Review: Going Deep with Sense8, Season 2

I was afraid that a single Wachowski, operating without her closest artistic companion, wouldn't be able to carry the torch as highly or shine as brightly. I was so very wrong for underestimating her. Season 2, in my opinion, tops even the first. Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski have orchestrated something stellar, something brilliant, new, and important. They've continued to hold the series to some unrealistically high standards, yet hitting every mark. I've rarely seen so many slick film making techniques at play in one series. Black Mirror is perhaps the only other series comparable in terms of narrative complexity. The two series are flip sides of the same coin. Black Mirror is the coldblooded cyberpunk mockery of the very worst in ourselves. Sense8, on the brighter side, is an impassioned ballad of love, human experience, and our dependence on each other. What I hope you'll take the time to read is not just a review on season 2 of what I consider to be one of the most important works of fiction in the past several years, but an overview of the series, some theories, romanticizing the future, and some shameless gushing.

This exclusive Netflix series is locked together by one powerful vignette after another. Set pieces with themes of elation, ecstasy, and justice can be woven between intense, heart pounding, scenes of crushing loss and sadness. One end of the cluster (our group of sensates) can be in turmoil while another is experiencing a sweet resolution or a scene of immense joy. Don't make the mistake of seeing these as ups or downs in a binary sensethey are the ebb and flow of the language of this series. In your traditional scriptwriting formula, you want characters, alone, to experience gains and losses on an ever escalating hill toward something or the conclusion of their character arc. Lana Wachowski and Straczynski transcend this formula by having the group experience these arcs in tandem as individuals, yet also as a whole, or what the series calls a "cluster." The cluster itself is a character. Even the unique romances, couplings, or trifectas within are treated literarily (and literally) as their own cluster. For those unfamiliar with the series, I realize this reads like a bunch of nonsense, but becoming familiar with the language and rules of the series is part of what makes it so damn fun! Hopefully, it might make sense to you by the end of this.

This is not unlike the Wachowski style to think outside of linearity, outside of timeline, and outside of conventional experience altogether, down to even film editing theory. The series is about breaking down boundaries of every possible kind and that includes formula. I have no doubt that evidenced in Cloud Atlas, The Matrix, Speed Racer, and now Sense8, Lana has again injected her story with an Eastern philosophical spin on quantum theory. When does one of the cluster act individually not unlike a particle? When do they act together as a wave? When do they collide? Where are the seams? Where do the lines blur? How they tangled and twisted editing standards in Speed Racer was only a practice run for the aforementioned theory the Wachowski's would go on to perfect in Sense8.

In 2008's Speed Racer, the Wachowksi's fused past and present storytelling in a way I've never seen before. The opening scenes of Speed Racer take us through an entire family's worth of individual experiences which shaped the very present moment as Speed is literally (and figuratively?) racing his brother's record-breaking ghost as his family watches from the crowd. Their history together twists and flies by just like Speed's competitors on the track as the Wachowski's contort their story into a sort of literal DNA strand punctuated by the helical imagery of the hallucinatory race tracks. Everything, past, present, and implications of the future are wrapped in a singular sense of urgency that accelerates the momentum of the story. All of these time frames are presented interchangeably throughout the cut, daring to burst free from left-to-right video editing conventions. Your sense of left and right, forward or backward, in a sense, get thrown out the window when digesting the story scene to scene. Timelessness, universality, and other related philosophies permeate the Wachowksi's work.

These same theories were at work when Sense8 was created, and now executed with even more finesse in season 2. Everything past, present, and future coalesce as the defining current of the series' pace. It's addictive, enthralling, and likely the only way this kind of ambitious project should have been tackled.

"Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance."

- from Wikipedia

Voted Best Film of All Time by the world,
Speed Racer.
Regardless of their distance between each other, whether it's miles or entire continents away, some individual sensate's experiences or actions may often mirror another. They merge and act as one, rendering them indistinguishable from each other. It is sometimes difficult to discern where one character begins and another ends. But that's all part of the plan! The writing, acting, direction, and cinematography must be so on point at all times otherwise the illusion falls apart. I didn't think the show could make my head and my heart sing again like it did through the first season, but they keep managing to spin more plates and juggle more chainsaws. I have no idea how this show doesn't collapse under its own weight, but it doesn't. All it lets up are a few cracks, but for the weight Lana Wachowski and Straczynski are carrying, I felt it only fair I look beyond these nitpicks.

