'Sense8': "Who Am I?" Puts Will and Whispers Front and Center
Despite the show's lingering issues with character development, "Who Am I?" adeptly sets the stakes for season two and provides plenty of intrigue.
Sense8Cast: Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Tina Desai
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 1 - "Who Am I?"
Air date: 2017-05-05
Sense8 is one of those shows in which the only way to enjoy it is jumping in wholeheartedly and accepting that it's going to be cheesy and ridiculous. If you don't keep that in mind, then you won't be able to appreciate its charms, of which there are many: gorgeous visuals, tight editing, a complex and mysterious overarching narrative, and earnestly lovable characters. Of course, Sense8 also has its weaknesses: the show's dialogue ranges from awkwardly expository to melodramatic, and the plot often seems overly convoluted, leaving the viewer unsure of how much of a handle the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have on the whole thing. It's certainly not a show that you can watch without starting from the beginning, so this review will make not a whit of sense unless you've seen both season one and the Christmas special (which is apparently being counted as the second season premiere).
As we begin Sense8's long-awaited second season in earnest, things basically pick up from where the Christmas episode left off. Will (Brian J. Smith) has become the central character, for better or for worse, as it is his mental link with Whispers (Terrence Mann) that puts the Sensates in danger and sets the stakes of the show: if Whispers finds any of the Sensates, he'll lobotomize them -- or worse -- for nefarious reasons. In a particularly satisfying reveal, however, we learn that Will and Riley (Tuppence Middleton) have managed to turn this connection back on Whispers as they work to figure out both his identity and his ultimate plan.
Once a clean-cut police officer, Will's sacrificed his normal life and his health to protect the other Sensates, drifting in and out of a drugged sleep to manipulate the telepathic connection. When the tables are turned, predator and prey become more fluid categories, and this shift certainly starts off season two with a bang. Nomi (Jamie Clayton) assumes a detective role in "Who Am I?" one she’ll likely continue to play over the next few episodes. By night, she uses her hacking skills (along with Will's drug-induced vision-dreams) to find Whispers, while by day, she and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) pose as students, working to find their adversary under his public identity as the respected Dr. Matheson.
Because the eight main characters at this point are fairly well-established, simply putting any combination of them together allows for new and exciting interactions and comparisons to be made. The mental link that the Sensates share is well-translated into the show’s visuals, with quick cuts juxtaposing characters in parallel situations and transposing them to one another's locations telepathically. An early sequence plays Capheus (Toby Onwumere) and Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) off one another, illuminating the potential of a pairing we haven't yet seen on the show. Capheus gives an interview about his role as the bus driver Van Damme and why he chose Van Damme as his inspiration, despite the interviewer's combative attitude regarding the violence and racial politics of Van Damme's movies. Lito contends with a nosy reporter at his latest movie premiere, still reeling from the aftermath of his forcible outing and leaked explicit photos of him and his boyfriend Hernando (Alfonso Herrera).
In what is by now a classic Sense8 scenario, these vastly different interviews are edited to overlap one another, with Lito and Capheus speaking the same lines, appearing to each another to share their strength, eloquence, and courage. (It's 100 percent as cheesy as it sounds, but somehow it mostly works.) Of course, the other six Sensates pop up intermittently in this telepathic feel-good fest, but the Capheus-Lito relationship is the focus. This scene lets us know that Sense8 is going to continue to deliver exactly what you loved about season one. The best way to learn more about the Sensates is observing how they interact with one another and how their lives synchronize, which are some of the more fun moments of the show. With any luck, the show will continue to explore these unexpected combinations of characters over the course of season two.
The way each episode of Sense8 is constructed is a delicate balancing act, because it just isn't possible for every Sensate to get equal screen time in every episode, have an hour’s runtime, and still keep the plot moving. Some of the individual plotlines are more intriguing and integral to the show's overall narrative than others, with the less relevant stories (and, by extension, characters) taking on what seems like increasingly secondary roles. In "Who Am I?" Sun (Doona Bae) suffers most from this tendency. Still languishing in jail, she's basically been written into a corner, with her storyline seeming to go nowhere. Unless there turns out to be some link between her family's company and Whispers (which is fairly feasible at this point), then something really needs to shift radically when it comes to Sun's role. It's a waste of Bae's talent, to be quite honest, and I'm thinking that a prison break is definitely in order.
Kala (Tina Desai) also fares poorly, as her storyline has been dominated by her lukewarm relationship with her husband Rajan (Purab Kohli) and her adjustment to a wealthier lifestyle. Fortunately, she’s somewhat connected to the main narrative, using her pharmaceutical knowledge to drug Will, which allows him to mediate his connection with Whispers. Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is still mired in his increasingly dull storyline, which sees him trying to navigate the shifts of power among Berlin's gangs, and there's no end in sight.
Kala’s and Wolfgang's forbidden love was a highlight of season one, as Desai and Riemelt have great chemistry, so keeping them apart without addressing their sexual and romantic tension has the unfortunate effect of weakening both of their characters and lowering my investment in their stories. I spent the entirety of the Kala and Wolfgang storylines in "Who Am I?" waiting for them to interact, even just by making eye contact across a crowded room, but it doesn't happen. Lito and Capheus at least benefit from the aforementioned thematically significant sequence, even if their storylines are not central to the plot at this point, and Onwumere and Silvestre work well together. The urgency and complexity of the overarching narrative risks sacrificing these smaller moments of more subdued acting, so Sense8 needs to continue exploring ways to keep all of the core characters relevant even if they aren't all hunting Whispers.
One viewer's heartwarming is another viewer's overwrought, so it can't be said enough: Sense8 isn't for everyone. In order to enter the show's world, you'll have to suspend your disbelief, and be prepared for both highs and lows (and random orgies, though there isn't one in "Who Am I?"). Overall, Sense8's second season premiere puts the show in a good position; far better than I expected, given my lukewarm reaction to the Christmas special. My concerns about balancing character moments with the dramatic narrative reveals remain, but I'm happy to keep watching and give the show my full-throated support. Sense8 is, in the end, self-indulgent and over-the-top and just too much, but sometimes too much is just enough.