This review contains full spoilers for all of Sense8 season 2.
The second season of Netflix’s cult hit Sense8 dropped on Friday (May 5,) and as I had planned, I got home, opened a bag of kale chips, and watched it straight through.
Sense8 needs to be binge watched; the barriers between the episodes are as meaningless as the barriers between the eight protagonists. The show never feels as long as it is either. The tenth episode ended with a feeling of “that’s it?” and a desire to keep going. So many things about this show work: the characters are engaging and relatable, even Wolfgang, who has… issues; the tone is the mix of cruel reality, not-quite-cheesy optimism, and humour, that challenges you without breaking you; and the plot is more than good enough so that I care about what these character are up to.
Holy Character Journeys, Batman
Lito is still dealing with the consequences of being outed as gay via stolen sex pics. Or more specifically, he’s dealing with the consequences of refusing to deny being gay. The scripts he starts to get suddenly become less the manly action-hero ones he wanted and more the… Loras Tyrell type, and his agent drops him all together after his moving address as the Grand Marshall of the Sao Paulo (which included him declaring his love for Hernando and smooching, my heart). He goes through a period of despondencies when he’s convinced that all that he’s worked for in his career has been lost, but Dani works her magic to get him a reading for a project in Hollywood that sounds like some kind of latter-day Brokeback Mountain. In other words, Lito has finally embraced the thing that he thought was a weakness and turned it into a strength.
I was very proud of Lito this season. Last year, he was a moral coward, willing to let Daniella return to an abusive relationship in order to protect his reputation. This year, he never regretted coming out, and he never blamed Hernando or Daniella for killing his career. But at the same time, he was allowed to be depressed and mourn what he had lost.
Capheus, on the other hand, is getting more positive feedback from his society. His fight against the crime in his slum home has caught the attention of a local journalist. (She also caught his attention in another way. They’re adorable.) He uses his superpower of positivity to defuse a would-be riot over high water prices. This results in an interview on a morning talk show, which in turn results in an offer from an opposition political party to run on their ticket. Capheus eventually agrees, but this puts him in the sights of the crooked politician currently representing the constituency. His thugs ruin his big rally and try to assassinate him, but he also makes contact with four other sensates, who visit him and ask him what on earth someone like them is thinking running for political office.
Lito and Capheus are still very disconnected from the main plot of the series, Lito especially it seems to me, but they both have such good character development that I have trouble minding at this point. What they have in common is that they’re both very much in the public eye, and are likely to more so in the near future. That might get interesting.
Also having an interesting time is Sun. Throughout the season, she was the one who was most likely to have a crisis that required the rest of the cluster’s help. In the opening episode, her brother sends dudes to kill her (again) but with the help of an old lady, she manages to escape and go out on the lam. Along the way she makes an unlikely ally because the detective assigned to find her is also the boy she once had a very sexually charged taekwondo spar with as a teenager, and he’s still kind of into her.
I guess she’s hiding in plain sight, because she seems to be in Seoul this whole time, just chilling in Love Motels and visiting her parents’ graves with more or less total impunity. She and the rest of the cluster hatch a scheme to get her brother to confess to their father’s murder by infiltrating his gala by posing as a sexy hanbok wearing cocktail waitress. (I swear it makes sense! In fact, Sun’s arc might be worth a peice of its own. Though, I’m still perplexed as to why she had to spend most of the last episode in a bra and sparkly hot pants.) Her brother manages to escape justice once again, but it’s now clear that the authorities are onto his criminal activities.
Nomi is on the lam too, but her pressing legal troubles are resolved quite early on in the season, when she’s able to use her hacking connections to basically erase every reference to her own existence from the internet (it’s called ‘e-death’). But being hunted by the FBI didn’t stop her from doing research about BPO (that’s the evil organization that’s trying to cut up sensates’ brains, if you recall) and state of the art research into telepathy in prehistoric humans.
To be honest, Nomi spends most of the season just being the technical support, except towards the end, when she’s the maid of honour at her sister’s wedding.
Nomi’s sister is wonderful and supportive of her, unlike their mother who continues to be the most horrible person I’ve ever seen on television. Nomi gets a wonderful moment at the rehearsal dinner to positively reaffirm her identity, and also a dramatic set piece later on, when some dipshit FBI agent tries to arrest her in the middle of a wedding ceremony. (Who does that? What was the rush, exactly?)
Kala is having family trouble too. Her husband, Rajan, may be a cinnamon roll, but he’s also been turning a blind eye to the fact that his family’s pharmaceutical company has been selling substandard drugs to the third world. Like, for example, expired antiretrovirals to Kenya. Where Capheus lives. And also Capheus’s mother. Who’s HIV positive. Awkward. It’s also clear that Rajan is in some kind of legal trouble, but is unwilling to confide in Kala.
In any case, they continue to have sex problems, and Kala is still really, really into Wolfgang, though he’s insistent that he’s too dangerous to be in a relationship with. This doesn’t stop them from having some telepathic sexytimes, though. In the final episode, Rajan finally reveals that he’s been part of some kind of large scale anti-fraud investigation and that Kala needs to go to Paris for her safety.
