By the end of its second episode, Sense8 has started to make sense. Not in plot terms—the mystery is still vague, though we have some ideas about how far it goes, seeing the government directly involved. No, what we get in “I Am Also A We” is a sense of why this show exists, what its thematic goals are, how the premise feeds into the storytelling, and why this particular form of speculative fiction is what the producers want to utilize.
In the first review I mentioned that Nomi, the trans character in San Francisco, was the character painted with the broadest strokes, thanks to an obvious scene where her trans identity becomes a point of contention. But that setup pays off narratively in the second episode, focused on Nomi in the same way the first was focused on Riley.
What Sense8 does in this episode is combine Nomi’s character history with the science fiction aspect. First, it utilizes a strong standalone monologue from her for Pride, continuing, I think, the San Francisco specificity that started in the premiere with the dance piece. Nomi’s family hates that she’s transitioned, so when they gain power over her by putting her in a hospital with a life-threatening condition, they take full advantage in order to reject her identity. Nomi’s mistrustful of their goal because, well, her mother seems horrible. Unlike last episode’s somewhat generic “this character is trans!” confrontation, this one feels personal and tied to character history. A lot of that comes from Sandra Fish’s superbly patronizing performance as Nomi’s mother; every passive-aggressive “Michael” out of her mouth feels like a slap in the face.
Then the show takes advantage of its science-fiction premise by tying that into Nomi’s history. Is she hallucinating Jonas because of her supposed illness, or was he real and the doctors and her family are trying to ruin her? This isn’t a case where the science-fiction part of the story is being used as a metaphor standing in for something else—like, say, District 9 using aliens to discuss the legacy of apartheid. In this case, the science-fiction is inextricably linked to Nomi’s trans identity. She’s mistrustful of her family and there’s a conspiracy out to get her.
That’s potentially a more difficult path to take: If the character side overwhelms the science-fiction, then the science-fiction feels irrelevant; if the science-fiction plot overwhelms the characterization, then it can feel like the real-world issues are just there to make the story seem serious. For me—not a trans person—it nailed the emotions initially, then grabbed my attention with the plot connection after.
While Nomi’s plot connection was obvious, that obviousness also helped the other main character of the episode, Will. He and Nomi are undergoing a similar process: A recent, Jonas-related event is bringing the divisions of his life into focus. In the first episode we saw him save a young gangbanger, and now every police officer he interacts with is giving him the side-eye, as though saving lives isn’t part of his job.
This is giving him a healthy dose of skepticism, which immediately comes into play when a Homeland Security official shows up to declare that Jonas is a terrorist, “the worst of the worst.” Will, like Nomi, is then given a choice: believe in his own subjective experience (and the show’s premise!) or believe in what his parent and authority figures are telling him. And speaking of impressive acting jobs by parents, Joe Pantoliano as Will’s dad was as excellent as ever.
I’m also becoming impressed with how formally interesting the show’s intercutting is in story terms. Whenever there’s a tense moment, either physically or emotionally, there’s an added tension of “will someone hallucinate something wrong here?” that I find surprisingly effective. This episode used it primarily for comedy, with the interplay of Wolfgang’s sex and Kala’s engagement ceremony, but it’s always there as a potential issue.
What I’m especially interested in now is how the differing tones of the various character storylines will fit together tonally. We got to see more of Lito, the Mexico City-based actor this episode. But while all the other characters seemed to have more interaction with the main storyline, his scenes were almost entirely a sex farce, as he tried to keep his homosexuality secret from a sexually aggressive actress friend. I still quite liked it, especially as Miguel Angel Silvestre impresses me more and more with each scene. Likewise, the Bollywood dance sequence was incredibly entertaining, but borderline nonsensical if I was only looking for stuff relating to plot.
But how can this integrate? I ask not because I think it can’t be done, but instead because I’m really curious about what the answer will be after Nomi and Will’s stories impressed me so much. Sense8 makes sense to me now, and I’m interesting in watching it put itself together.
- “Well it’s not hacking if you get paid for it.”
- “Why be jealous of the arm, when you already have my heart?” “What movie is that from?”
- “Beer is innocent. Don’t take sides.” I did like how the retired cops were pissed off up until the beer broke the ice. Like it was a performance more than a major issue.
- “They tell you drugs are like shoes. Everyone needs them. But they don’t always fit.”
- “I’m gonna lose my mind.” “No. It’s just expanding.” This would have been a near-perfect over-literal J. Michael Straczynski line except for the deliciously smug way that Naveen Andrews delivered it. Great juxtaposition of the Blues Brothers-esque car chase with his confident control of the entire situation.
- I don’t think Seoul was in the episode at all, and Nairobi was there for about five seconds? Interesting choice, given the Netflix model’s possibilities. I hope both get more airtime soon, especially as it leads to an odd situation where the white characters are getting much more attention early on than the non-white characters.
- It’ll make me happy if Sense8 gets strong enough fandom that they start shortening episode titles and this ridiculous one becomes “IAAAW.”