Photo: Sense8 (Netflix)

When trying to sell people on Sense8 I always suggest they stick with it until at least the fourth episode of the first season. Because more so than the action scenes or the beautiful international cinematography, the 4 Non Blondes karaoke scene demonstrates what Sense8 does best: Emotional catharsis. Though it’s tempting to call it a cerebral sci-fi series, at its heart Sense8 has always been a show that operates first and foremost on an emotional level. For instance, there’s no plot or character reason we needed to watch all eight main characters be born in “What Is Human?” Instead, that birthing montage is the kind of evocative Sense8 set piece we’re meant to appreciate on an emotional level, not an intellectual one.

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“What Family Actually Means” is full of those big moments of emotional catharsis. More so than any other episode this season, it feels like Sense8 turns on the tap and just lets its feelings flow out. The episode’s three big set pieces are each designed to make us feel different things. But the most important thing is that they’re each designed to make us feel.

The first big cathartic scene takes place at one of the most classic movie and TV settings for emotional catharsis: the wedding altar. It starts when Nomi enlists Sun’s help to break the finger of the dickish groomsman who turns their walk down the aisle into an opportunity to be as offensive as possible. But from there the scene plays around with our expectations in order to offer an even bigger emotional payoff. Given how fond Sense8 is of throwing a wrench into the works whenever possible, it’s not particularly surprising that Teagan’s wedding is interrupted by an FBI agent looking to arrest Nomi. But rather than use that setup to put Nomi back on the run, Sense8 takes things in an unexpectedly upbeat direction.

And that starts when Amanita once again proves she’s the best girlfriend on the planet. Freema Agyeman has long been Sense8’s secret weapon but her impassioned wedding speech is perhaps her best showcase yet. While Nomi panics, Amanita puts the pieces together to realize that Nomi’s “E-death” actually did work and Agent Bendix is just operating on old information. He’s been trailing Nomi for so long, he didn’t bother to check whether her warrant was still in the system. And after delivering a few jabs against the male ego and a reminder about the importance of political activism, Amanita saves the day while making Bendix look like an idiot in the process. In throwing Nomi into peril and then immediately saving her, Sense8 creates a sweeping sense of catharsis that only doubles when Nomi’s dad throws Bendix out and refers to his daughter by her correct gender for the first time.

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We’ve spent so little time with Nomi’s dad (indeed, I think this episode is the first time we’ve ever even seen him) that it wouldn’t be wrong to say the daughter moment is unearned. But the scene is so joyful and Jamie Clayton’s reaction is so lovely that it almost doesn’t matter. By the time Teagan and her fiancé are giddily restarting their wedding vows, Sense8 is riding high on good feelings and I’m all too happy to be swept away with them. Teagan’s “Woo!” sums things up perfectly.

The second big cathartic scene is an even sillier one, but it works because of how delightfully it recontextualizes Dani as a character. Dani generally comes across as a well-meaning ditz, but it turns out she’s got some unexpected skills up her sleeve too. Not only does she find the perfect script for Lito, she uses sheer force of will to con her way into a meeting with a big shot Hollywood producer. It’s not the most original sequence in the world and as soon as Dani announces her 58-minute time limit, it’s clear she’s going to deliver. But, again, it works on an emotional level if not a plot one. Lito has been in such a funk and Dani is generally so flighty that seeing them both get big wins is equal parts euphoric and touching.

For its third and final moment of catharsis, Sense8 moves away from the joyful kind and into something much more heart wrenching. As with the previous two big cathartic scenes, there’s something slightly unearned about Will’s father’s death sequence, simply because it’s been so long since their relationship was a major part of the series. The flashbacks do a fairly good job reminding us how lovely their dynamic was in the first season, but the deathbed sequence also gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that a parent dying is such an inherently sad concept. Yet that sort of intellectual nitpick matters less when the sequence is full of gorgeously edited moments like Will’s dad recognizing his son within Riley just as we see a flashback to the first time he held him as a baby. Sense8 also comes up with the absolutely gutting metaphor that Will’s father’s death feels like the time his dad had to ditch their game of catch to go to work. Throw in the shot of school-aged Will begging his father not to go, and it’s the sort of “tug-on-your heartstrings” sequence that’s perfectly designed for a cathartic cry.

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I could see “What Family Actually Means” being a bit of a polarizing episode because so much of your enjoyment of it likely comes down to how well it works for you on an emotional level. For me, at least, I’m willing to forgive the episode its plot contrivances and just ride its emotional wavelength. Outside of those three big scenes, “What Family Actually Means” mostly slows things down and checks in on where each sensate is before we head into the final two episodes of the season. And though I’m guessing those episodes will be a little more action-packed than this one, I’m just hoping they make me feel even half as much as.

Stray observations

  • To check in the other sensates: Wolfgang might have to flee Berlin for India; Sun is gearing up to break into her brother’s big event; Capheus has a bounty on his head and he might be getting a new stepfather; and in addition to questioning her marriage, Kala must also deal with the increasingly skeevy advances/ominous presents of Ajay.
  • And in ongoing mythology/BPO stuff: Riley tracks down Carol Cumberland, the Archipelago member who told her Whispers’ address in “I Have No Room In My Heart For Hate.” Brief flashbacks reveal Carol, Angelica, Whispers, and Kolovi used the mad scientist lab in her basement to turn Raoul into a zombie. Since meeting with Riley, Carol has killed herself and Jonas may have had something to do with it.
  • Having been off the board for so long, Diego is really making up for lost time when it comes to the most charming sensate sidekick competition.
  • Though I’ve never been completely enamored with her storyline, I do love Kala as a character. Her unjustified disdain for her pregnant friend was delightful.
  • That woman standing up and announcing she was a Congressperson before Amanita even finished her speech really made me laugh.

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