Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Tina Desai
With a show like Sense8, the way to keep things interesting is to continually go big, whether with action-packed set-pieces and kinetic, slow-mo sex scenes, or by adding loads and loads of new characters to keep expanding the mythos of the show and raise the stakes. Sense8’s second season goes with both options, becoming a little more confusing in the process while also, somehow, streamlining the world-building. Having a second season of ten episodes is undoubtedly a better move than having another 12. Since we already know the characters so well at this point, there’s much less basic exposition that needs to be done, and when there’s cause for things to be explained to the cluster, the characters don’t have to stand still and be acted upon, and the chugging forward doesn’t have to take precedence over character interactions.
You see, our gang of eight isn’t the only cluster around right now; it turns out there are thousands upon thousands of other sensates, all with shifting motives and relationships with the sinister BPO. Some of these new Sensates are entertaining, if thinly sketched, and vital to our cluster’s investigation to uncovering the threats to their existence as well as the potential of their existence; Lila (Valeria Billelo), an Italian femme fatale who tangles with Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) in Berlin, and Mr. Hoy (Sylvester McCoy), a Scottish Sensate and former founder of BPO now turned against the organization, both add color and flair to the narrative. (Conversely, Puck [Kick Gurray], a lecherous Australian who veers closely to deus ex machina territory, fails to do much other than to repulse.)
Of course, the secondary characters like Lito’s boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Nomi’s girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) get plenty of screen time. Add in the expanded roles of tertiary characters like the Creed Bratton-esque Bug (Michael X. Sommers), Nomi’s and Amanita’s wired hacker friend, Daniela (Eréndira Ibarra), an actress friend of Lito’s and Hernando’s, and Diego (Ness Bautista), Will’s (Brian J. Smith) former partner in the police force, and it’s a lot to juggle; to say nothing of the expanded backstories that Whispers (Terrence Mann), Jonas (Naveen Andrews), and Angelica (Darryl Hannah), all received in bits and pieces.
The focus rightly remains on the eight core leads, and the ten episodes of season two do an admirable job of expanding each character’s storylines, goals, and emotional depths without dipping into too many detours. Capheus (Aml Ameen) and Sun (Doona Bae) finally get some of the attention they deserve: Capheus summons all of his Van Damme courage to run for government office, hoping to improve the lives of his fellow villagers, while Sun finally, finally makes her escape from prison and settles on a plan of revenge against her brother. Both characters, formerly the only ones without love interests, finally get some romantic attention: Capheus in the form of journalist Zakia (Mumbi Maina) and Sun in the form of Detective Mun (Sukku Son), although the latter instance is far more star-crossed.
Wolfgang’s Berlin gangs plot line finally bears some narrative weight, as Lila, who proves to be as seductive and dangerous a foe as you would imagine, is the equivalent of a gangster’s moll, while Riley (Tuppence Middleton), at last, manages to get away from Will and do some central-plot related investigating of her own. Lito’s public embrace of his sexuality leads him on a whirlwind journey from the São Paulo Pride Parade, where he gives a breathless keynote address, to the despair of being fired by his agency for coming out, then to the Elysian beaches of Los Angeles as he scores a part in a new movie that promises to make him a star in the United States.
Meanwhile, Kala (Tina Desai) uncovers the dirty business dealings of her seemingly perfect husband Rajan (Purab Kohli), and recommits to following her heart with Wolfgang. In a particularly strange sequence, Kala and Wolfgang’s telepathic consummation of their clandestine affair is actually juxtaposed with Capheus and Zakia becoming intimate for the first time, which unfortunately serves to undermine both couplings. Kala and Wolfgang’s relationship has been a slow burn over a dozen or so episodes, while Zakia is a new character we’re only just beginning to love, so it’s a bit odd to cross-cut these similarly shot scenes since they don’t actually have that much in common thematically or emotionally.
