent to men and women, is what much of Sense8 is doing, just tucked away within a heavy dose of genre tropes.
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Sexuality and identity is perhaps most evident in Nomi’s continuing story, the episode’s best by far. During a Pride march in San Francisco she catches a glimpse of Jonas and collapses from the motorcycle she’s riding on with her partner. She’s admitted to the hospital where a doctor tells her she has UFLS, which means she needs brain surgery or she’ll die in six months.
Nomi’s mother is there and is a villainous, atrocious woman who doesn’t accept that Nomi is transgendered. The mother character may be a little over-the-top, but it’s still devastating to watch her manipulate Nomi by offering up their family insurance for the surgery. More than that, it’s heartbreaking to see Nomi’s mother consistently refer to her as Michael.
Again, identity is the theme here. Nomi identifies as a woman, has always been a woman. Nomi’s mother refuses to accept that identity, saying that “he” will be Michael until the day she dies. Nomi isn’t just railing against her mother in this episode though. Jonas “visits” her in the hospital and tells her that she has to escape, that the doctor doing her surgery might have more nefarious means behind his decision.
Nomi may break out with the help of her partner, who manages to call her and provide support, but it’s Will who Jonas confronts. Playing on Will’s ambiguous experience with a vision before, with a girl named Sara Petrell (more on that in episode 3), Jonas seems to want to connect Will to Nomi, to use him to set her free from the hospital. He tells Will that despite what Homeland Security says, he’s not the enemy.
The episode ends with one of the more fun and action-packed sequences of the season so far, with Will chasing Jonas in his car, obviously not convinced that Jonas isn’t dangerous. The Wachowskis move the camera perspective from car to car, establishing a connection between Jonas and Will, then physically cement that connection by having each body move from car to car. This is Jonas showing Will what it means to be a sensate.
Sense8 is taking its time unraveling the various narrative threads it’s set up. The focus right now is on the personal stories and on keeping the mystery intact for as long as possible. Who is Sara Petrell and what does she have to do with Will? Why does the doctor want to operate on Nomi? Will Lito be exposed and could there be more to his co-stars intentions? What about the connection between Wolgang and Kala, as the former is seen partying after a successful heist and the latter is getting closer to marrying a man she clearly doesn’t love? And what does all of this have to do with Jonas and Angel/Angelica? With so many story lines tied together, a little bit of patience might be just what Sense8 needs.