Given how much I enjoy Sense8, it’s remarkable how little I care about its plot. A good chunk of the first season was spent introducing shadowy organizations, complex mythologies, and characters with questionable motives. Yet when I think back on it, the moments that stand out to me are the ones that function more as mood pieces than as narrative twists: The 4 Non Blondes karaoke scene, the orgy, the heist sequences in which the cluster pools its skills, the quiet moments of emotional sensate connection, and the comedic ones too, like Lito experiencing the symptoms of Sun’s period. Hands down the best thing about Sense8 is the simple yet elegant visual language the show has created for its central mental link. I can’t imagine I’ll ever tire of watching the sensates jump back and forth between each other’s worlds during a single conversation, and that’s what I’m most looking forward to watching this season as well.
Those sorts of lush metaphysical moments are a little too few and far between for this to be an all-time great Sense8 episode. But it does serve as an effective reintroduction to the series. And it continues the confidence Sense8 found in its Christmas special. Rewatching some of the first season to prepare for these reviews, I was shocked to discover that—orgy aside—Will and Lito don’t even officially meet each other until the season finale. Indeed, the finale’s final shot on the boat is the first time we ever see all eight sensates together. The Christmas special rid itself of that tentativeness and just let the sensates revel in their connection to one another in montage after montage. And after watching the show spend so long developing its visual language, it was a joy to watch an episode simply exist in it.
“Who Am I?” maintains that conceptual confidence, but it does its fair share of legwork in introducing the show’s season-long plots too, both for each individual sensate and for the group as a whole. The Yuletide interlude dipped its toe back into the show’s conspiracy-heavy waters, but this premiere throws viewers into the deep end of Whispers, BPO, genetic evolution, and even the missing girl Sara Patrell, who was a big part of Will’s story before he became focused on rescuing Riley. It’s less dreamy—and I would argue less enjoyable—than the Christmas special, but it gets some necessary table setting out of the way.
So far the show’s second season looks like it will largely maintain the structure of the first: Will, Riley, and Nomi are still the sensates most focused on the larger Whispers conspiracy while Capheus, Sun, Kala, Wolfgang, and Lito are focused first and foremost on their own personal dilemmas and only called upon to help as needed. Yet one theme linking all eight sensates in this premiere is the concept of language.
Because of their connection, the sensates have surpassed the need for language as their primary mode of communication. They can show each other their problems rather than simply describing them. And they can experience emotional and experiential links in a way regular human beings can’t even imagine. That would seem to be a huge advantage, given that language is a comparably limited form of communication. Just look at the way Lito and Capheus both struggle when asked to sum up their lives in a quick sound bite. It’s only because they’re able to pool their mental resources with their fellow sensates that they can come up with elegant verbal answers.
Yet as Professor Kolovi brings up in his lecture, there are pros and cons to telepathic communication. For one thing, the sensates have entirely given up their sense of privacy. They can’t keep secrets from each other anymore than you can keep a secret from yourself. And that’s especially a problem for Will, who has a connection not only to his fellow sensates but to Whispers as well. That means he has to literally shut himself off from the world in order to limit the information he can pass on to Whispers.
One thread introduced in the first season but really picked up here is the idea that sensates are an independent species separate from homo sapiens. This “homo sensorium” distinction lends an X-Men-like persecuted minority element to the season’s storytelling. But Sense8 is smart about not painting the sensates as simply the better, more evolved version of humanity. Language and communication is far more complicated than that, even for non-sensates.
After all, Riley’s dad can’t literally read her mind, but he does immediately know when she’s lying. He may not be a sensate, but his ability to communicate isn’t quite as limited as Kolovi suggests. And, indeed, Riley’s ability to keep secrets from her dad is the one thing that keeps him safe. His non-sensate status is a benefit, both for him and for her. Elsewhere, Sara Patrell’s mom can’t see her missing daughter the way sensates can, but she listens and believes them when they visit her house on some sort of pilgrimage. Like Amanita and her mother, Mrs. Patrell is the rare human being who has completely opened her mind to the idea of sensates. Language may be her primary mode of communication, but she’s willing to believe there are others with more tangible connections to the universe too. Her monologue about accepting that her daughter’s life lives on in unexpected ways is the sort of beautiful, heady thing Sense8 does so well.
But on the whole, however, those sorts of cerebral concepts largely take a back seat as Sense8 checks in on each sensate and moves the season’s pieces into place. Will Gorski has always been the character most tied to Sense8’s central mythology and it’s been frustrating (albeit intentionally so) to watch him waste away in a drugged up stupor for months on end. But that makes it all the more satisfying to watch Will and the sensates finally get a leg up on Whispers. It’s always fun when characters are a little genre savvy, and Riley turns out to be just that as she uses clever fake clues to trick Whispers into thinking Will is still in Iceland when they’re actually in Amsterdam (I don’t think Will is in on the plan, although I’m not 100 percent sure on that). And the sequence in which Will, Nomi, and Riley search Whispers’ office for hints about his location and his employer is the sort of simple but exhilarating thing Sense8 does so well.
“You think you’re hunting us?” Will asks after they’ve deduced where Whispers is and who he’s working for. “We’re coming for you.” The sensates aren’t fucking around and neither is Sense8.
- Welcome back to Sense8 coverage! Rowan Kaiser and I will be alternating reviews this season with a new one dropping every day but Sunday.
- Though my rewatch reminded me that the mystery of Sara Patrell was a fairly big part of the show’s first season, she’s not one of the elements that particularly stuck with me during the show’s hiatus. Thankfully, this episode does a good job getting viewers back up to speed.
- The interview montage is one of the cheesier things Sense8 has done, but the show is so excited to wear its heart on its sleeve that it’s almost hard to fault it for it.
- Sense8 was really trapped between a rock and a hard place with Aml Ameen’s departure. I’m willing to give Toby Onwumere some time to settle into playing Capheus, but he doesn’t have the instant charisma Ameen did.
- The white substance Riley feeds Will is an Icelandic yogurt called skyr. That didn’t stop me from imagining it was mayo and being thoroughly disgusted.
- Riley’s dad continues to be the best.