(This piece contains spoilers for Netflix’s Sense8 – you have been warned!)
Netflix has come under fire recently for its tendency to giving a platform to progressive, inclusive and boundary-pushing shows (see Exhibit A, The OA), before cancelling them after just two seasons. Sense8 is one of them.
Created by the Wachowskis, this ambitious, world-spanning show is the story of eight sensates – people across the globe who all took their first breath at the exact same time on the 8th of August 1988. They were living their life as normal humans until they were ‘birthed’ by a mysterious woman called Angellica (Daryl Hannah), and became inextricably connected forever.
Utilising the global scale of this story, this group of eight is one of the most diverse ensembles ever collected on screen.
There’s two Americans – Will (Brian J Smith), a cop with a saviour complex, and Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans girl and hacking genius. Then we have Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ with blue streaks in her hair; Kala (Tina Desai), an Indian scientist about to be married; Sun (Bae Doona), a Korean businesswoman-come-martial arts prodigy; Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a gay Mexican actor; Capheus (Aml Ameen/Toby Onwumere), a Kenyan bus driver and Jean Claude Van-Damme stan; and finally, my favourite - Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a strong and silent type wreaking havoc amongst the gangsters of Berlin.
The Wachowskis (both of them in the first season, just Lana in the second) balance the eight perfectly, exposing us to fragments of their lives and stories each episode whilst showing how the intense connections between them grow.
Pretty soon, you’ll love every single one of these characters. The way the show’s concept allows each of them (and us, the viewer) to get inside their heads, feel what they feel, do what they do; it doesn’t take long to feel as though you might be the ninth in the ‘cluster’.
As such, every moment you spend with each of them feels like a joy. But where this show will really get you good is when they all come together as one. Sharing each other’s skills and senses, they are united by fear, by passion, by a fight that one of them needs to win – and it will send shivers down your spine every time.
In chronological order throughout the two seasons, here’s Sense8’s top five most mind-blowing moments:
1. The Concert
Rated 18, Sense8 doesn’t shy away from much – swearing, violence, sex, and even a baby’s head breaking out of its mother and making its way into the world.
In the latter half of the first season, Riley makes her way from London back to Iceland. She misses her dad, who happens to be an extraordinary pianist.
She attends one of his concerts. Sat in the crowd, she’s mesmerised by the music – and because she feels it, the rest of the cluster do too. Each of them take her place for a moment, and as they do, we see flashbacks of them being born. Their mothers’ screams interplay with the notes from the ivories; tears drop silently down their smiling faces.
A crescendo builds, and Riley faints. Only then does it let you catch your breath.
2. The Birthday
The season two opener, which was broadcast as a two hour Christmas special, is long enough to be a feature film but one of the most engaging and exhilarating pieces of television I’ve ever seen.
In it, the cluster celebrates their birthdays, and it’s one of the first times we get to see them all together, sharing in the emotion of pure ecstasy. They all blow out the candles in Lito’s bedroom; they party euphorically with Wolfgang in a Berlin nightclub, doused in neon; they dance all in a circle with Capheus in Kenya. The music, the visuals, the joy on their faces – it’s enough to have you on your feet too.
The night goes on, the celebrations intensify and all eight are present in a beautifully cinematic sex scene unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Hands moving, bodies of all colours intertwined – in that moment, they’re not straight or gay, male or female, trans or cis, they are all one.
3. The Restaurant Fight
Aside from the sexy moments, some of the most satisfying scenes in Sense8 are those of action – after all, we’re watching the directors of The Matrix at work.
Luckily, it just so happens that within this cluster of sensates, we’ve got a highly trained cop (Will), a fearless brawler that is used to both giving and taking a beating (Wolfgang), and a martial arts fighter so powerful that when approached by four henchman, her only words are ‘is that all?’ (Sun).
Whenever one of the eight gets into a tricky situation, they have the strength of the others to help them. If someone like Nomi or Riley is embodied by Wolfgang or Sun, their actual power flows through their limbs. As you sense danger approaching, you’ll practically whoop when one of the tough guys shows up. This idea is used across all of the sensates’ skills (Lito’s acting, Nomi’s hacking, Capheus’s driving) but is especially impactful in the action.
