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Netflix's Sense8 is complete nonsense, but deeply lovable

The sci-fi series will never be for everyone, but season 2 is completely sincere and delightful

Nothing compares to Doona Bae kicking people.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Late in the second season of Sense8, one of the show’s characters speaks at a political rally. (Yes, he’s running for office. Yes, it’s a little improbable. But, hey, that’s the show.)

He speaks, movingly, of the divisions between people, and how he hopes those divisions can be crossed. He concludes, thunderously, that he hopes to see “a future where our children never grow up knowing love as a wall, but only as a bridge.”

That, in a nutshell, is Sense8’s guiding philosophy. If you try hard enough, you can love someone else enough to cross whatever divides you. And if people try to weaponize love, try to turn it into something that unites some, but excludes others, well, then you’ve got to kick down that wall — ideally in a stylishly filmed action sequence.

I don’t know if Sense8 is better in season two, or if I’ve just come to better understand what it’s attempting to do. I suspect, from some of the obvious tinkering the show’s creative team has done on an episode-to-episode basis, that it really has improved. But at least some part of the change is in me, too. I’m more accepting of the show’s eccentricities and rough spots, more willing to follow it over the cliff of cheesy dialogue and baffling character beats, simply because I love having a show this open-hearted, yet still boasting this many car chases, on the air.

At times during Sense8’s second season, I found myself thinking that the series was trying to save the world from the slow encroachment of us-vs.-them thinking. Preposterous? Probably. But the amazing thing about the show is that I half believe if everybody on Earth watched it, it might actually have a shot at changing some minds.

In season 2, Sense8 has put more thought into how to be a TV show

The biggest problem with Sense8’s first season was that it was ultimately structured like a traditional three- or five-act film, with a lot of setup and then payoff that came late in the game. As a result, the first half of the season was pretty rough sledding. The cast was charming enough to carry the day here and there, but the story was a snooze for too long.

The show’s endless setup was somewhat forgivable; Sense8’s premise — eight people from around the world suddenly discover they have a shared consciousness, and they can help each other out of jams — required a lot of explaining so audiences would understand how all of the rules worked. (And, truth be told, I still don’t understand some of those rules entirely.) But at times, I wished co-creator J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) had imparted upon his other co-creators — Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who are famed for being some of the best action filmmakers around — just how differently TV operates compared to film.

In season two, it’s clear that all involved have a better sense of how to make this story feel like television, instead of a big, flabby movie. The characters not only have goals in every episode — infiltrate this secret lab; find the monstrous villain they know only as Whispers, who’s pursuing the eight protagonists; etc. — but the audience almost always understands how those goals will be accomplished and what the dramatic stakes are. This signaling of the dramatic stakes has always been a hallmark of the Wachowskis’ work, and it’s a huge relief to see it work so well in a TV context here. (Though I should note that Lana Wachowski directed much of season two herself and wrote all of it with Straczynski; Lilly Wachowski sat the season out.)

Revelations will be made!

The tweaks to the show don’t stop there. Lana Wachowski and Straczynski have also clearly thought about what they want to include in every episode, and they build off of season one’s immense success with musical montages and action sequences to include a notable example of each in almost every episode. That means the show sometimes has too much of a good thing, but overindulgence is preferable to not quite having enough.

What’s more, the series has given all eight of the “sensates” storylines that are compelling in and of themselves, and that have little to do with the overarching mythology of sensate clusters and shared consciousness and mystical weirdness. Actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) wonders how to proceed with his career in the wake of being outed as a gay man. Trans woman hacker Nomi (Jamie Clayton) has to figure out how to deal with her family (who continue to refer to her by her male birth name) in order to support her beloved sister at said sister’s wedding. The wrongly imprisoned Sun (Doona Bae) attempts to exact revenge on the brother who landed her in jail. And so on.

Not every storyline works, and some of them are continuations from season one, even if the introduction of clearer dramatic stakes gives them much more purpose in season two. But by always having some interpersonal drama to cut to, Sense8 never gets bogged down by its own elaborate back-story, which allows it to more artfully space out its revelations in the backstory.

That has the added benefit of giving the backstory more room to breathe and running it through the one character — Chicago cop Will — who can investigate it with the tenacity you’d expect of a good police officer, as long as that police officer can travel around the world with his mind and interrogate suspects in imagined psychic interrogation rooms.

Sense8 will probably always be too weird for a mass audience, but I wish it wasn’t

Whenever I to recommend Sense8 to someone, I usually end up about three sentences deep before their eyes start to glaze over. Even something as complex as The Matrix — the Wachowskis’ best known film — boils down to a pretty basic idea: A man learns that he lives in a heavily controlled computer simulation and tries to fight back against the machines.

The closest I’ve come is to successfully describing the show in a succinct fashion is to say that Sense8, on some level, replicates what it’s like to use the internet, especially social media. (Indeed, there are scenes in season two in which the sensates explicitly talk about how, for all of us non-sensates, the internet stands in for their shared consciousness.) I can’t know what it’s like to be a wrongly imprisoned Korean woman, but if she has access to Twitter, I can read about her travails and get a sort of second-hand feel for what it’s like to be in her situation. But for the sensates themselves, they can actually live their fellow sensates’ experiences.

Sure, the world is terrible, but we’re also eight people! Isn’t that a joy?

The best thing season two does is dig into both how alluring and how dangerous the sensates’ connection is. As the eight core characters slowly start to realize that the world is filled with other clusters — and has been since prehistory — that world becomes both much larger and much scarier, especially once they realize what some sensates have done in order to keep themselves or their clusters alive. Empathy is a beautiful thing, but it too often becomes a way to empathize only with those in your tribe and turn a dark eye toward those who aren’t. That’s true of the internet as well.

Sense8, at its core, is suspicious of corporate power and capitalism and fascism and any sort of needless division between human beings, but it’s deeply hopeful about humanity itself. It really does believe that humans are capable of so much more than we might seem to be at the moment, and recent world events (which trickle into the show here and there) have given the series both a new sense of urgency and a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. People have always tried to pit humanity against itself. And humanity has always come through, thanks to the power of love.

That the series is able to wed these ideals to brilliantly mind-bending action sequences — the Seoul-set car chase that opens the season finale is one of the best TV action sequences ever mounted — is just the cherry on top of a whole sundae made of cherries, which is to say that sometimes Sense8 will make you grit your teeth from its overwhelming sweetness. But the series is refreshingly well aware that there are many different kinds of cherries, all unique in their own special ways, even if they’re still all cherries.

Sense8’s faith in human kindness could make the show hopelessly naive, and it certainly revolves around an achingly sincere belief: that if we all tried to love each other, maybe we’d make this whole planet Earth thing work out. But fearing anybody who isn’t just like you is similarly naive, and if we’re choosing core philosophies to subscribe to, even if they’re not 100 percent accurate in all particulars, then Sense8’s philosophy is as good as any. Maybe in season three, the show really will save the world.

Sense8 is streaming on Netflix.

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