The first season of Sense8 was an enthusiastic endorsement of the idea of connectivity. It was a show designed around the love of building community and connectivity wherever you could find it. It ended up being an earnest, joyful celebration of the universalities of human experience (with kick-ass martial arts). To say that it was the most hopeful show on television would not have been an overstatement.
With that said I wanted to avoid a discussion of Sense8, the Earnest Joyful Show About Humanity’s Potential as Redemption of the Disastrous Year 2016. Sense8’s first season, after all, aired before Donald Trump even declared his candidacy. Almost a year and a half later, its “Christmas Special” appears in a world that considers global interconnectivity somewhat differently than it did in early 2015. A hack writer, I figured, would compare Sense8’s feeling of fundamental hope in humanity to the Trump and Brexit votes and general rise of right-wing “populism” in 2016, and I certainly wasn’t going to do that.
And then Sense8 went and set the emotional climax of its “Christmas Special” to “Hallelujah” and I fucking lost it. I don’t think there’s anything more on goddamn brand for Sense8 than picking the most predictable for musical cue possible for a celebration of the universality of a single religion’s biggest holiday and somehow making it work.
Let’s bear in mind that for many, the turning point of the first season of Sense8 was karaoke to one of the most cliched songs in the English language, “What’s Up” — and then the Christmas Special goes and one-ups that in terms of earnest cliche that somehow actually engenders the exact emotional reaction it’s aiming for! (It’s also entirely possible that the song picked for the Christmas scene wasn’t originally “Hallelujah”—it is not diegetic in any way, meaning it could have chosen after Leonard Cohen’s death specifically to act as an emotional capstone.) Combine this with the global dance party AND a new orgy scene, and the “Christmas Special” was clearly making a play to be the most Sense8 thing to ever Sense8.
Basically, Sense8 went and did the most goddamn Sense8 thing possible—and there’s no ground to complain on, because just like the first season, whatever weaknesses are there are browbeaten to the point where, by the end, they seem like nitpicking in the face of something truly special. It can’t possibly actually redeem a year where the English-speaking parts of the world seemed to embrace apocalypse so disastrously, but the fact that it tries, and that it seems to acknowledge that it’s trying, and does some emotional good regardless? Just….wow.
But let’s take a step back and treat this as an episode of television in addition to being, well, the emotional catharsis I’ve apparently needed for a couple months now. This is…weird. I can’t think of a recent American TV show that utilized a Christmas episode an essential means for fans to stay connected to the series. We do one-off Christmas specials, sure, and plenty of shows have Christmas episodes integrated into their seasons. But as a discrete part of a show, that’s important but not part of the flow? That’s for British television, so it’s gotta prove its worth on Netflix.
The way it does so is somewhat bizarre: the Sense8 Christmas Special acts as a pilot for the TV series. In its first half, it meticulously sets up its premise both at a macro level, with Will and Jonah talking about, and at the individual level. After the end of season one, each sensate has some new source of dramatic tension.
Kala is dealing with her loveless marriage and awkward psychic affair with Wolfgang. The German, meanwhile, is dealing with the fallout of his attack on his uncle, which has started a gang war in Berlin. Lito has been outed by the tabloids. Sun’s prison time grows increasingly intolerable and dangerous. Nomi and Will are both hiding from the government and Whispers, the former aided by Amanita, the latter by Riley (whose personal story has been totally subsumed by Will’s here, after being arguably the main character of the first season.)
And then there’s Capheus, whose recasting caused a fair amount of drama for Sense8 fans this past year. Sense8 lampshades the recasting by having his first scene be an oblique discussion change (“People care about that shit. Face is important.”) while masking the face of the new actor, Toby Onwumere. The bit is cute, though it goes a little bit too long.
As for Onwumere himself, well, he’s arguably the least utilized of the core eight characters apart from Riley (possibly because of the reshoots and edits demanded by the recasting), so it’s hard to say. Still, he does seem to have a different energy than the previous actor, Aml Ameen, whose boyish charm seems to have been replaced by someone a little more withdrawn and composed. We’ll see what happens when Capheus gets more story.
But beyond the “Christmas Special” acting like a pilot in terms of plot, it’s also fascinating to watch it act like a pilot in terms of theme. One of the main complains I remember about Sense8 in its early reviews was that there didn’t necessarily seem like there should be a reason for it to exist beyond the Wachowskis blowing money on an action/martial arts extravaganza. Over the course of the season it became clear that Sense8 was a celebration of universal human experience, the possibilities of global interconnectivity, AND an action/martial arts extravaganza.
There’s no such confusion here. At multiple points, Sense8 fires thematic volleys. Hernando defense of the leaked photos of him and Lito having sex is the first salvo: “And I have suggested before in this class…Art is love made public.” Toward the end of the episode, when Bug describes the family he’s found with his internet friends—“But we’ve never actually met. Physically. Make sense?”—Nomi knows exactly what he’s talking about.
The big thematic defense comes from Kala, though, trying to describe to her husband why she feels trapped despite being in an ostensibly perfect situation. In her attempts to describe the pain she’s getting from Lito, specifically, at that moment, she says: “Okay. Okay fine. For starters, there are people, people that I feel connected to all over the world that are innocent and yet they’re locked up in prison. And-and-and they are trapped by circumstance or by things that have happened in the past. And then there are people without the privilege that we have and they feel threatened because they love a person that the world has decided that they shouldn’t love.”
I don’t think the series has ever been clearer about what it’s trying to do than this. The specific experiences of the sensates are intended to stand in for humanity as a whole. By helping each other, they’re helping everyone.