In fact, the entire production, cast, and crew make it impossible to concern yourself with these nitpicks because your soul is on the love stallion of mind-meltery that is Sense8 and you'll forget a misstep seconds after it happens. There is always something incredible being orchestrated on this show. There is never a dull moment. You're always glued to the screen because you have to be, because you don't want to miss anything. At this moment, the only real flaws I could dredge up—because I'm a critic and I have to—some dialog gets a bit too on-the-nose. It inspires a little cringe here and there, but this show is far too incredible to snob up this review over it, and believe me, I've been known to dabble in some snob once a fortnight or so.

My heavens, the cast is a dream. No less than a dream. This is by a long shot the most incredible level of chemistry I've ever seen in such a massive cast. Who do we thank for this cast? Who is responsible for making all of this work so damn well? The Wachowskis? Straczynski? Netflix? All of them? Fate? Stephen Hawking? When you get a chance, please watch some of the cast and crew videos of Sense8 and I dare you to not fall in love with their energy. There isn't a single character you can't love or respect whether it be for their talents, heart, mind, or for their ability to inflict intense pain and loss. Even the villains are magnetic. Naturally, when you have all of this uplifting wish fulfillment exploding all over the damn place, you must also have an equal and opposite reaction to draw a compelling story.

In the form of Whispers, Terrence Mann will give you goosebumps and make your blood run cold. For all I know, Terrence Mann is a real life obsessive, ultra dangerous, super creep, mad scientist. His name, seemingly silly at first, is revealed to have a pretty disturbing meaning this season. Mann, he's brilliant. It feels great to see him finally be able to stretch his legs as the series' main antagonist and he curls around the role like a blood-sucking eel. It's an eerie and sometimes terrifying performance.
"Who're you calling brilliant?"

It's hard to not spoil one thing, though. I'm sure as many have anticipated, there were inevitably going to be more baddies. One in particular turns out to be one of the most sly, insidious villains in TV. Season 2 acts as an introduction of sorts for this individual, but who is it? It could be anyone! It's fascinating to see how it all unfolds. More villains aren't all that's introduced here either.

Just when you thought that Sense8 couldn't be blown open any wider or get any deeper, a myriad of new rules, perspectives, and fascinating characters are introduced to the concept of sensates as a people and this interconnected world. Who are they, really? Where do they come from? How many are there exactly? How do they communicate? What are their relationships like? The writers
keep coming up with unique ways to script communication or interaction between sensates or even with regular human being folks. You'll be glassy-eyed with wonder at where all of this will be going in future seasons. How many more ideas could they possibly have?

They somehow get away with dropping tomes of information on the viewer, but no matter how much of it keeps oozing out of every scene, you'll just keep wanting more. The story in season 2 takes us in so many places, so many emotional states, so many thought processes, leaving us often breathless, but exhilarated. It whizzes by, but somehow feels like you spent forever there. A billion questions will have your mind sizzling with one jaw-dropping trick after another. Sometimes you'll get answers, sometimes you won't, but it tickles your brain regardless and will often make you realize you've been grinning for an hour straight and that's usually because of Lito.

Lito Rodriguez, played by the modern sculpture of a man, Miguel Angel Silvestre, is once again the teddy bear and beautiful beating heart of the entire cluster. Like the first season, Lito's story had me shedding torrents of tears into my chest hair, laughing until my voice cracked, and grinning until my face hurt. Silvestre has a supernatural ability to pull you into every word he says and every twitch of his eyes. He has a gravity around him that's infectious and warm and magnetic and important and... can we please get this man an Emmy already? Please?!

