What is Sense8 about? As it reaches the climax of each of its storyline, this show is relying more and more on violence, less and less on its joyous human connection. This model of storytelling reached its ideal peak at the end of “I Can’t Leave Her,” as, finally, every member of the sensate cluster used their individual skills to help Will and Riley free themselves. The sensates serve as puzzle pieces, coming together for an inspirational and awesome action sequence, freeing themselves from an impossible situation.
But that’s not the only thing going on in this finale, and I think the fact that the only other story beyond the grand conspiracy component being Wolfgang’s matters. As these last few episodes have shown, Wolfgang is the bad boy. And I don’t just mean in the modern “hot guy who does bad things” television sense, but Wolfgang’s is an unethical, violent criminal from an action film where at best he’s the anti-hero on the edge. His murder of his uncle as Kala watches is the most shockingly violent moment of the entire series, and for once, it’s actually commented upon by the characters in the show itself. Wolfgang announces that he’s a monster and, as the episode progresses, we see the effects of this on the rest of the story. Kala, for example, is still in tears as she helps Riley wake up from her induced unconsciousness.
The key moment comes when Wolfgang takes his role in the escape sequence. He’s the last of the non-present sensates to appear, and he’s given the least introduction. Lito aggressively charms a nurse; Sun cockily demolishes a group of security guards; Capheus cheerfully explains how he knows how to hotwire a vehicle. But Wolfgang? Wolfgang is called up as a last resort, a dash of nihilism as a final emotional gamble to defeat Whispers. What’s more, Wolfgang doesn’t say anything. Will introduces him as the one member of the crew who has the personality to directly confront the helicopter. And all Wolfgang does is look resolute in his coldness. Everyone—including Sense8—knows who he is, and what means.
Even the final scene sets Wolfgang apart. We see Will and Riley on the boat, and then all the other sensates surrounding them. Seven of them are in the initial shot, and then the camera shifts slightly to show Wolfgang. And perhaps that’s a little unfair to the German, whose aggressive approach to keeping himself safe is certainly ethically dubious, even as Capheus/Sun rack up an equivalent body count. But Sense8 calling attention to the fact that (at least) one of its sensates is a “monster” is an important step forward for the series, thanks largely to an ambiguous ending.
As the cluster sails off into the sunset, the show raises more questions than it answers about its thematic meaning. But for the first time I feel like it understands what those questions are and why Sense8 is raising them. At the core, it’s this: why is this cluster special? For most of the series so far, my understanding of the answer is “because these are the characters the creators wanted to include, and the series was built around their stories.” But with the end of the first season, I see another answer: “because this is the only cluster with the skills and makeup to defeat Whispers.”
In other words, that Sun and Wolfgang and Will are all so good at violence and survival might be what makes this cluster special enough to survive Whispers’ assault. The odd focus on violence is really a ruthlessness that aligns the series partially with the modern anti-hero drama, saying that only people willing to go all the way can succeed and make a potentially better world.
Yet Sense8 escalates emotionally from that point as it reaches its climax. Wolfgang is the last sensate who’s not present who takes a role in the escape, but he’s not the last one to make a choice and act. That’s Riley, whose story is Sense8’s biggest gamble in the second half of the season. Not only does Riley have about as traumatic a backstory as is possible outside a wartorn country, but Sense8, after dropping enough clues to be very clear about it before, decides to wallow in it in “I Can’t Leave Her.” It may be excessive—it certainly feels excessive to see just how much trauma Riley went through at the start of the episode. But when the episode circles back and pushes Riley to transcend her pain and save Will and the rest of the cluster, it largely salvages that painful focus.
It also turns Riley into the hero in the end. By giving her the final choice, Sense8 takes the character who doesn’t necessarily have “useful” skills—there is a sort of role-playing game party construction to the rest of the crew—and makes her the emotional certer of the show. It also grants Riley agency after turning her into a damsel in distress, which is a wise move. Sense8 does similar with Nomi—after literally tying her to a bed for several episodes early, she becomes the cluster’s organizer during the assault on the BPO installation, and she fills the role perfectly. Sense8’s ability to give its main characters effective emotional swings, instead of having them play the same note over and over, has been tremendously helpful.
The questions that Sense8 brings up in its ending prove surprisingly satisfying for thinking about the long-term viability of the series. How many clusters are out there? How powerful is Whispers, and what are his goals? What makes this crew special—if they’re special at all? There are enough clues scattered throughout suggesting that Sense8’s lack of answers to these questions is deliberate pacing, not withholding or confusion.
As the first season concluded, the show that Sense8 starting reminding me of, oddly, was Dollhouse. Although Sense8’s start was nowhere near as wobbly as that show’s, there a similar sense of a speculative fiction series with a wide range of ideas struggling to find itself. Even in this finale, there’s a sitcom-like element to scenes where Nomi convinces Will to burn the car, or Lito winking at the other characters/camera. After each of the characters has had their instigating premise resolved, the show has veered more towards a spy drama, (just as Dollhouse did).
Will the next season focus on the conspiracy? Can it possibly create individual stories for each cluster member, with this same cast? Can it continue to find the universal joyous experiences and celebration of diversity that gave it most of its forward momentum in its early episodes? Will it remain an action-focused series, about the most badass crew of sensates rampaging through their problems? That the first season managed to resolve its stories in largely compelling fashion, while opening up these questions, is a great sign for the future—although we’re still not certain if Sense8 has a future. With scenes like Doona Bae chest-kicking a guy over a railing, I hope it does for style alone.
- Speaking of an early emphasis on pain, the opening therapist scene was surprisingly strong and smart for the show.
- “Careful. I heard the shots. And I know the way bullets sound when they hit kevlar.”
- Through the entire season, Kala has felt like the least useful sensate from a practical purpose. Then she constructs a nuclear bomb with common kitchen materials.
- “Men cannot stand to see a beautiful car in trouble.” “It’s a primal instinct. Look at you, you’re hesitating.” “It’s a really nice car.”
- “Do I know you?” “Yeah. We had sex.” Another sitcom-like moment.
“Shit, four guards.” “Is that all?” Doona Bae for queen of everything.
- Another interesting theme: the rejection of suicide as a problem-solver. Especially given the opening scene of the series, this was a fascinating direction to take.
- See you all next year, I hope. If everything goes well, we’ll talk about the weather. (That’s a Babylon 5 thing. I couldn’t leave you without another Babylon 5 thing.)