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Sense8: “What Is Human?”

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I’m not sure if there’s a particular term for the type of television that involves multiple point-of-view-characters scattered across the show’s world, with occasionally intersecting plotlines. The Wire is the leader in this, and it was popularized by Game of Thrones, certainly. For most of Sense8’s run thus far, it’s fit well within that category. The tone may be different than the pessimism or nihilism of the other shows, which sets it apart, but I’m not sure that there was anything about Sense8 that couldn’t be done on another show, even if the particular combinations of tone, story, and editing hadn’t been done before.


Until “What Is Human?”, that is, an episode that seemed to go out of its way to accent the artificiality of its form in a way that the multi-perspective television show almost never does. Part of the form of these shows is a sort of pseudo-realism—The Wire involved some unbelievable story turns when you step back, but it was always tied together by a naturalistic form of filming, that made all its parts seem almost historical, not fictional. This has been an essential part of the subgenre ever since—even speculative fiction series like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica have anchored their non-reality in a nominally realistic form.

Sense8 has, for most of its run, appeared to match that. This show has been grounded—these are the important things to happen to these particular characters. While extraordinary things may happen to the sensates, the direction and the editing always feel grounded in actuality—things that could actually happen, given the premise of the series. There have been exceptions—the assassination attempt on Rajan’s father, for example, as the one that seemed least grounded to me.


“What Is Human?” gleefully removes any grounding, loudly proclaiming Sense8’s artificiality to the heavens, saying that this is a goddamn television series, not some sort of pseudo-documentary about the lives of its characters.


The most dramatic example of Sense8’s sudden embrace of artifice is the final scene of the episode, the “birth scene” that no other series could possibly do. No other series would have the combination of a pragmatic reason for characters to remember and feel their own births with a commitment to earnest emotion that would make such a scene feel worthwhile at any level. I’m not certain that I liked this scene, or that it was effective as it could have been, or even what “effective” or “like” mean in this context. But it was like nothing else on television, indeed.

The rest of the episode was significantly more straightforward, but equally built on artifice. Both Lito and Wolfgang hit the climax of their stories so far, and they join forces in both cases, with Lito giving Wolfgang some acting strength and Wolfgang supplying Lito with fighting skill. Those were both cool moments, especially as Lito hasn’t had significant sensate interaction like most of the other characters.


But what made these moments stand out is how they were shot and constructed. With Wolfgang, we got a sequence that was straight out of an action movie. Pulling the bazooka out of the trunk was an utterly absurd, joyous escalation of action movie tropes. It made no sense within the context of realism or naturalism, but that doesn’t matter, as the Berlin sections haven’t been going for that. Wolfgang’s sensate connection to Kala and the relative slowness of being one story among many has served as a distraction from the fact that he’s in a straight-up gangster action movie. But Tom Twyker, directing the Berlin scenes, doesn’t let us forget.


Lito’s confrontation with Joaquin doesn’t have quite so artificial an act as pulling out a bazooka. But its editing is even more artificial—the moment when Lito flicks his cigarette away to the sound of a gunshot is the glorious peak. And the uppercut punch that ends the fight was framed in a perfectly direct way, clearly signifying “end of the fight” formally. This commitment to showing the fight in a certain style helped make up for the somewhat regressive construction of the heroic man showing up to save the damsel in distress.

What makes this artificiality interesting is that it’s at odds with much of the current “Golden Age” of television, which has usually aimed for a naturalistic tone. Some of the biggest successes haven’t been so grounded—consider Breaking Bad’s trick camerawork or The Sopranos’ forays into surrealness—but for many, “gritty” has seemed to mean “quality.” Sense8 has rarely gone for gritty, which might be why it’s received confusing marks from TV critics. But that’s also why it feels so fresh, even when it’s trying an ambitious birthing scene that may not entirely hit its marks.


Stray observations

  • Kala’s dad spells everything out about her moral choices. I’m not certain about this bit either—the directness of the conversation seemed more like it would fit the sensate connection. Or perhaps it’s saying that family can have the same effect as sensates.
  • “Secrets are the center of their identity.” Is Jonas a sensate supremacist?
  • “Killing is easy, when you can feel nothing.” An extremely odd line heading into a scene in which a sensate kills half a dozen people with no apparent emotional distress.
  • “Look. Look at this. Would any of you suck cock for this?” “Sure.” I hope this thug survived.
  • “Getting stoned in your tuxes like it’s 1985.” I think the moral of the story here is “don’t do ecstasy before a concert.”
  • Did Wolfgang go search for the diamonds in the fiery wreckage of the car? Did he care about them?
  • Happy that Chicago got a beautiful view scene like San Francisco did.

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