“Sense8 is a landmark for LGBTQ representation.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Lana Wachowski 👩🏼🇺🇸, Lily Wachowski 👩🏼🇺🇸, and J. Michael Straczynski 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Lana Wachowski 👩🏼🇺🇸 (23 eps), Lily Wachowski 👩🏼🇺🇸 (23 eps), and J. Michael Straczynski 👨🏼🇺🇸 (23 eps)
Reviewed by R.K. 👩🏽🇺🇸🌈
There’s that phrase from Macbeth, “the milk of human kindness”, which Lady Macbeth uses as an emasculating insult. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the collected works of the Wachowski sisters, it’s that they love that milk. In fact, they often let it curdle into cheese. But In Sense8, as in their film work, unabashed love, hope and positivity in the face of certain doom aren’t just a cheesy worldview — they’re an unconventionally revolutionary one, especially at a historical moment like this, when it feels like the foxes have fully infiltrated the henhouse.
Sense8 is a show about 8 individuals from around the world who suddenly find their inner lives mysteriously interconnected. Each can sense and feel what the others are sensing and feeling, and they can speak each other's languages and use each other's skills. They also begin to uncover a global conspiracy to oppress and hunt their kind — “sensates”. Along the way, they come to know, love and support one another, and the show never misses a chance to show heartwarming (or heartwrenching) scenes of solidarity in the face of oppression and despair.
The show can be cheesy, sometimes even tropey, and its approach may not be for everyone. But it really pulls off its central storytelling feat: using the language of film, editing especially, to interlink the stories of eight disparate characters who suddenly discover they are fully, empathically aware of each other, no matter where they are in the world. It’s an insanely ambitious technical marvel that makes intercutting between eight storylines seem almost effortless, and it’s even more impressive that this is all in service of that ‘milk of human kindness’ philosophy: the belief that if we really stand in one another’s shoes and feel what others have experienced and survived, if we look past the walls of our own garden, it will make us better people and help us create a better world.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Misogynist violence seems all but guaranteed in any major sci-fi or fantasy production. Sense8 is no different in this respect, but because its viewpoint is an empathetic one, filtered through female creators, actors and characters, it centers the experience of enduring violence and attempting to find solace and healing through action and community. This is still a prestige sci-fi drama that begins with a man driving a woman to suicide, but Sense8 manages to contextualize misogynist, homophobic and transphobic violence not as the inevitable, despairing conditions of a toxically masculine world, but as a status quo that can and must be rallied and fought against by all people, if we are to be authentically connected and free.
On the character level, I really enjoyed Sense8’s diverse cast of men and women who help and instruct one another, learning from each other’s experiences. Sense8’s women characters face a lot of gendered challenges that the men do not, and I do sometimes wish the men would be more overtly called upon to recognize their privilege when confronted with the experiences of the women. But I like the way the show’s interlinked storytelling gives nominally equal weight to all of these characters’ experiences — although sometimes it can fall short of that mark, and I’ll go into that in the next section. The interesting and important point here is that the women have a much easier time overcoming their challenges if their entire community is behind them, including the men — a stark contrast to the gender politics of today, when men are often reticent to support women if it means checking or challenging each other.
Prominently featuring a diverse, international cast, Sense8 might seem like a shoo-in for perfect score on race. But sometimes the way these characters are written and portrayed can betray a tendency for trope and stereotype on the creators’ parts. The show mostly ducks these criticisms because by its very nature it shows these characters transcending the narrow boxes that society places them in through their profound connection to one another.
But there are still times when Sun, a South Korean woman played by Doona Bae, feels constrained to the role of hypercompetent East Asian martial arts master; or when Capheus, a Kenyan man played first by Aml Ameen and then by Toby Onwumere in Season 2, seems sidelined entirely, geographically and thematically distant from the rest of the cluster. This is especially important when depicting sex, because we go a lot deeper into the intimate relationships between Will & Riley, Lito & Hernando, Wolfgang & Kala, Nomi & Amanita. And that’s fantastic, because outside of Will & Riley these are unabashedly positive depictions of queer and interracial love. But it’s still important to note that some characters still feel relegated to the sidelines — and nobody wants to be second string at the psychic orgy.
In Sense8, race is depicted as something easily transcended by the empathic link between characters, but I wonder if it brushes the realities of racialized violence aside too quickly. Will, an American police officer played by Brian J. Smith, is depicted as a somewhat exceptional cop who is decent and kind, but giving him a Hispanic partner and best friend seems like an implicit, tokenizing nod to the fact that ‘American policeman’ is an incredibly loaded societal figure, one that for many marginalized people signifies fear and state violence. The show rarely wants to reckon with these matrices of race and power, because it is suggesting that its utopian viewpoint can easily erase the distinction. But I’m not sure that’s a lesson easily carried into the real world.
Sense8 does not fail on race, but it’s important to note that Wachowskis and their collaborators are trying to dissolve the boundaries of skin color through a lens that is still white and Eurocentric — look no further than the ‘race drag’ of their film Cloud Atlas, co-directed with frequent Sense8 director Tom Tykwer, for a crucial example.
Can I give this higher than 5/5? Its other flaws and virtues aside, Sense8 is a landmark for LGBTQ representation. It devotes huge screen time to Nomi, a trans woman played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, and the show’s ability to connect its cisgendered protagonists’ experiences to Nomi’s is a powerful show of commonality between societal constructions of gender that normally have a big bold line drawn between them. Additionally, Nomi is in a relationship with Amanita, a queer cis woman of color played by Freema Agyeman.
The show also devotes a huge amount of screen time to Lito, a Mexican actor played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, and his boyfriend Hernando, a Mexican professor played by Alfonso Herrera. As with Nomi and Amanita, their struggles to find peace and acceptance within the bounds of the societal status quo define a lot of their storylines. Sense8 takes pride in positive, joyful depictions of queer identity and sexuality, and it’s quite powerful to see that on an expensive, widely-watched show. Some of my favorite moments in the show are the aforementioned ‘psychic orgy’ scenes, where barriers of gender and orientation dissolve into a liminal place where everybody is simply experiencing pleasure on each others’ terms. These scenes are a little cheesy, but they’re also quietly revolutionary.
Not to mention that behind the camera, alongside partner J. Michael Straczynski, are the Wachowski sisters — two of the most prominent trans filmmakers in the world.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.44/5
Though sometimes filtered through a white-centric viewpoint on race, Sense8’s overall mission statement is to attempt to depict love and solidarity as a unifying force beneath divisions of race, gender, orientation, geography, and class. Sometimes it succeeds wildly and sometimes it’s a disappointingly mixed bag, but there’s no denying it’s one of the most positive and visibly diverse shows on TV.