The biggest problem Sense8 has right now as a potential season three looms on the horizon is that Will is still pretty much the de facto leader of the cluster. In a show that touts its racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity, it seems a little lazy and conventional to have the white American man as the main character, because a quick look at CBS’s fall 2017 slate, for example, demonstrates that Will’s demographic is hardly underrepresented as protagonists of major television series. Perhaps this problem was seeded into the very beginning of the narrative, as Will became connected first with Jonas and then with Whispers, making him the character with the closest relationship to the central BPO plot, and perhaps the shift to Riley as the main connector with the new Sensates (such as Mr. Hoy) is a deliberate step away from converging the most salient narrative threads all on Will’s shoulders.
Sense8 has always been about family, and the last few episodes crystallize and expand on the various meanings and iterations of family that have been presented in the show: good families, bad families, flesh-and-blood families, and found families. The connection the Sensates share, despite being the sudden source of complications and danger in their lives, has also been the source of incredible joy and feats of strength. Even though most of them have never met in person, they’re the most beautiful kind of family, because they will always love, help, and support one another.
Then again, for the characters of Sense8, family’s also been one of the greatest sources of strife in their lives, and season two really ties these family narratives together in a clear way. Previous episodes contained some kind of resolution to fraught family dynamics: Wolfgang murdered his crimelord uncle in the finale of season one as revenge for his uncle’s hit on Felix (Max Mauff), Wolfgang’s only friend; Lito came out to his mother during the Christmas special wracked with fear, followed by her surprising him by responding positively and defending him against gossip and cruel comments.
Will’s family storyline ends on a downbeat note, as Will’s father Michel (Joe Pantoliano) succumbs to his alcoholism and passes away in a Chicago hospital, still heartbroken over Will’s disappearance; Will is only able to be there through Riley, who’s in Chicago following up BPO leads, but it’s a depressing moment overall. (Thankfully, Kala, Capheus, and Riley are all blessed with biological parents who love and care for them unconditionally, even if some of them don’t know the truth about the Sensate connection.)
Sun’s arc this season is largely about her realizing that a flesh-and-blood connection to her brother doesn’t actually make him family in the most important sense, because he’s the one who severed that link when he allowed her to take the fall for his crimes, killed their father, then attempted to have her killed in prison. It’s a nasty realization, as Sun comes to understand, because it means that blood bonds do not prevent someone from being alone in the world. Sun must grapple with this dawning profound loneliness, and in so doing becomes closer to the other members of her cluster, because they exemplify the true meaning of family.
Similarly, Nomi’s (Jamie Clayton) relationship to her parents has been previously established as tense at best and dehumanizing at worst. While her sister clearly loves and accepts her, Nomi’s mother, who attempted to have her lobotomized in season one, consistently only refers to her by her deadname, while her father is distant and cold. Yet one of the more emotional moments in Sense8‘s second season hinges the idea that amends can be made, that families can, sometimes, be repaired. When the FBI storms Nomi’s sister’s wedding to arrest Nomi, Nomi’s father, upon learning that they don’t have a warrant, threatens to sue them and demands that the agents take their hands off of his daughter, which, Nomi notes, teary-eyed, is the only time her father has ever gendered her correctly.
Even though she grew up with wealth and privilege, Nomi previously held onto the moment when Amanita stood up for her against a transphobic attack (presented in an early season one flashback), because it was the only time anyone had stood up for her. Amanita had become her family then, and her father has, in this small way, taken a stab at becoming family to Nomi once more. Whether her mother will follow suit is left unclear.
Sense8 is, in the end, almost an illustration of the potential of social media connectivity, but in a literal way, as it brings to life the kinds of connections people make through the internet across thousands of miles through live-action television. What if the people closest to you in all the world were available to you instantly regardless of location, able to share your fears, hopes, and dreams, and to understand the parts of you that you can’t vocalize to yourself, much less to others? Are the sensates really so different from kickass internet pen pals?
In this sense, Sense8 is the perfect show for today’s time, because it represents the best of an interconnected global community: if we open our hearts and minds not only to those around us, but to those who are far away from us, the rest will follow in kind, and the world will be kinder and brighter for it.