Episodic construction can tell a great deal about a TV show. What does Sense8 think is important? What does it build toward? In the first few episodes, this was relatively consistent: the individual characters’ stories built their own tension, and then something dramatic happened, the other sensates might interact with one another, and the episode ended. Last week this form changed, rather strangely to me, by putting a thrilling multi-sensate action scene in the middle, then ending on a less-related assassination attempt.
“Death Doesn’t Let You Say Goodbye” is already an odd episode, in that it’s built entirely around people talking about pain. A quiet, pathos-filled hour can be a great change of pace—and it is here—as long as it’s not overdone and still contains a feeling of progression.
Normally the sense of progression comes from the viewer. Information that will “change everything” is delivered, we get some dramatic music, and fade to black. And Sense8 had that opportunity, with two scenes, running concurrently, each explaining the premise of the sensates and the BPO, and ending on the revelation that Jonas and Angelica had worked as sensate hunters. This could change everything, and reframe the entire series! And yet Sense8 thinks that it’s how the episode should begin, not end.
The rest of the episode is spent not dealing with the fallout from this, but instead each of the sensates’ personal tragedies. This is what Sense8 thinks is most important. It’s a surprising gamble, as the show hasn’t always succeeded with overly earnest conversations. But by framing each of the conversations about very specific personal pain (and the joy preceding it), Sense8 gets the most out of its actors and characters.
Sense8 uses its sensate connections wisely to accent the characters’ pain, without overwhelming. The episode’s main character is Lito, who has three distinct scenes, all fallout from Hernando’s breakup. In the first and last, he’s separate from the other members of the cluster. In the middle scene, he has a long conversation about queerness with Nomi.
These are the scenes that give us the sense of progression for the episode. In the first, Lito is making a connection with a bartender, who’s picking up Lito’s signals perfectly even as Lito doesn’t realize he’s giving them off. Lito’s response is to withdraw into his persona—his “I’m not a faggot” line stings both for the sudden slur and because of its obvious artificiality.
The sensate connection, however, allows Lito to have an interaction that can touch directly on his inner self. And this is one of the themes of the show: what if you had someone that you had no ability or reason to hide from? Nomi knows Lito. Lito knows Nomi. For maybe the first time, Lito can let his guard down. The scene itself is beautiful—the Diego Rivera museum feels like the most solid location in the Mexico City sequences. Jamie Clayton and Miguel Angel Silvestre both pull a great deal of emotion out of relatively simple stories—a perfect first date, and identity-based bullying.
It sets up the end of the episode—Lito hitting rock bottom—as something necessary. Lito needed to realize that his lifestyle made happiness impossible in order to get any kind of forgiveness (and motivation to clean up his messes.) It’s a straightforward character arc: he has to deal with his shame in order to get better.
“Shame” ends up defining the episode in odd ways. What’s fascinating about Riley’s interactions with Ylsa, an older Icelandic sensate, is that Ylsa goes out of her way to add shame to the joy the new sensates have been experiencing. The budding romance between Riley and Will (and Wolfgang and Kala by association) is disdained immediately as “pathological” and “narcissistic.”
I like this idea in dramatic terms because it sets up a sensate cultural battle. Ylsa works within the system to try to save the sensates, but it’s also clear that she’s adopted the language and beliefs of BPO—that sensates are a problem that need to be controlled, as opposed to a connection to be celebrated. There are echoes of many identity-based struggles here, with older activists wanting to compromise to achieve smaller victories. But it’s also about the dramatic tensions within Sense8 itself—it wants to be an earnest show about the joy of sharing one’s life with a group, but there’s also a great danger in that. Likewise, the show has to balance itself between its emotional connections, its individual stories, and the wider conspiracy plot.
It’s to Sense8’s credit that, at this point in the series, the other conversations about pain and loss and emotional change are strong, regardless of how connected they are. After Nomi and Lito, the other main conversation between the sensates occurs between Riley and Capheus. We learn about their past traumas, as Riley lost her husband and child, while Capheus and his mother had to give up his sister. But the scene where Sun’s father comes into prison, they spar briefly, but he earnestly describes his change of heart is just as strong. Kala and Wolfgang’s scenes, with their extended family, are a little less dramatic and memorable, but still fit in the rest of the episode quite nicely (thanks in large part to being beautifully shot, to be fair—I loved the way Ganesha was framed in the corner of Kala’s scenes).
Last review, I discussed how getting all the stories into tonally similar areas was a crucial part of what Sense8 should be doing. “Death Doesn’t Let You Say Goodbye” is a perfect example of that. As the season moves into its final stretch of episodes, one that puts all the characters into emotionally raw situations, helping us understand their motivations, does exactly that. The action will return—this is a Wachowski story, after all—but now we’ve got more meaning for it.
- “Don’t look at him.” A simple, effective way to turn Whispers into a horror movie villain.
- The piano tinkling “Mad World” during the middle of the episode was certainly not subtle, but well-done nonetheless.
- “I play heroes all the time but in real life I’m a coward.”
- “I have not slept since you came here.” “I’ve never slept so well.” Damn, Sun. Damn.