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Sunday, May 28, 2017
Sense8 Season 2: Sense8tional
[Note added June 13, 2017: Sense8 was cancelled, according to Netflix, because "A big, expensive show for a tiny audience is hard even in our model to make that work very long" (quoted in Polygon). The following, written in May before the series was cancelled, is as good a reason as any why Netflix made a bad decision.]
I realized a while ago that binge-watching, like all human activities, isn't the perfect strategy for all television watching. It's almost never preferable to wait a week before the next episode of a compelling series is available, but sometimes watching a complete season in one or two seasons is not the best way to go, either. Sometimes you want to savor each episode a little longer, let it slosh around in your mind a little, until it settles into some place or maybe keeps quietly percolating.
I'd intended to watch all of Sense8 season 2 in one swoop - that is, all the episodes after the Christmas special which aired late last year - but decided, after the first two new episodes (2.2-3), that I wanted it to last a little longer.
We saw and learned lots of things in these two episodes. Among the most profound is that when one of the cluster is nearly hung -- that is, nearly choked to death at the end of the rope - the other members of the cluster start to lose consciousness, too. This raises a crucial question: if Sun had indeed died in that noose -- if her cellmate hadn't rescued her (in a great scene) -- would the rest of the cluster had died, too? I can't recall exactly what happens when one of the cluster falls asleep, but my impression is the others, though aware that one member is sleeping, stay awake. If that's the case, why would the near-killing on Sun so viscerally affect the rest of the cluster?
The question is whether the effect is just mental, or physical as well. Of course, mental and physical are always intertwined -- what we think and feel in our heads inevitably affects our bodies -- but in the case of the sense8s, is this so much in play that the violent death of one will kill the others? I'd think not, but if this possibility remains open, our sense8s are even more vulnerable than we realized.
But they're making good progress in these two episodes -- Sun is free, Whispers is set back, and the sense8s continue to bring their talents to bear when one or two of them needs help, even in a difficult conversation with reporters. And we're beginning to learn more about homo sensorium, and the deeper evolutionary significance of the sense8s.
One of the most significant secondary themes of Sense8 is the personal relationships our sense8s have to sapiens, as we humans are now increasingly known and referred to in the series. These range from significant other partnerships, as in Lito and Hernando, Nomi and Amanita, and Kala and her devoted but lackluster husband, to lifelong friends such as Wolfgang and Felix, to mortal enemies as in Sun and her monster-in-sheep's-clothing brother.
These couplings in effect represent the hope and perils for sense8/sapiens on the planet-wide, species level. So far, we've seen only the perils for sense8s, and the general unawareness that our species has about the very existence of sense8s. But, as of the end of episode 2.5, that appears set to dramatically change.
In some ways even more crucial to the story are the relationships members of our cluster have to other sense8s. The decision to go public as a way of vanquishing their mortal enemies stems from Will's realization that there must be, if not a myriad of sense8s, a number large enough to attract such powerful enemies.
My favorite new sense8 in season 2 is Lila, and not only because she appears totally nude in an attempt to seduce Wolfgang. She earlier tempts Wolfgang when he's telepathically communicating with Kala, providing a fine example of a simmering, tempestuous triangle, totally sense8-style.
Love flows in all kinds of ways in this story.
Every action movie, every police drama, every thriller needs a shootout. Since Sense8 is all three and much more, it gets a one-of-a-kind, multi-valent shoutout in 2.6, and it's a thing of violent beauty to behold.
The cinematography, always a splendid eyeful in Sense8, is especially good in that bar, where it all begins with Wolfgang and Lila across the table. Her new seduction attempt erupts into a gunfight, between Wolfgang and Lila in physical space, and their clusters whirling like dervishes and firing away in mental space at every opponent they can see. The shots of the two clusters, menacingly walking behind their live anchors, drawing closer together, almost into a single line, then spreading apart and shooting, makes for a veritable gunfight at the OK coral, Sense8-style.
Just to be clear -- though that's never really completely possible, given the speed of thought and the inherent multiplicity of the story -- there are players in the bar who are on Lila's team (though whether sense8 or sapien not completely clear). So Wolfgang is physically outnumbered, and he and his/our cluster have to fight not only Lila but other physical people in the room bent on killing him.
The upshot: both Wolfgang and Lila survive, and we learn that locating other clusters can just as easily be death as salvation for our sense8s. Not only are some sapiens out to kill sense8s, but some sense8s are out to kill our sense8s, too.
At some point, not in the bar, another sense8 not in our cluster remarks that sapiens invented Google in the 1990s, but sense8s were instantly communicating worldwide (what Marshall McLuhan and I would call a global village) back in prehistoric times. Earlier this season, someone explained that just as homo sapiens exterminated Neanderthals, so our kind sought to eradicate homo sensoriums aka sense8s.
Which got me thinking -- what if in our reality, some Neanderthals had survived? Hmm ... there's an idea for a novel.
Sense8 season 2 came to a cliff-hanging, mid-scene conclusion, with a smart turning-of-the-tables on the sense8 strategy in their battles against sapiens and sense8s.
That strategy, deployed throughout the series, and one of the key and especially enjoyable mechanisms of the story, entails one sense8, under physical attack or in some kind of social crisis, deploying the talents and powers of the other seven sense8s to succeed or at least get an upper hand. In the final few episodes, we see this done to excellent effect in one of the best scenes of the series -- a car chase -- as Sun tries to put away her evil brother. And we see what happens when one of the sense8s -- Will -- is not able to pour his talents into the action, as Capheus almost loses his life in a campaign-rally riot in Kenya.
So it was particularly smooth to find that Will's declaration of war on BPO and Whispers is a physical declaration, with Will and the other six sense8s and their allies literally on the way to mounting an in-person attack in their efforts to free Wolfgang. It begins with Will surprising and getting the better of Whispers by being actually physically in the room with him, and ends with ... well, we'll need to wait for Season 3.
One question is why doesn't Will just kill Whispers and be done with it, but part of the answer to that is that people - that is, sense8s - don't seem to completely die in Sense8. In fact, not only do they not die, but they seem to change sides -- reverse loyalties -- in a way that harkens back to one of the mainsprings of the Dune saga.
I've seen it said that Sense8 is enjoyable if you don't pay too much attention, but I'd say it's just the opposite: the complex, multi-dimensional and multi-layered narrative works best when you give its elements careful consideration. Indeed, one of the joys of the second season, which I thought was better than the first (high praise, since I liked that one, too), is that it is beginning to uncover some of what Noam Chomsky might call the deep structure of sense8 grammar.
And I'll be back here some time in the future with reviews of season 3.