Critics seem unsure whether Sense8 is a masterpiece, a disaster, or both. But it’s still a game-changer—pushing the limits of narrative, and testing genre fiction’s patriarchal worldview for weak points. And with a concept that revolves around empathy and personhood, it’s also a great Philip K. Dick tribute.
Some spoilers ahead...
In Sense8, the Wachowskis (who created it with J. Michael Straczynski) are exploring territory that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Matrix: The characters are individuals leading, if not humdrum, then relatively believable lives before they discover their ‘higher purpose.’ (And as Foz Meadows recently wrote, you can also see this trope explored from a different viewpoint in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending.)
The awakening of the hero, and his/her initiation into a new life and reality, will definitely feel familiar to anyone who has followed the Wachowskis’ work. It’s also a Phildickian trope – think of Flow My Tears The Policeman Said’s Jason Taverner, whose loss of identity leads him to question the dystopian society he lives in; or Rick Deckard’s growing awareness of what makes one human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Both of these are journeys of awakening.
Sense8 also shares with the Wachowskis’ divisive adaptation of Cloud Atlas a radical approach to gender politics and identity – a thematic concern which no doubt saw many a critic sharpening their knives, given that film’s perceived shortcomings. Double and triple-casting actors as both male and female was arguably a bold, creative risk. It didn’t pay off for many viewers, and at points, seemed to knowingly descend into self-parody. But Sense8 triumphs where Cloud Atlas fails, because it approaches issues of gender and identity directly, through character development. The first series is almost nothing but character development—hence the pace, which some viewers and critics found frustratingly erratic.
The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).
The Wachowskis instead depict the kind of empathy which Dick portrayed in his later writing as divine. In fact, Sense8 is a character piece. The characters become compelling, because we get to know them intimately. Their conversations serve the same purpose as the rambling, analytical first-person prose of PKD’s flawed protagonists.
Granted, some of the initial premises for these characters, and the ways in which they are introduced—particularly Tuppence Middleton’s Icelandic DJ, Riley—stretch the bounds of credibility. And others, like Brian J. Smith’s Will Gorski, certainly begin as clichés. It’s the intimate degree to which they are revealed which makes them compelling. The final reveal of the source of Riley’s pain is at once shocking, profoundly moving and beautifully filmed—the payoff for an emotional journey which, looking back over the preceding episodes, has been very carefully planned and executed.
The most impressive character is the transgender woman, Nomi Marks, played by Jamie Clayton. Her arc is one of the first to be explored in depth, with every painful step she has taken towards a hard-won pride and dignity portrayed with exquisite sensitivity by the luminous Clayton. Her chemistry with Freema Ageyman’s Amanita also feels very real. If ‘love one another’ is the somewhat generic core ‘message’ of Sense8, then the love this couple embodies is its central expression. Their devotion to each other is shown to transcend gender, sexuality, and sex itself.
Nomi’s struggle to be recognised as a woman by her family, by the gay community, and by society at large feels very real. But if Sense8 had taken her as a sole protagonist, and made this a story centrally about her struggle, it wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact. Instead, this experience is what makes her; it becomes her motivation. She emerges as, effectively, the leader of her Sensate ‘cluster’ in the show’s final episodes, with Gorski as her number two.
Nomi has already dealt with the experience of shared consciousness, shared sensation, shared touch. She has already had to learn to embrace the notion of identity and subjectivity as fluid. She is the perfect heroine for our times. Other writers, including Warren Ellis (in Trees, from Image Comics) have recently featured sympathetic, realistic portrayals of trans people in their work, but none have found such a clever way of making the characters’ experience as a trans person factor into their unique ‘power’ or ability. Nomi is by far the most interesting character on television this year, for that reason alone.
There are other character arcs in Sense8 which achieve similarly thoughtful and fascinating explorations of alternative lifestyles, such as the polyamory (of sorts) which exists between Lito (played by Miguel Angel Silvestre), Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Daniela (Erendira Ibarra). It is not until the final few episodes where even they are able to embrace and accept that life has led them into a ‘marriage’ of three, rather than of two. The way in which their relationship unfolds (or, arguably, begins) feels utterly real—the characters struggle with societally-imprinted notions of monogamy, sexuality, identity, ownership... and finally come up with a fluid definition which fits them.
Sexuality is most frankly addressed in the ‘mind meld’ orgy which takes place in episode six. From this point onwards, each of the characters gains a kind of acceptance of the strange experiences they are undergoing. Post-orgy, the show kicks into a higher gear, allowing each character to call on the others in times of distress, and to channel their particular skills, from martial arts to stunt driving.
