Amanita is the perfect girlfriend. When we meet her, she’s having what appears to be great sex. She follows this up with some romantic lovey-doveyness. Then we flash back to her threatening violence against anyone who questions her new partner’s identity. Then she threatens to burn down an institution that threatens her girlfriend’s body, and follows through on that threat!
In this episode, Amanita is the only person to talk shit about “What’s Up” the song whose chorus gives this episode its title and the best sequence of Sense8 so far. Nomi, drug-addled and filled with adrenaline after her hospital escape, starts trying to sing along. Amanita, with the smug, sly sneer of an A.V. Club regular, responds “4 Non Blondes. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a lobotomy.” (To be fair, she maintains her good girlfriend status by singing along with Nomi, relaxing her in apparent safety.)
It’s not that Amanita is wrong exactly. At best, in terms of judging music as music, “What’s Up” is an overplayed cliché. But that’s not why it’s here (or, perhaps, that’s exactly why it’s here). It represents a sort of universality of experience, an anthem of defiant joy that works that for escaping from evil doctors as well as impressing the party during drunken karaoke.
But it works? In the year of our Golden Age of Television ‘15, a music montage set to “What’s Up” turns into an unabashed celebration of both humanity and the potential of a storytelling medium and I don’t have a single bad thing say about it. It’s not that I even particularly like or go out of my way to listen to that song, either. But it’s a song that I—as a college-educated white person in his 30s—manage to have enough emotional connection to that I can understand all the characters on the show having an emotional connection to it.
Hell, it’s not even my connection—my partner, who went to the same college as I did, slightly later, had it sung at her graduation, which was the last graduation before the school was announced to be closing. Just by talking to her about how special that was to her gave it a strange sort of appeal to me, and Sense8 took full advantage of that to use one of those last vestiges of the monoculture as a way to tie all its stories together.
As should be the case from my experience, clearly it doesn’t take much to find meaning from “What’s Up” for someone like me. Now, maybe the Wachowskis were overstepping in prioritizing this particular song, turning American monoculture into worldwide monoculture. This article, for example, does a great job examining the show’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of diversity and storytelling, in particular describing why focus on songs like “What’s Up,” and attempts to appeal to people like me, subverts its overall goals (it’s also a great piece of TV criticism in general, highly recommended).
But it’s also a gamble. It’s a gamble that enough of it’s audience will understand what’s going on (I’m sorry) to forgive the cliches and let the point of the scene, the universal feelings of love and joy and defiance and victory, overwhelm any feelings of music snobbery or worries about focus on my demographic fade away. This was a fantastic scene, bludgeoning any cynicism away with sheer joy.
What’s even better, the rest of the episode supported this. Unlike the relative incoherence of the last episode, everything in “What’s Going On” was built around a theme of the consequence of choices. Capheus’ local heroism gets him recognized by a local leader of ill repute. Sun has to get her brother to realize the consequences of his choices—and has her own to make, whether she wants to take the fall so her family business can live. The Germans, meanwhile, have some hot merchandise for their surprisingly successful heist to get rid of. Kala discovers that her soon-to-be in-laws aren’t merely quirky modernists, but feared by the locals.
What’s more, there were touches of formal excellence throughout the episode that gave it energy and warmth. The Berlin scenes were relatively quiet in simple plot terms—the brothers sell their merchandise, then celebrate with their money. But they seemed solid and grounded, especially in terms of locations chosen and in the actors. The monologue from the Jewish appraiser about his mother’s escape from the Holocaust, and Wolfgang’s understanding of it a nice touch for a character we know little about on an internal level. “And we both know that you’re going to say yes because I was listening. That’s what your mother would do.”
My favorite little touch, though, was in the Mexico City scene. Lito’s obsession with his interaction with Joaquin means he totally misses Hernando’s mood and ignores the food, hurting Hernando’s feelings up until Daniella quickly reads the situation and soothes the situation. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but it wasn’t the broad strokes many of the stories have utilized thus far. It’s also a nice way for the show to demonstrate that what would easily be a parasitic relationship is far more symbiotic.
Another interesting twist of the episode was that it put the cool action sequence in the middle, instead of the end as the first three episodes had. This proved to be a good idea because the scene itself—Sun busting into the sex club to find her brother, with Will’s police training aiding her—was rather short and didn’t have a narrative climax. But it pulsed with awesome energy, pulling in a quick rush of adrenaline with sheer style. I mentioned in the last review that one of the problems with multi-POV shows is that they feel like everything leading up to the climax is window dressing—scenes like that one are a great way to maintain interest through the entire episode.
“What’s Going On” offers the best dialogue of the series, an excellent action sequence, and a joyous montage taking full advantage of Sense8’s premise and doing something no other television show could really do. I’d seen some binge-watchers say that this was the episode that hooked them, so I was looking forward to it. It more than lived up to that reputation.
- “Our existence depends on sheer impossibility.” Straczynski philosophy or Wachowski philosophy? Vote now!
- Another great, grounded sequence—the Indian families negotiating the length of their ceremony. “Six hours is the starting point. Pay him double, out in three!” “And how much not to perform it at all?”
- I thought it was interesting that the cab Nomi and Amanita got into didn’t show the driver at all. Seems like a horror trope and undercut a bit of the energy of the escape.
- Fellow A.V. Club freelancer Caroline Siede mentioned to me that critics only got the first three episodes to do their pre-air reviews, and that was somewhat baffling given this episode’s strength and only-on-Sense8 ending. This may explain the tepid reviews—poor decision on Netlix’s part.
- Is drunken karaoke ever a bad storytelling device on television? I don’t even like karaoke in reality, but it seems guaranteed to bring out the best in characters.
- Reminder: if you want to talk about stuff that happens in future episodes, feel free, just mark SPOILERS on your comment.