The Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8 follows a “cluster” of eight strangers, called “sensates,” who discover they’re telepathically linked. The group is dotted across the globe, but their lives intersect in unthinkably intimate ways, a result of their shared thoughts and senses. Intersectionality is hardly an original idea, as TV shows and films as wide ranging as the Wachowskis’ own Cloud Atlas and Paul Haggis’s Crash are built around the transformative power of shared experience. But none of the characters in those stories collectively reach orgasm or simultaneously suffer from a seizure. In Sense8, the characters don’t attempt to find empathy with each other—they’re forced to. They don’t just imagine how the other sensates feel, but feel it themselves.
The immediacy of the connections between these eight characters adds a philosophically interesting new wrinkle to the show’s fundamentally classic premise, though a philosophical wrinkle was still the only thing interesting about the series. The first season’s 12 episodes felt distracted and unmanageable, as we were never afforded time to invest in any one character because the focus was always shifting to service eight distinct, not-yet-overlapping stories. Season two homes in on the moments of intersection between the sensates and spends less time exploring their respective side stories. As the sensates invest more in their cluster, relationships between characters are forged and the stakes of the plot are crystallized. The new season doesn’t completely commit to this focused framework, as attention still periodically diverts to less compelling side dramas, but the sensates now feel like equally important ingredients in a gripping human drama.
The season begins with Will (Brian J. Smith) and Riley (Tuppence Middleton) hiding from Whispers (Terrence Mann), an agent of the Biologic Preservation Organization (BPO), a shadowy multinational organization that mirrors similar villainous agencies in the sci-fi and comic-book tradition. Whispers is a sensate himself, working on behalf of the BPO to capture and lobotomize other sensates. Through their connection, Will and Riley can easily access the rest of the cluster when problems require the specializations of other sensates. When Will’s health begins failing because of the drugs he uses to cloud his telepathic availability and make himself invisible to Whispers, Kala (Tina Desai) arrives to administer medicine and monitor Will’s health. When Will is close to locating Whispers, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is available to assist with hacking expertise. The series uses opportunities like these to integrate all eight sensates into a common narrative instead of globetrotting from plot to plot and allowing some of the eight stories to wither, as it did last season.
The Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8 is most powerful when its characters actually intersect.
The BPO storyline forces the coherence of eight storylines, making the plot of Sense8 more trackable, and just as importantly, allowing the sensates to transcend their prefab labels. When the series began, the protagonists functioned like figurines in sealed dioramas: Will, the Chicago cop with a heart of gold, existed in a cut-rate police procedural; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German thief who also has a heart of gold, cracked safes in a knockoff heist movie; Nomi, the trans woman with a disapproving, waspy mother, marched in a pride parade in a simplistic LGBT-identity drama. For much of season one, characters remained nuance-free types, designed to be instantly recognizable, but the moments of collaboration between the sensates in season two allow them to shed their reductive outer layers. Wolfgang reveals a natural leadership quality by offering some inspiring words to the cluster as Will’s health deteriorates, and while she hunts for Whispers, Nomi sparkles with energy and a commanding presence, a stark contrast to her default standing in the series as a generic trans-rights delegate.
These moments are stirring actualizations of the show’s intersectional concept, but when Sense8 returns the sensates to their distinct and isolated story arcs, the series still falters. Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), for example, expectedly struggles with career prospects after publicly announcing his homosexuality, though his barely developed storyline feels insignificant compared to the life-or-death stakes of the cluster’s conflict with BPO. And this already crowded landscape is congested further by the inevitable addition of new characters. As the cluster uncovers more about BPO, the organization demands a larger share of the show’s focus. New clusters are emerging as well: Wolfgang is pleasantly surprised to meet another sensate, before realizing that the woman is free of BPO harassment either because her cluster has stumbled upon some secret or aligned themselves with the agency. Each addition brings with it a range of plot possibilities, causing the expansion of a universe that was already difficult to follow.
For Sense8, then, the challenge is clear: how to commit fully to an intersectional premise, cohering numerous stories into one intelligible plot, and abandoning the vestiges of the lives characters lived before they connected. One highlight of this season illustrates the potential of that commitment, when Sun (Doona Bae) breaks out of prison in a scene that utilizes the entire cluster. Will, Wolfgang, and Sun alternately deliver blows against guards, in an adrenalized but balletic fight. When guards stun Sun with a taser, other sensates feel that pain: Nomi collapses in her California houseboat; Capheus (Toby Onwumere) almost crashes his bus in Africa; Kala faints in India. The physical capabilities of the sensates make the scene’s innovative choreography possible; their shared investment elevate the emotional stakes. With its realistic portrayals of spectrum sexuality, gender fluidity, and minority representation, Sense8 has always focused on the intersectionality of social identities on a global scale. It makes sense, then, that the series is most powerful when its characters actually intersect.