“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” -Lao Tzu, Te Tao Ching
For a show that has not been around for a long time, its a highly saturated and optimistic examination of the world around us. Filled with high powered action sequences, touching dramatic moments, multiple sexy times, and enough science fiction elements to make you think, it tries its hardest to make itself as inclusive outwardly as it is internally.
At its most reductive level, Sense8 is a show about eight strangers who are mentally connected. They think, and feel each other’s experiences and can communicate with one another, often bi-locating (called visiting). These 8 people all share a telekinetic link that was only recently activated. While they are unique compared to the general population, this “cluster” exists along with potentially thousands of others who also share a psychic link out in the world. All are vulnerable to the big evil corporation, Biologic Preservation Organization (BPO), attempts at experimentation and ultimately control for nefarious purposes.The plot itself can be a bit hard to follow at times but that does not make the show any less captivating.
Since debuting on Netflix in 2015 by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (of The Matrix fame), Sense8 is known for having a highly dedicated, vocal fan-base. When it was canceled on a cliffhanger after season 2, fans took to the internet. They were able to rally enough support on Tumblr and Twitter to have Netflix execs to take notice and thus a 2-hour finale was born.
Netflix claims that the economics of the show is what caused its demise and prevented it from sustaining any long-term production. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos explained “the audience [for Sense8] was very passionate but just not large enough to support the economics of something that big, even in our platform” reported Variety. In terms of cost for Netflix, Sense8 ( at $9 million/episode) was eclipsed by The Get Down (at $12 million/episode) which also got the ax.
From the opening credit sequence, the most striking components are the cinematography and locations. Within those two minutes, the viewer is transported to 108 locations in beautiful 4k. Credited as one of the reasons that Netflix execs failed to see the show as fiscally sound, the cross-global production teams show a celebration of life continent to continent.
Sense8 is a show that prides itself on its inclusiveness representing different people in a real way. We not only watch them on a screen, but we experience their highs and lows intimately. We become invested in the story because we are connected to the characters.
Capheus “Van Damme” Onyango
Aml Ameen (season 1) / Toby Onwumere (season 2)
Capheus is a matatu driver in Nairobi who works hard making a living to support his AIDS-stricken mother. Capheus is able to fight off a gang with his shared senseate conscious, earning him the nickname “Van Damme” the hero he admires. Guided by his ever-constant good intentions, he finds his way into local politics. His driving skills prove to be useful, especially when his group is on the run.
Kala is a pharmacist at a prominent pharmaceutical company in Mumbai. Her engagement with Rajan, the CEO’s son, is complicated when she falls for Wolfgang. A devout Hindu, she frequently visits the temple seeking guidance. When her boss and soon to be father-in law wants to do away with the old traditions, Kala’s life becomes even more complicated stuck in the middle.
Miguel Ángel Silvestre
Lito is a closeted celebrity actor in Mexico City secretly living with his amor Hernando. He becomes close to co-star/beard Daniela and opens his home as shelter away from her abusive boyfriend. When this drug dealer attempts retribution from Lito and threatens blackmail (in the form of outing the macho actor essentially killing his career in a Catholic country), the action star breaks out of his depression to become the hero of his own life.
Nomi is a trans female blogger hactivist residing in San Francisco with her girlfriend Neets. After fainting at a pride parade, she is entered into a hospital at her prejudiced mother’s behest. A BPO-backed doctor recommends lobotomization as the cure to all of Nomi’s mental disorders, but Neets comes to the rescue just in time causing both to be on the run. With the help of a fellow hacker, “Bug”, the trio provides all of the technical support for the rest of the cluster.
Riley is an Icelandic DJ who resides in London to escape her painful past having lost her mother, husband, and daughter. She has been seeing other senesates most of her life, not knowing the truth, she believed she was cursed. After physically meeting Will, she decides to return to Iceland to overcome her survivor’s guilt. Having traveled extensively, Riley’s network of friends is among her biggest strengths, that along with her awesome music selections.
Sun is a CFO of Bak Enterprises under her father. When it is uncovered that her brother has been embezzling funds, Sun takes the blame at the behest of her family to protect the male heir. While in prison, her father dies and an attempt is made on her life, the obvious culprit is her brother attempting to tie up loose ends. Sun is highly skilled in martial arts and uses this strength to escape from the prison. She then has to hide from her brothers paid assassins, in addition to the South Korean law enforcement, and BPO.
Brian J. Smith
Will follows in his father’s footsteps as a cop on the Chicago PD. As he begins to investigate a cold case of a missing girl from his childhood and unreported murder of a woman (both of which he has visions of), he starts to unravel the secrets of BPO. After meeting Riley, he travels to Iceland to rescue her, from then on the two’s lives become mentally as well as physically entwined. Will’s intuition and combat training get him in hot water in his professional career, but are assets to the cluster.