And yet Rajan, when confronted with Kala apparently demanding that he use their enormous wealth to help the less fortunate…somehow makes it all about his dick. I don’t really understand his logic, but it’s used to set up Kala’s point of dramatic tension for the episode (which eventually becomes literally about his dick) rather clumsily.
To be honest, much of the first half of the episode is clumsy. Nomi and Amanita declaring the Lito sex pics to be hot and wondering why nobody gets it might be the most thuddingly obvious the show has ever been. “I just don’t get it. Why can’t the rest of the world see what we see?” I wouldn’t be surprised if people gave up on this halfway through, to be honest.
(The episode itself is treated as Season 2 on Netflix‘s browser, which makes its pilot-like nature especially bizarre. It’s possible that they expected that the “Christmas Special” might given its own show status in Netflix’s system, like Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life was.)
This might be the J. Michael Straczynski influence, as well. The man certainly knows how to construct a television episode and storyline, even if it involves barreling through the necessary exposition and setup awkwardly. Both the dance party scene and the group sex scene likewise seem like they’re in there because that’s the sort of thing Sense8 does. They have their charms, don’t get me wrong, but it also kinda felt like a 2000-era rap video of the Wachowskis showing off their cool friends going to the hottest parties all across the world.
Yet there is emotional payoff, coming in the second half of the episode. Once the “Christmas Special” hits the hour mark (almost exactly), suddenly it shifts from “setup” to “payoff.” Boom, there’s our Doona Bae ass-kicking scene, and we’re off to the cathartic races. The “Christmas Special” is actually pretty light on the action, given that the bombastic spectacle of its group action sequences were the most unambiguously great moments of the first season.
Instead, Sense8 works on emotional catharsis. After spending the first half of the special arguing in favor of global interconnectivity building community, Sense8 goes back to arguably the simplest form of connection: parents and children. The emotional heart of the episode involves two of the sensates connecting to their parents. Will calls his father, (the always-welcome Joe Pantoliano), and Lito goes home for Christmas, seeing his mother for the first time since he was forced out of the closet.
Both scenes land big emotional payoffs, in entirely different ways. For Will and his dad, it’s inconclusive. Will wants to talk to his dad, desperately, and the love they have for one another shines through—they just can’t connect. It also serves as setup for the overarching plot, with Whispers going and threatening the older Gorski where will can see it.
But the scenes with Lito’s mother are just pure resolution. Lito’s scenes throughout the episode are one of its biggest strengths. He’s emotionally raw throughout the episode, sometimes angry, sometimes depressed, sometimes sexy. But when he admits that his biggest fear is meeting his mother, and then they go for Christmas. All of the cultural baggage of the holiday, plus the need for familial acceptance is loaded up.
Then Lito’s mother comes out and delivers a theatrical monologue to, essentially, all the haters and the losers, to the sycophants who deserted her when her famous son became controversial. It is a glowing endorsement of unconditional love, and while it’s not subtle in any way, its charms more than make up for it. “I know you could have denied it all, like so many others. But you didn’t. And I have never been prouder of you.”
Sense8 follows that up with the “Hallelujah” scene, showing Christmas traditions across the world. My first thought, as this started, was “Oh my god, are they seriously doing ‘Hallelujah’?” But the sheer beauty and scope of each scene won me over quickly, and when they got to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, I was wrecked.
And damn, stuff like that makes this show difficult to review. Like, how do I give a grade to a special that contains lines where two characters woodenly demand that the rest of the world find their friends’ sex hot AND one of the most emotional things I’ve seen on television? Was this just expert emotional manipulation from creators who excel at that (See: Cloud Atlas, “Sleeping in Light”) or was this genuine?
The answers: B+, always, and I think it was genuine. I think this is a show that is so committed to making these grand emotional statements that don’t necessarily fit in how we expect stories to move that they come across as awkward at first. But it has the money and the structure to land ‘em more often than not.
After that, the final climactic fight, between Wolfgang and a Berlin gang’s thugs, feels more obligatory than anything. It’s not bad or anything, although it doesn’t come anywhere near the exhilaration of the first season’s best fights. It just felt tacked-on after the massive wave of emotion immediately prior—I didn’t even want to get to the fireworks factory anymore after that, but there we were.
So where does this leave Sense8, with Season 2 less than half a year away? On the one hand, there’s a strong straightforward setup for the story moving forward. Each character has a new phase of their journey, built on their climax from the last season. On the other hand, it seems more like a straightforward continuation of the existing stories than any kind of expansion. This may not be a bad thing—Sense8’s commitment to trying to tell the mostly grounded stories of its characters instead of turning into a grand conspiracy show in every episode is impressive—but second seasons usually do introduce new characters and attempt to expand their storylines. We’ll in a few months.
I’m glad to see Sense8 is back, and even more delighted to see how uncompromisingly it’s leaned what made its first season so special (for better and worse). The “Christmas Special” probably won’t change anyone’s minds about the show, but that’s okay. It’ll be our little secret.
- Capheus and his buddy jumping in front of the exploding Van Damme is the funniest Sense8’s ever been, that’s for damme sure.
- Dear Kala, “spite” is not the best reason to lose your virginity.
- “The audience is not legally entitled to truth.”
- “Come on, I can’t get shot again. I just got out of the hospital. That would be terrible plotting.” Felix no don’t do this to yourself!
- Jamie Clayton got herself a nice little gig doing promo video for the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was relevant to my interests and may be relevant to yours.