In a warm and crowded theater on the north side of Chicago, I linked pinkies with the strangers on either side of me and solemnly swore that I wouldn't reveal anything about what I was about to watch over the next two and a half hours - nothing except for how it made me feel. My stomach fluttered in nervous excitement. I first watched Sense8 3 years ago, and it immediately became one of my favorite shows, one that I just had to watch again the moment that I finished it. When it was abruptly cancelled by Netflix shortly after the 2nd season debuted in 2017, the fan uproar was immediate and intense. After weeks of calling Netflix, writing letters, posting on social media, and even mailing flip-flops to company headquarters (you'll get it if you watch the show), the seemingly impossible happened - Netflix agreed to go forward with a finale special, titled Amor Vincit Omnia, or Love Conquers All.
Sense8 is the brainchild of the Wachowski sisters, those auteurs best known for The Matrix trilogy. In more recent years their credits have included Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, films that haven't always done well, but which showcase their unique and expansive vision of love and interconnectedness. While I can recognize the validity of some of the complaints about their style, there's something about their work that speaks to me on a deep and personal level. There's a real sweetness and generosity of spirit to their work, and Sense8 feels like a perfect distillation of that.
What would you do if you woke up one morning and realized that you shared a psychic connection with someone (or several someones, as the case may be) on the other side of the world? How would it affect you to live inside the head of someone who is very different from you in every respect, from their gender and sexual orientation to their skin color and class? Sense8 is a lot of things, but at its heart it's an exercise in empathy, a metaphor for the connections that we all share with people across the globe, the people (both known and unknown to us) who are influencing our lives in a million different ways. Maybe we chat with them online and consider them friends; maybe they make our clothes or grow our food; maybe they make financial decisions that will impact your job; maybe they're just listening to the same song as you in the same moment, tapping their toe to the beat just like you. How would you change, and how would they change, if suddenly you were plunged into their lives?
Will, a Chicago cop; Nomi, a trans activist and former hacker living in San Francisco; Riley, an Icelandic DJ living in London; Lito, a closeted Mexican action star; Sun, a Korean financial executive by day and martial artist by night; Capheus, a Nairobi bus driver; Kala, an Indian woman working at a pharmaceutical company; and Wolfgang, a German criminal, all find themselves in precisely this situation. They discover together that they are a cluster of sensates, identical to humans but for one thing - their intense psychic connections to each other, and their ability to connect with others like them by making eye contact with those outside their cluster.
With such a wide and diverse cast of characters, the show is multi-layered and dense, and each character feels pulled from a different genre. From police procedural to telenovela to Nordic noir to indie flick, there's a little taste of everything, and one of the real joys of this show is seeing how the different characters react to being dropped into a story so different from their own. Capheus, who lives in the slums of Nairobi, reacts with utter delight to something as simple as drinking tea in London or being on an airplane. Lito's melodramatic tendencies are often played for laughs, especially when he's paired with the more stoic Sun.
As the sensates adjust to their new abilities, they find themselves under attack from a mysterious and powerful organization, which is known as BPO. The primary threat comes from another sensate in the employ of BPO, a man known as Whispers. They are vulnerable to him precisely because of their ability - how do you hide from a man who can get inside your head just by making eye contact with you?
Sense8 is not without its issues. It definitely has a message, and it can be a bit heavy-handed in the way that it delivers that message, having characters state outright what another, subtler show might leave as subtext. There are also some moments that might come across as unintentionally funny - a couple of big scenes revolve around the song What's Up by 4 Non-Blondes, which is probably better known as an internet meme featuring He-Man. Given the emotional weight that it's given in the show, I have to think that the Wachowski's weren't aware of that context. Of course, those are some of the things that fans have come to love most about it - What's Up has become a fan favorite anthem, and some of those didactic speeches have really resonated with those fans who feel like the Wachowski's have put words to what were only nebulous feelings to them before.
Sense8 is utterly unique, visually sumptuous, and possessing an earnest sincerity that has resonated not just with me, but with all of the fans that joined the campaign to save it.
Sitting in that theater, surrounded by devoted fans who were just as elated as I was to be watching the finale, and with several members of the cast and crew in attendance, the excitement was palpable. Season 2 had ended on a gut-wrenching cliffhanger, and all of us were eager to see how everything would play out. The show had set up a tangle of narrative threads - would they manage to resolve them in a satisfying way in just a couple of hours?
Well, yes and no.
Again, I'm keeping this very vague (no spoilers, only emotions), but what I can say is this: the episode was pretty clearly written with the fans in mind. Throughout the theater there was a lot of cheering, a lot of laughing, and a fair number of choked sobs. There were several callbacks to great moments in the first two seasons, and the answers to a couple of lingering questions that were built into the very fabric of the series. During the Q&A session after the screening, Lana Wachowski mentioned that the finale was filmed in just 26 days; given the complicated nature of filming this show, it's incredible that they managed to wrap things up as well as they did.
I can't really say, though, that it was a truly satisfying conclusion. That narrative tangle was reduced to something like a Gordian knot, and instead of being able to delicately unpick the threads over the course of a season (or two, or three), they had to slice through them. Some of the characters' arcs clearly had to be sacrificed in order to provide some kind of resolution to the larger narrative, and you feel it when you watch the finale. I was cheering and clapping and crying right along with the rest of the theater, but the longer that I sit with my thoughts, the more that I wish I could have seen their vision realized in a more complete fashion.
While I'm less involved now in the "save Sense8" campaign, I do sincerely hope that some of the people reading this, people who haven't already watched the show, might pick it up to see what it's all about. Netflix cancelled the show because there weren't enough people watching relative to the cost of production; I'm hoping that spreading the word might do something to change the equation.
Even if Netflix doesn't decide to continue on with the show, though, I think it is worth watching. It's a visual treat, and an emotional one as well. Love can conquer all, and if you let it, this show will conquer you.
Sense8 - Amor Vincit Omnia, available on Netflix June 8th!