Wolfgang was born into the life of organized crime in Berlin and is a thief/safecracker who runs a locksmith shop in the city with his best friend Felix. Haunted by unresolved hatred towards his late father, Wolfgang takes issue with the underworld power his paternal relatives hold and seeks retribution. Amidst the war between major crime families, Wolfgang falls for clustermate, Kala, but pushes her away because he sees himself as a ruthless monster. It is this coldness to do what needs to be done, in addition to his combat and B&E expertise that makes him especially valuable to the group.
The sensates’ paths converge when their livelihood is challenged by BPO who continue to play a cat and mouse game holding each other’s members hostage. Thanks to the show’s generous use of characters explaining things to each other, we learn that sensates (actually referred to as Homo sensorium) are evolutionarily different than Homo sapiens, through epigenetics. Don’t think about the science too long as the scientific community does not believe that outside environmental factors could influence DNA in such a way that would cause any type of psychic powers. Regardless, DNA provides a reason why only some people have this ability and yet there is very little else that they have in common, including their motivations and relation to BPO. With sensates on both sides of the fight, we learn what the end game is for BPO and for the future of humanity.
Sense8 is more than just sprinkled with science fiction elements, the grander themes and plot points make it deserving of the genre classification having it be called “the Philip K. Dick adaptation we always wanted.” While the praise is warranted, this is not the first time his work has been adapted for the public. Dick’s postmodern techno-culture has been transformed to both the large and small screen several times over; Blade Runner (1982) (an adaption of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Total Recall (1990) (from We Can Remember It for You Wholesale), Minority Report (2002) and The Man in the High Tower (2015).
Anti-government stance caused by conspiracies, check.
Cerebral superpowers, check.
Alternate realities, check.
The fragility of personal identity, check.
Questioning what it means to be human, check.
Progressive sexuality, check, check, check.
His work encompasses all of the themes above in addition to the “ability” to hear other people via voices, which helps characters access greater levels of information. Much like how sensates can exist in each other’s realities concurrently, time is not an issue. Their collective consciousness allows them to experience so much more than the average human. They see the world around them up to eight times more clarity, within themselves and within each other.
It is in this way that Dick’s work can be seen as science fiction with a human heart, as an advocate of empathy. This idea shapes PKS’s most notable work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? On a mission to “retire” androids impersonating real humans, protagonist Rick Deckard uses an empathy box to distinguish the two. In chapter 3 of the novel, Deckard rationalizes “Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community” and “the empathetic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct.” By this reasoning, humanity and empathy are intrinsically linked and are essential for society in which we must rely on one another. This makes sense considering we often call those who lack this basic trait, psychopaths. The plot stresses the nuances and complexities that a nonobjective quality as a benchmark for existence would bring about. Four chapters later the novel flatly states “mankind needs more empathy.”
The first step of having empathy for others is an awareness and confidence in our own identities. Charles Darwin believed that humans developed emotions in order to better adapt to our environment. Emotional intelligence is believed to be the next step in this evolution. Being the more advanced species, the sensates are even more finely attuned to EI, despite each having their own internal hardships; Lito is in the closet about his sexuality, Wolfgang sees himself as a monster, Sun struggles with compromising her wants with the promise she made to her mother, Capheus is torn between opportunity and integrity as well as future success and staying true to his roots, Will lives in his father’s shadow, Riley’s past haunts her and causes her to embrace a nihilistic life in avoidance, and Nomi has to deal with the repercussions of her transition. In the face of adversity, the senseates have created their own community of complete acceptance. Secrets are literally impossible to keep within the cluster and their bond for each other is in love.
Love for yourself and love for one another is what Sense8 is all about. We see time and time again the collective ‘radical empathy’ of the group overpowering the forces of evil. It is more than just teamwork that allows the sensates to succeed their obstacles, they are more deeply connected than the Avengers or X-Men would probably ever be outside of a fanfic.
Even in Philip K Dick’s work is this same glimmer of hope in an uncertain future. In his novel Now Wait for Last Year, the protagonist, Eric, is a time traveler whose wife becomes incurably ill. At the end of the story, he has a conversation with a robotic cab. When he asks the cab if he should leave his wife, knowing she will never recover and his life will suffer as a result, the artificial intelligence tells him to stay.
“Because,” the cab said, “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”
“I think I agree,” Eric said after a time. “I think I will stay with her.”
God bless you, sir,” the cab said. “I can see that you’re a good man.”
When faced with known hardship, the message is empathy, even from an intelligent life that cannot actually feel emotion. What does it mean to be human if not love for one another?
Echoing PKD, Sense8 also ends on this same note. The finale title “Amor Vincit Omnia” is a line from Virgil, spoken and explained by Hernando, that translates to “love conquers all.” For a show that cuts to the black of nothingness following a final message of love and appreciation for the fans, there is not a more fitting end to this lavish love-fest.
The entire run of the show is 1471 minutes, so it will take you a full day to catch up, but it is worth it. Who couldn’t use a little more love in their life?
Feature Image via Netflix