It’s very difficult to watch Sense8 without a smile on your face.
The Netflix series—which returns Friday with a very long conclusion movie—has paradoxical charms. It has been ambitious and silly, cheerful and bloodsoaked, cry-your-eyes-out moving and bloated beyond words. The reunion film aims for a epic finality, a global war for the future fought through a hasty dump of squeezed-in revelations. But its best moments have a tossed-off flair. You feel you’re watching the streaming era version of a “road trip” episode from some half-remembered ’90s sitcom, a mythopoetic variation of that time everyone on Saved by the Bell worked at Malibu Sands for the summer.
The show began in 2015 with eight people around the world, “sensates” linked together by a kind of non-telepathic telepathy. The concept took forever to develop, with lots of filler reflecting the first wave of Netflix bloat. But there was a wonderful spirit here. The sensates (and their supporting casts) were unilaterally stoked about their new superpower. The tone was ebullient: I’ve got so many friends now! Our science-fiction trends de facto grim lately, and then here was Sense8 staging a 4 Non Blondes singalong across all inhabited continents.
The show was co-created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the sibling duo who spent their post-Matrix capital delivering the delightful Speed Racer, the symphonic Cloud Atlas, and the just awful Jupiter Ascending. The disparate narrative of Sense8 most clearly suggested Atlas, though Babylon 5 heads could appreciate the longform-saga influence of co-creator J. Michael Straczynski.
A lot of the grander plot elements felt rickety, too conventional. Someone passed around a memo last decade requiring every genre series to have some kind of shadowy conspiracy, and Sense8‘s was a particular bore, an evil science-y organization fronted by malevolently bearded Whispers (Terrence Mann). Too many elements of the grander narrative felt repetitive, reductive, just kinda dumb. Naveen Andrews kept on popping up with unhelpful advice. Daryl Hannah shot herself in the season premiere, and I swear we saw that suicide in flashback every episode.
But the main cast was energetic, game for anything: fight scenes and love scenes, a dance-a-long at Da Club, dreamy orgies of ecstatic globalism. The story-surfing smoothed over the rough patches. If you didn’t feel too invested in the ongoing travails of DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton) or cop-bae Will (Brian J. Smith), you’d just wait a few minutes to shift back to the mental love affair between ascendant criminal Wolfgang (Max) and innocent betrothed Kala (Tina Desai). I always had so much fun with the lovers-on-the-run duo Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Neets (Freema Agyeman), even if the show too often turned them into the proverbial People On Headseats, staring at computers, coaching the action people through action scenes.
The centralizing idea was that these people were more complete with each other: Stronger Together, an idea that a majority of voting Americans did actually vote for midway through Sense8‘s run. A splendid message, though the show’s dramatization of that message could translate into: “Together, these eight people are the ultimate action hero.” This genre affectation could reduce complex characters to their bare tactical essentials. Capheus (Aml Ameen in season 1, Toby Onwumere ever since) was The Driver. Sun (marvelously deadpan Doona Bae) was the Martial Artist. Will was Good With Guns, whereas Wolfgang was Really Good With Guns. Nomi was the Squad Tech Whiz, Kala the Squad Medic. Riley was, like, a fly DJ.
But the show could also make the characters’ commonality palpable, celebratory, a party you just couldn’t resist. As Lito, a Mexican movie star steadily emerging from his own personal closet, Miguel Ángel Silvestre was always a delight. His very public coming out (on location at São Paulo’s Pride Parade!) was a distillation of all the show’s best instincts—grand, intimate, glittery, humane. The camera caught its own image on the screens behind Lito: One person revealing the multitudes they contain, and a reflection of the great number of Sense8 viewers who might have had their own coming out story.
The Wachowskis experienced their own very public variations of this sequence, having both come out as transgender. So there was passionate resonance running through this global epic. The characters arranged themselves into relationships that despotic politicians still try to declare illegal—but the show always had an old-fashioned love affair with love. In the finale, someone offers up a message that doubles as the Sense8 thesis: “All the differences between us, and all the forces that try to divide us, they will never exceed the power of love to unite us.” All are welcome on the polyamourous friend-family sex pile! Dive in!
(Let’s dig into the finale movie on page 2)
Netflix canceled Sense8 last year mid-cliffhanger. It was rescued by a loud fan response, and now the finale is directed by Lana Wachowski. (Lilly stepped away from the show after season 1). Lana co-wrote the script with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, two novelists who worked on season 2, and who previously had Wachowski-adjacent professional histories. (Mitchell wrote the novel Cloud Atlas; Hemon delivered a rather praiseful New Yorker profile of the siblings, notable mainly for the implicit assertion that Speed Racer never happened.)
Together they’ve crafted an overstuffed wrap-up story. It’s less a final act than a speedrun, compiling what feels like at least three seasons of planned mythology.
The Sensates are all together, at last, in Paris, where they’re waiting to exchange ruthless Whispers for captured Wolfgang. The gang is really all here: Every familiar face gets some kind of check-in or shoutout, fan service that only frustrates when it starts to feels more like lazy repetition. (“Why do I always have to get shot?” asks one character, an old tragedy repeated as a self-referential farce.)
For the most part, everyone’s all in the same physical space. That means the Sense8 finale mostly ditches the series’ most artfully twirling visual technique, where different sensates appear at random in their pals’ heads, like visitors from another TV show. What’s left is, essentially, a heist movie. Or rather—minor spoiler—two heist movies. What begins in Paris as a prisoner exchange ultimately requires a road trip southward, to glorious Naples, and a final showdown with [specific villain’s name redacted].
At the least expected moment, a certain love interest will show up to save the day, and then a different love interest will show up to save another day. Faceless men with guns keep knocking down doors and getting shot by our plucky heroes. For all its generous affectations, this series is violent, man. The last act features a very old-fashioned shoot-out, complete with one very big explosion.
What sticks out is the humanity, the little moments that feel much larger. There is a mid-movie road trip punctuated by a high-speed Depeche Mode musical number. There are passionate declarations of love punctuated by the actual Eiffel Tower. At one point, everyone pretends to be tourists, a goofy game of dress-up played for sincere laughs. Lito’s boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) expresses the just-happy-to-be-here spirit of the ensemble, at one point declaring: “This is literally mindblowing! I can feel my mind, my ideas of self, expanding!”
Sense8 really could feel mind-expanding. (A romantic triangle is resolved in the finale in a perfectly Sense8-ish way.) Saying “I’m glad this exists” is a very 2018 cop-out, a positive thought shorn of actual opinion. But when I look back on Sense8, I’m so glad it exists, glad that Lana Wachowski and her collaborators got the chance to wrap up their saga this way. There’s not much feeling of danger in this finale; the villains are all still so lame. But that feels besides the point, and you stick around for the dancing, the fireworks, the goodwill towards everyone from everywhere. Credit Sense8 for radical sincerity. It wore eight hearts on its sleeve. Finale Grade: B