Feel this: Sense8 and the power of pulp

Sense8 is probably most exciting show in the Netflix stable: flawed as it may be, it combines pulp with thematic ambition and gives the Wachowski sisters’ career a revitalising jolt.

The Netflix series Sense8 is not a perfect show. First of all, its ambitious — and doggedly international — scope exposes it to some infelicitous short-cuts. Perhaps the least problematic of these is a recourse to wooden, melodramatic dialogue. Of course, there’s little time for nuance when you have to cut to characters spanning various continents in any given episode, and when these same characters have to project their qualms and dramas as quickly and forcefully as possible before their allotted time is up.

With respect to one particular mini-universe in this ensemble of eight — that of the Mexican B-movie and telenovela hunk Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) — this has the unintentionally amusing effect of blurring the lines between the deliberately corny dialogue Lito spouts on his day job (which we’re clearly meant to laugh at) and the dialogue of the show proper, which is quite often just as cringe-worthy in its earnestness.

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Make believe: Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre)

But what’s more problematic is the show’s unquestioning approach to national stereotypes; again, something we can almost justify as a necessity due to time constrains but only up to a point, especially in light of the fact that a ‘right-on’ message of interconnectedness and empathy also appears to be the raison d’etre of the show.

And so Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German sensate, reminds us that his folk are not as prudish about nudity as the rest of the world, the Icelandic Riley (Tuppence Middleton), not only has a fey look and predilection towards music (here’s to Bjork and Sigur Ros!), but also has a ‘hex’ hanging over her head — tapping into the Nordic ‘forest elf’ stereotype.

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Meanwhile, the South Korean big business heiress Sun (Doona Bae) is an expert in martial arts, while the Nigerian van driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) has to remain plucky and resourceful in the wake of his mother’s AIDS diagnosis and the country’s incorrigible drive towards corruption and violent crime. And the Mumbai-based chemist Kala (Tina Desai) is inevitably rent apart between tradition and modernity, as her devout Hindu beliefs clash with the familial pedigree of (the undeniably charming and decent) man she’s about to marry, but whom she doesn’t love.

However, there’s two American characters — the ‘one per country’ quota doesn’t apply to them, it seems — and while Will  (Brian J. Smith) doesn’t stray too far from an ingrained blue collar cop going the extra mile trope, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender hacktivist who clearly gave space to the show’s co-creators — the Wachowski sisters — to explore themes dear to them.

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Taken together, Will and Nomi represent a wide-enough spectrum of American society, at least when compared to the show’s otherwise piecemeal approach to depicting the social context of their globe-scattered cast. Will is the son of a cop in his twilight years, with a clearly working class pedigree which he’s chosen to carry through, while Nomi — formerly ‘Michael’ — comes from an upper middle class stock whose comforts, conventions and trappings she has had no choice but to abandon in pursuit of her own happiness.

But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to accuse the Wachowski sisters and their co-writer on the show, the veteran J. Michael Straczynski, of chauvinism. For flawed as it may be in parts, the length of its reach can only be admired, and its fitting together of disparate characters and emotional journeys shows off a masterful exploitation of the serialised storytelling idiom.

The Matrix has you, but it’s not what you think

For better or for worse, The Matrix trilogy remains the hallmark of the Wachowskis’ career. The Keanu Reeves-starring cyberpunk pastiche was one of those ‘once in a generation’ things: a pair of barely-tested filmmakers were given the chance to realise an ambitious (that word will keep popping up) project in a move that paid off handsomely, and in the Wachowskis’ case even resulted in the birth of a franchise.

That the Matrix sequels proved to be bloated and ultimately unsatisfying affairs has now become common knowledge, but the core of the Matrix lay in the Wachowskis’ successful harvesting of cyberpunk literature and culture in a way that renders it palatable to a new generation which — crucially — had  just begun to experience the phenomenon that the genre itself prophesised: the Internet.

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Fast-forward to 2015, and Sense8 refines that commentary further, by telepathically linking its global cast through a shared hallucination-cum-memory and forcing them to empathise in mind, body and soul with their fellow sensates. For us digital natives, the constant communication among the global cast does not feel at all alien: it’s no different than toggling from one browser tab to another (or better still, one chat window to another). To reinforce the point, Nomi’s partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) actually describes the process as being like Facetime, only without any devices to facilitate it.