Hey, Paris is awfully close to Berlin.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Wolfgang is being drawn into mob activity, despite his best efforts. He finds himself in the orbit of another sensate called Lila, who’s a sexy Italian assassin. She wants Wolfgang to join her in some crazy plot to turn Berlin into some kind of paradise for sensates. I don’t know, it seems half-baked. When he refuses her, she takes it very personally and turns him over to the bad guys. Things aren’t look too hot for Wolfgang as the season closes and the entire cluster meet in London to save him.
The main plot is still centred around Riley and Will, and their cat and mouse game with Whispers. Early on in the season, they manage to get the upper hand over him, and discover that BPO is divided into factions. Apparently the organization was originally all about the coexistence of sensates and ordinary people, (called sapiens) but somehow, over the years, it had lost its way and become all about weaponizing sensates and their abilities.
Riley spends a good deal of the season making connection into the global network of sensates called The Archipelago. Many of them are BPO collaborators, but many other have lived for years being able to evade them. They mostly have a lot of trust issues. She’s able to learn a lot of things, and the cluster gets access to this drug that they call “blockers” that prevents them from being visited.
Will is going a little stir-crazy this season. Even after he doesn’t have to spend all his time high on heroin to escape detection from Whispers, he still has to hide. His skills as a police officer are invaluable, but it’s mostly Riley actually doing things. He gets his moment when his father dies and he’s unable to be there, and when Riley connects with his best friend Diego, but in terms of things that Will actually does, there really isn’t all too many. It’s his plan that leads to the cliffhanger of the season, when the entire cluster is physically together for the first time and desperately trying to save Wolfgang, and his trap for Whispers in the first few episodes is very satisfying. (The trap in the final episode is a little confusing though, I’m not going to lie. It’s not quite Carol’s Big Boom out of nowhere, but there are connection that you’re forced to make yourself that the writers perhaps should have made more explicit.)
Apart from Riley, Will most important relationship this season is with the BPO affiliated sensate who they call Whipsers, though some others call him “The Cannibal”. He’s Milton Bailey Brant and this season we learn quite a bit about him, his home life, his past, and the fact that even he is not entirely safe within BPO. Despite the fact that will spends a lot of time in his brain, he’s still rather opaque to us, and the extent to which he deserves our sympathy at all is rather unclear.
He loves his daughter, though.
The world our cluster is slowly discovering is his world, and we don’t know what the rules are. We don’t know who to trust, and we don’t really know who the good guys and bad guys are. What we do have is some insight into the culture that the sensates have made. It’s one that is familiar to fans of writer J. Michael Straczynski’s other work Babylon 5. There, the telepaths were feared and persecuted by the majority “mundane” population, but they also have a deep, and rather ugly, sense of their own superiority. They were the future, and the rest of us inconvenient relics standing between them and the new world they want for themselves.
Our heros are like children watching adults interacting when older sensates enter the picture. There is deep history here, there are convention that everyone but the children know, but for some reason, the adult are unwilling to explain. The secrecy and guarded hostility makes sense, from a Watsonian perspective, though part of me is afraid that it’s more born out of Doylist convenience. If The Old Man of Hoy or Puck just explain shit to Riley, well then there wouldn’t be much of a mystery, would there.
As this show grows in popularity, and starts getting confidence that it will be renewed after any given season, I do worry about the writers continuing to be this stingy with the mystery reveals. And the potential for faux-profound pseudo-philosophical discourse to emerge. I hope both JMS and the Wachowskis have learned something from their previous creative failures in this regard. In this case, their best best for avoiding this will be to keep the emphasis on the characters and their relationships, because I really think they’ve build something very special here. The supporting characters are tend to be wonderful, assuming we’re supposed to like them. Antagonists on this series has always tended towards caricature and I really wish they would fix that.
The cluster has been together for a year now, and they’re truly operating as one brain. They act as a unit, and this is shown by the increasing amount of time where all eight actor are together during major events and action sequences; when Sun is chasing her brother on a motorcycle in hotpants, they’re all chasing her brother on a motorcycle in hotpants. And incidentally, some of these “we’re all here together” shots are really cool looking. Perhaps more importantly, all eight of the protagonists share emotional and empathetic reactions with each other. Saying they have empathy for each other, in fact, doesn’t really cut it. It’s not that Kala is upset at the idea of Capheus’s mom getting bad medication because she loves him and feels empathy…his disgust and anger is the same phenomenon as hers.
This is the main thematic take-away from the concept of the show: the the human experience is fundamentally universal and that physical and social divisions aren’t immutable, or even very real. But there’s a danger here—a very real one—of taking this into the direction of a well-meaning kind of “why do we have to focus on what divides us?” liberalism that willfully ignores entire systems or prejudice and privilege.
The final scene of the season left us in a place of both hope, and unprecedented danger. Our heroes won’t be able to hide who they truly are from the world much longer.