In the eighth episode of the second season, Wolfgang walks into a restaurant for dinner with Lila, a fellow sensate from a different cluster who is trying to get him killed. All eight of our ensemble are on alert, visiting Wolfgang to try and help him get out alive, and all standing behind him as he confronts her. The interesting thing is, Lila’s cluster are doing the exact same thing. There’s only two people at the table, but we see sixteen, all connected by the same interaction.
After plenty of pontificating, Kala kicks things off. Saying “Bring it, bitch” in one of the most satisfying line deliveries of the entire show, she smashes a bottle to set the table alight. Shit hits the fan, and a shootout ensues. What makes this fight stand out is how, instead of the sensates taking turns to embody Wolfgang, they are all present simultaneously – they’re stood with him, mimicking his movements as he dodges shots. As they move in unison, imitating the iconic ‘bullet time’, we see the most obvious influences of The Matrix yet.
4. The Gala
One of the best and rarest things about the storytelling in Sense8 is how much room it is given to breathe.
Season two, episode eleven is perhaps the best example of this. Originally the finale of this season (the very last episode was released as a one-off special a year later, after much uproar over the show being cancelled on a cliffhanger), we finally see Sun attempt to seek revenge against her brother, Joon-Qi.
The episode begins with an uninterrupted 24 minutes dedicated to this set piece, starting at first with police trying to arrest Joon-Qi and him shooting Sun’s detective love interest, before he gets away. Sun follows him, then proceeds to hunt him down on foot and via motorbike, all whilst wearing a tiny black bra, white cowboy boots and silver sequinned hotpants.
She is relentless – “Are you serious?? My sister’s the fucking Terminator?!” - and the sensates are sprinting behind her every step of the way. She uses Wolfgang’s power to battle her way out of the event and bring her brother’s vehicle to a halt, Kala’s brain to set the car park alight and Capheus’s driving skills to pursue him through the streets of Seoul.
Eventually, standing over him with a weapon big enough to skewer him alive, she lets him go. Sun has the strength of a warrior but, as a friend says to her earlier in the series, “a heart as soft as a baby bird”. With her deceased mother’s request for her to protect her brother ringing in her ears, this time, she listens to it.
5. The End
Sense8 ends as audaciously as it began.
The bad guys have been beaten. They got to go back to their lives. Nomi and Amanita get married in Paris, and everyone is there – all the sensates, their partners, and their families. The ceremony is a worthily indulgent celebration, with beautiful speeches and dancing and joy, all from within the Eiffel Tower. We get to hang out with the gang one last time.
But after the party, it’s the after party, and we adjourn to everyone’s bedrooms. It’s only fitting that a show with freedom, inclusivity and deep connection at its heart would end with a love scene of epic proportions.
At first, we’re with each couple – or throuple, in the case of Lito, Hernando and Dani, and Kala, her husband Rajan and Wolfgang. The magnificent score of strings is building as the passion between them increases, and the pivotal moment is when Kala watches as Rajan and Wolfgang kiss. Brought together by their love for Kala, it’s the unity of this unlikely pairing that moves the scene to the next level, as we see every single body intertwined.
There’s flashbacks of each character’s love story interspersed with glimpses of the sensates as one, and most poignant is that the last look back is at trans character Nomi, meeting her future wife for the first time.
Cue Rajan, coming up for air. “My god,” he says. “I didn’t think such things were possible”. And the very final shot? A rainbow coloured dildo. A symbol of Pride, of passion, of love and lovemaking in all its possible forms – this is perhaps the boldest closing image in television.
The message of Sense8 is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. Seeing these eight people brought together to tell their stories, all entirely different cultures, races, identities, genders and sexualities - it shows us the power and the beauty that is possible when we are united instead of disparate. When we are accepting instead of judgmental. When we share what we know instead of keeping it for ourselves. When we focus on what connects us rather than what controls us.
Please, if you haven’t already – go watch this. Then tell your friends to watch it too. Prove to Netflix that this is the kind of storytelling we want to see.
Sense8 isn’t perfect; far from it. But it’s the most heartfelt, euphoric, gut-punching show I’ve watched in a long time, and I’m so grateful it exists. Thank you to the cast, the crew, and the Wachowskis for sharing it with us, and for showing us what’s possible.