Five episodes in, Sense8’s structure has become clear. It’s eight intercut, localized, relatively generic short films, given personality and connection by the show’s premise. That premise is not used as the main driver of the show—except in one or two character’s cases—but instead as a spice, to give forward momentum to what would otherwise be a cliché.
Take the climax of “Art Is Like Religion.” Unlike the first few episodes, it’s not an action sequence, and unlike the fourth episode, it’s not some sort of only-on-Sense8 montage. It’s just Kala’s wedding, which falls apart in a relatively predictable way. The stress of Kala’s lack of love for her partner in what’s supposed to be a love-based match causes her to collapse at what appears to be the critical point of the ceremony. All of this flows entirely from what’s come before in India: Kala’s “I’m not that excited face” as everyone tells her to be excited is almost the entirety of the character, so in order to stop it from being dramatically inert, something had to happen.
Yet it’s the precise details that keep it from simply being a predictable non-love story. What makes Kala collapse is not simply her stress, it’s that the stress manifests as Wolfgang, appearing naked to her, saying “You don’t love him.” Suddenly there’s a third dimension: Would Kala have completed the ceremony without Wolfgang’s appearance? Does she love him suddenly, as a few of the scenes of the last couple episodes might suggest? And how will this tie into his particular story?
His story, after all, feels like a straightforward genre piece as well. He’s surprisingly succeeded in a big score, and now he has to manage the fact that his family suspects him, and that his friend Felix has loose lips and behavior—before everything goes all Reservoir Dogs. Wolfgang’s story hasn’t been influenced much yet by the other sensates from the other side, but I’m still interested for a couple reasons: I can’t wait to see his criminal skills used by another sensate, and because Tom Twyker’s direction for the Berlin scenes is incredibly good-looking, every shot.
There’s one character whose story is almost totally based on the mythology of the show, which I find an interesting and probably wise choice. Will doesn’t have much home life, but he does have the clearest connection to whatever conspiracy is occurring. This ends up keeping the story moving at a regulated pace—as long as he gets roughly as much screen time as the other characters, and the reactions stay based on his characterization, the mythology is just one part of the whole instead of dominating proceedings. I also quite like that his partner is happy to help him down this rabbit hole—that’s a cliché avoided.
Nomi is the other character who seems to have direct connection to the conspiracy, but her story is still being told through the lens of her trans identity. Normally I’d say this is a good thing—and I certainly did in the second episode—but as I said then, it’s a difficult tightrope to walk. And without much time spent on it, it means it’s a lot easier to fall off, as is the case with “Art Is Like Religion” and the one notable scene between Nomi and Amanita. Already knowing that Amanita is the perfect girlfriend, her reassurances come across as excessively saccharine. “Impossibility is a kiss away from reality” is, well, “bad first season episode of Babylon 5”-level dialogue.
Meanwhile, Riley’s film ended in the first episode with the drug heist gone wrong, so as far as I can tell, she’s only been onscreen since so Tuppence Middleton can react adorably to the sensate feeling. Which, well, she’s good at, so keep it up.
Perhaps the best use of the sensate premise to remix a generic storyline comes from Korea, where Sun has to decide whether to take the fall for her family or serve herself, since they never have. Sun could very well have been—she is—a cliché of a stone-faced East Asian martial arts expert. But because of the sensate element of the show, Capheus shows up and convinces her to talk through it. And, I think, it also helps the viewers too—Sun’s family is obviously not worthy of respect on their own, but with Capheus teasing out the idea that this was Sun’s promise to her mother, her taking the fall suddenly becomes a sympathetic decision, instead of inexplicable.
Finally, there’s Lito, who starts having notable interactions with the other sensates, but not really explicable ones. The menstruation humor, I think, could have been worse. Meanwhile I continue to enjoy Lito’s scenes on their own—that he seems to have a different film with the same director every day is hilarious. And watching the stuntwork, even as it was stuntwork, was great fun.
Episodes like this indicate the core tension of Sense8. Each individual story may or may not be good enough to stand on its own, but they can be great with the science-fiction addition. Yet doing that too often can make the rest of the story seem unimportant. With this episode, Sense8 erred more on the side of original stories, which worked fairly well this time—but also feels like a promise of more to come.
- “Intelligence would have meant doing what you were told.” Cute.
“I was just struck by her beauty. And the knowledge that all beauty is temporary.”
- That Amanita and Nomi met in a “tiny bathroom in the Lexington” is a nice little San Francisco touch—I lived half a block from that bar. Unfortunately there’s a sad end to that story.
- “I’m not digging that one, what’s possibility two?”
- More cuteness from Kala. “Auntie, it’s okay. We have the internet.” “Ohh. I knew that thing was good for something.”