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)