It is the ease and unconcern with which this bisexual orgy is assimilated, not just by the characters self-defined as non-heterosexual, but by the manifestly hetero, alpha-male types - Gorski, and Max Riemelt’s German gangster Wolfgang - which shows Sense8 at its most progressive. Before the orgy, these characters have already experienced what it is like to ‘be’ one another. They’ve already achieved total empathy, of sense and of experience, with one another. The Wachowskis’ very beautiful and elegant conclusion is that after this, a pan-sexual orgy (even one experienced on the psychic plane) is nothing to worry about.
Such frank, brave representations of fluid states of sexuality and monogamy are hard to discuss in fiction, as they often are in society, without overtones of exploitation or tokenism. Sense8’s central premise of empathy-based shared consciousness normalises these ways of being, and in the process it legitimises them.
This is why Sense8 feels like the kind of thing Philip K. Dick might have written, had he lived to see this bold new era, with its growing acceptance of the fluid nature of identity, gender, sexuality and self. His books are sometimes criticised for their misogyny, both intentional and unintended. But at heart, Dick believed in empathy as the highest of the human virtues. A show exploring the notion that we share more than divides us, no matter what barriers or labels we choose or are born with, would have appealed to him.
It is a show absolutely designed for a millennial audience – the tropes of its plot are easy to recognise, and well-worn. You can check your phone, IM your friends, IMDB the actors and update your Facebook to your heart’s content while watching it—you won’t miss much. The shadowy authority chasing the Sensates, and the quasi-shamanic induction sessions featuring Lost’s Naveen Andrews, are by far the least interesting and least important aspects of the show. In fact, it is largely possible to ignore or elide the plot completely, and still enjoy Sense8.
What will have you looking up in surprise are moments of personal revelation, or the tenderness of the performances of each of the ensemble cast, as they gently unravel each others’ pasts and motives and begin to challenge their own preconceptions about life, love and reality. Sense8 is post-narrative—an anti-story, where the plots and subplots play second fiddle to emotional payoffs and heart-stoppingly intimate scenes.
Theme, character and – of course, because this is a Wachowskis’ production—sumptuous visuals trump story, or even worldbuilding. Sense8 is also laced with the same camp, sometimes infantile, often slapstick humour as Cloud Atlas—resulting in a tone that, while it can feel jarring, has become a stylistic hallmark of the Wachowskis’ most interesting work.
Increasingly, that tone seems to be a perfect, resonant fit with the linked-in, meta-conscious millenial mindset. Sense8 is a dizzying, multicoloured tone poem more than a pulse-pounding thriller. The plot is window-dressing for an ambitious, experimental approach to character development. It is not about what is happening, so much as it is about whom it is happening to, and what that feels like.
Straczynski, in an interview with Indiewire, discusses having long-term plans for the concept and the characters, but also describes the show as the “weirdest pitch” he has ever made. Certainly, the notion of posthuman heroes on the run from a society which hates and fears them is nothing new—but the concept also has serious legs. It is a familiar narrative, and one audiences will follow along with, especially if the Wachowskis can continue to deliver such compelling character arcs.
Most impressively, Sense8 offers us a blueprint with which to explore more diverse characters and relationships in genre TV – if the showrunners resist taking it in the direction of being a show about people with psychic powers, and instead develop and explore the notion of what shared consciousness can achieve, we could be looking at a mythology as powerful and enduring as the X-Men. Certainly, this first season seems to have less of a narrative interest in ‘powers’ than it does in empathy.
At the very least, Sense8 achieves two important things—it joyfully and effortlessly brings queer, trans and non-heterosexual characters to life, in a way that is neither tokenistic nor obejctifying. It makes them heroes, and it makes them ordinary. This is important work, and the Wachowskis should be applauded for attempting it, and getting it right.
But Sense8 is also an object lesson for writers on other genre shows, offering a compelling cast of characters who—while drawn from the same pool of talents, interests, looks and lifestyles as the usual archetypal characters—are taken in extremely interesting and complex directions. This allows viewers to explore and challenge their own notions of what love is, what happiness is, and what friendship and solidarity look like.
Most of all, Sense8 offers hope—hope that humankind and human consciousness can evolve, that love can triumph over hatred and persecution. Its ‘big ideas’ are about people, and about our minds, rather than about society, or politics—just like the best fiction of Philip K. Dick. It is not utopian fiction, but it is a very different beast from the common-or-garden dystopias on offer in most TV and film SF. That alone makes it an important and original piece of work, and well worth your attention.
Bram E. Gieben is a writer and performer based in Glasgow. See more of his work at bramegieben.co.uk