Science fiction about our far-reaching humanity is nothing new—not even in the canon of the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas, The Matrix), who co-created their latest piece with J. M. Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame. Nonetheless, Sense8, their 12-episode Netflix Original Series, is the rare, ambitious work that gets the diversity of human experience more or less right, and so compels our attention to the otherworldly all around us.
The premise is simple: eight human beings across the globe awaken to their ability to visit each other's lives, feel what the others feel, and occasionally inhabit one another's bodies. Despite this straightforward concept, though—and not unlike Babylon 5—the show is decidedly slow on take-off. This is because the creators have emphasized character-building—and with it, world-building in Chicago's police scene, San Francisco's queer community, Mexico's celebrity class, Germany's criminal network, England's musical underground, Kenya's transportation industry, India's wedding culture, and South Korea's business set—over the easy visual hook of a fast-paced plot.
There is, after all, only one grand narrative that makes sense for a premise like this: the age-old conceit that, whenever anything arises that could transform the world for the better, there will always be those who want nothing more than to control it (if they can) or destroy it (if they cannot). The creators of Sense8 thus keep their nefarious multinational corporation, run by a classically sinister "Mr. Whispers" (Terrence Mann), on the back-burner for the bulk of the season's run-time. Though a ninth "sensate," Jonas (Naveen Andrews), offers clues to this bigger plot throughout, the show's main storyline hinges less on twists and turns therein than on the overwhelming struggles that already exist in each of our eight protagonists' lives.
Indeed, the real thrill of this show is coming to understand the immense resonance between seemingly disparate narratives, and with it the sheer wealth of human experience. I thus refer to this series as "more or less" right in its approach to diversity because while there are some pointed omissions in the spectrum—all characters are traditionally "able-bodied", for instance, which only marginally excuses the hand-wavy manner in which one muay-thai-trained character can fight through the untrained muscles of another—on the whole, Sense8 delivers eight human beings who are not reduced to single markers of cultural difference.
Nomi, for instance, gave me the greatest sense of dread before watching the show; I was worried that the character arc for this trans woman would be reduced to that lone, gender/sex component of her human identity. Nonetheless, actress Jamie Clayton brings to life a character whose romantic relationship and status as both hacker and activist blogger are just as prominently on display. Even in episode two, when we meet a domineering mother who relentlessly calls Nomi by her birth name, "Michael," the usual trans denial discourse is turned almost immediately on its head by the premise of the show: Is Nomi truly sick like her doctor insists, or is this new part of her identity—the awakened sensate in her, and the voices and visions that follow—just as legitimate as her trans status?
Obligations to family play a significant role in the lives of two other sensates: Capheus (Aml Ameen) is a bus driver in Nairobi struggling to find better AIDS medication for his sick mother, and Sun (Doona Bae) is a solitary figure whose mother exacted a deathbed promise to protect her distant father no matter what. These narratives nonetheless achieve exceptional depth with the common trope: Capheus confronts different notions of protecting one's family, both in the present day and in his past, when his mother was for years the stronger of the two, while Sun’s promise compels her to take the fall for her embezzling brother to protect the family business, and so discover an altogether different South Korea in women’s prison.
Perhaps the most understated story in Sense8, though, is Kala's. Engaged to be married to a man she does not love, Tina Desai's character converses routinely with Ganesha while trying to figure out what she really wants, and keeps getting visions of a naked German man in mystifying answer. Kala's core crisis would be a stereotypical treatment of Indian life if not for one detail: Though Kala's family rejoices more at this impending marriage than they did at the completion of her science degree, they genuinely believe that their daughter is in love, and so celebrate this union even as it breaks with tradition. So why does Kala feel obligated to say yes to a man she does not love, when her family just wants her to be happy, and when there are strange, antagonistic politics brewing about the fiancé's family tree? As the series gently intimates, perhaps ideas of "choice" and "obligation" are more complex than either arranged-marriage or love-marriage cultures would have us believe.
Another budding romance belongs to Will (Brian J. Smith), the Chicago cop with a heart of gold, and Riley (Tuppence Middleton), the Icelandic DJ who moved to London to try to outrun a family curse. Rest assured, without relying on any silly body horror moments, the series also overtly addresses the sexual intimacy that would come from sharing feelings, memories, and day-to-day activities across eight lives—but the relationship between these two sensates develops more tenderly, in something resembling a series of dates across continents. Will is also actively trying to solve the mystery of the dead woman, Angelica (Daryl Hannah), who awakened them all, and in the process becomes close allies with our hacker, Nomi, who very quickly finds her life endangered by Mr. Whispers.
Meanwhile, Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is dealing with a different sort of threat to life and limb: After completing the jewel heist his abusive father never could, Wolfgang and his closest friend—a brother by choice, not by blood—are on precarious ground with a cut-throat crime syndicate. Ultimately, Wolfgang's desire to explore his new-found connection with a strange lady from India, whose beliefs in both science and religion baffle and intrigue him, is sidelined when violence begets more violence closer to home.
Loyalty is also of vital importance to Lito's narrative, as Miguel Ángel Silvestre plays a closeted gay man whose impressive film career and national heartthrob status inspire everyone but himself to heroic action. When a red carpet companion invades his condo, she discovers his relationship with another man and all-too-eagerly insinuates herself into their lives as a kind of public "beard". Her persistence is in part excused by the fact that she has an abusive ex on her tail, but he only grows more aggressive at this turn of events, and even though Lito points out that all the woman's subsequent problems arise from her choices, poor and brave alike, Lito's boyfriend challenges him to reconsider what it means to be a person of integrity, and a person truly in love.
Thus, as Sense8 builds to the inevitable conclusion in its overarching narrative—a standoff with Mr. Whispers to save the life of a sensate, and to strike a blow against those who would see "evolved" humans as mere tools to be exploited—these other, "smaller" battles present themselves as equally worthy and significant struggles. The consequence is a series that deftly contrasts the fantastic with the everyday, and so calls attention to all the ways that even people who don’t have this sensate ability are still inextricably linked to other lives.
Nomi sums up the surprise of all these characters when she asks her girlfriend's mother why all the people Nomi sees and visits aren't more like her. In a vaguely science-y response, the mother suggests that evolution has always favored diversity, so it makes sense that the most viable formulation of these sensate "clusters" would draw from so wide a pool of human beings as our eight protagonists, whom we later learn drew their first breath at the exact same time.
But the implications of this series really range far beyond groups of eight, if only because of how interconnected each protagonist's life already is, and remains well after their awakening. The result, in Sense8, is a pointed reminder that our planet houses over seven billion human microcosms, and that the extraordinary already exists in all our relationships with partners, siblings, parents, and anyone else we encounter day by day—to say nothing of all the different beliefs, customs, and untapped personal histories that unconsciously direct our actions as supposedly coherent individuals.
Who needs a literal multiverse as their science-fictional playground, Sense8 clearly asks, when we have so many rich and intricate worlds all around us? Though necessarily slow at the outset, this first season ultimately rewards its viewers with a magnification of the human experience that amply satisfies in the short term, while also leaving plenty more to be discovered in seasons (hopefully!) still to come.
Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate of English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), where she studies science writing in the nineteenth century. To date, her science fiction has been published by or is forthcoming in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed.
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