They addressed the Capheus actor swap in the best way possible by almost not addressing it at all. The New Year's Special (Season 2, Episode 1) does just this. Aml Ameen mysteriously exited the production before season 2 over a conflict after a table read. Respectfully, both the actor and members of the production kept the details of this under wraps. Turns out his replacement, Toby Onwumere, is one of the best actors now on the show. They're all great, let's face it, but Toby to me stands out as being one of the most dynamic among the cast. Ameen was no less fantastic as "Van Damme" in the first season. Ameen made me fall in love with the character all the same, but Toby took Capheus to new heights.

Jamie Clayton has taken big steps in her acting abilities. While I felt she was the weakest link of the first season's cast, she proved to hold her own as she shaped her role in the cluster by that season finale. Season 2 invites her to flex her talents as she finally faces her family issues head on, leading several key scenes which were impressively performed and moving. Needless to say, the entire cluster is with her through it all. The only moment she is left to her (or any sensate's) own devices is when it's something she needs to do in order to grow personally. It's a mutual understanding among the cluster that they know whether someone needs help or should be left alone without sharing a word. This dynamic, of course, extends beyond just Jamie Clayton's character, Nomi, and applies to the relationships throughout their cluster.

Both Wolfgang and Will's certifiable badassery guide much of this season with plentiful aplomb. It's inspiring to see them work out the details of a plan and execute whether it be on a mass scale or a personal vendetta. Their disciplined efficacy is just plain cool to see and watching either take lead of the cluster will get your blood pumping because you know it's about to get real.

The name Wolfgang is likely a play on the words "lone wolf" and "gang" being an obvious contradiction, especially considering the rules and themes at play in the series. The Wachowski's are known for choosing the names of their characters carefully, and I doubt this is an exception. While Wolfgang handles his conflicts in a more singular, darker withdrawal, his most open moments belong with Kala, the enchanting Indian woman of his wildest clusterly desires. The strains on their relationship, whether it be with Wolfgang's seclusion or Kala's cultural hangups, again wind up their arcs even tighter in season 2. On the other side of the cluster, Will and Riley struggle with Will's necessary, but dangerous addiction as their romance, along with the risks, grow significantly stronger. The parallels between Will and Riley's relationship with Wolfgang and Kala's are just a few threads of the yarn, though. This stunning level of inter-connectivity crawls through every vein and muscle of the series.

Flip over another corner of the cluster and you'll find Sun is a female mirror of Wolfgang and vice versa. Like him, she's also a loner with some deadly skills and a deeply personal vendetta. Her vengeance story continues and becomes another driving force in season 2. While she takes on most of her battles alone, Wolfgang often does the same, and in season 2 we will see what it takes to really break these two down to desperation. Doona Bae was a strong presence in the first season and here she stands even taller. You might be fooled into thinking her heart's as soft as Lito's, but she's easily the most ferocious member of the cluster, and in season 2, Doona takes Sun to some incredibly vulnerable corners.

I could write a review for literally every character in this show, but I'm not going to do that. They're all so good, so well developed, and so damn well performed no matter the size of the role. Even the music is spectacular! Nearly every episode has a highly memorable piece of music that constantly flows and evolves throughout entire episodes. Every facet of the series is done with a scathing passion. This passion is so on fire and so unashamed that it very well may turn off a lot of viewers. This realization depresses me, but that's what makes this series so special. You can't say that Sense8 is dishonest. You can't say they're hiding anything. You can't say it's pretentious. It lays bare its full naked, raw body for us to pick at, criticize, love, or hate. There's no bullshit about Sense8. The series practically pulls its own beating heart from its chest for all to see. Sense8 made me believe in its in-your-face lack of subtlety, but it earns every single ounce of it. Like the first season, this is a continued celebration of humanity at both its ugliest and most beautiful and season 2 manages to do this even better than the first!

If you haven't yet seen Sense8, please, I'm begging you to experience this one-of-a-kind series and ensure it goes on to complete its gargantuan tale. If you have already seen this series, you're likely already doing your best to get everyone you know to watch it,
just like me. Please, I need more Sense8. We all need more Sense8. Let's make it happen!

- J.G. Barnes