But the body wins

However, just like The Matrix showed us that what happens in the eponymous virtual reality has a real stake in the physical world, so Sense8 takes our for-granted approach to global communication that one step further by allowing its characters to physically inhabit and influence the world of other senseates. While this allows for other shortcuts and convenient ‘here comes the cavalry’ moments (more on that below), the Wachowskis are also clearly invested in exploring the power and impact of physicality for its own sake.

Nowhere is this made clearer than the infamous orgy scene from Episode 6, ‘Demons’. It was of course much talked-about on release for obvious reasons, and certainly makes for titillating television even on its superficial merits. But I would like to suggest that the decision to ‘bond’ the characters in this way is far from a random choice.

Sure, in a lot of ways it ticks some necessary promotional and narrative boxes — it gives the show a spike in viral visibility, and helps bring the disparate narratives together for a brief but memorable sequence — but the crescendo that it builds and the framing choices the Wachowskis employ in presenting it suggest that with this scene, the show is after more than just Game of Thrones-style clickbait-headline-grabbing.

Zoning in on the characters already engaged in some form of physical activity — the bulk of it being sex, of course, but Will gets in on the action simply by dint of spending some time at the gym, while the oft-nude Wolfgang ‘hosts’ the entire party at a sauna — the scene ramps up the passion not by focusing on pornographic money shots and a linear drive towards orgasm. Instead, it makes it a point to concentrate on the pleasure of all involved, and the Wachowskis are careful to give an identity and purpose to each of the participants.

To bring the point home that this is about the body first and foremost, and not about sex in particular, poor Will has to keep a straight face while lifting weights at the gym when he suddenly finds himself driven to orgasm by his newfound telekinetic brother-and-sisterhood.

Conflicted: Tina Desai

Conflicted: Tina Desai

And the fact that not all the sensates participate in the scene is further evidence that this is not just a cheap attempt to get a rise out of the audience. Because at that point in the story, Riley, Sun and Kala aren’t in the right emotional place to partake in a joyous orgy.

The virginal Kala — crucially, she waves off sex ed advice from a fussy aunt by invoking the wisdom of “the Internet” — is fending off both an unwanted marriage and a sudden attraction to fellow sensate Wolfgang, so that participating in the orgy in which he’s present would make little sense in her arc. Sun, while certainly no stranger to physicality owing to her — subsequently quite handy — combat skills, is biding her time with monk-like patience after making a heartbreaking sacrifice for the sake of her corrupt brother.

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

But while Riley’s harried state of mind — the narcotics-happy DJ has fallen on the wrong end of a drug deal gone wrong — also excludes her from the seratonin-spiking get-together, this doesn’t mean that the character, calibrated masterfully as the show’s emotional centre by a tender, raw and vivid performance from Middleton, has no claim on physicality.

But rather than sexual congress, it is childbirth that marks the most significant blot on her emotional journey, and another attention-grabbing scene depicting a live birth confirms the Wachowskis’ commitment to depicting how the physical nature of life will always trump arbitrary, remote connection.

In way, it’s almost a direct affront to a strong and consistent strand in one of the Wachowskis’ key influences for the Matrix trilogy: William Gibson’s landmark work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. In Gibson’s 1984 novel, hackers — or digital ‘cowboys’ — often derisively refer to our bodies as being simply “meat”. With Sense8, the Wachowskis appear to be determined to reinstate the value of what goes on inside our meat-containers while still operating in a genre that taps into the cyberpunk modus operandi.

Binge-watching towards empathy

But there’s another way in which the mechanism of Sense8 works to put the Wachowskis’ humanist message forward… though in this case, it’s probably Straczynski who can take the bulk of the credit for putting his vast experience of serialized writing into play.

In a way that’s both counter-intuitive and shrewd, the creative team behind Sense8 tapped into the pop culture reservoir originally opened up by Marvel Comics’ X-Men and their various multi-media iterations, by uniting a group of ‘special’ individuals under the tutelage of two sage renegades — Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas Malicki (Naveen Andrews) — partly as a warning shot that their ‘kind’ is in danger, and being pursued by an errant member of their erstwhile species, ‘Whispers’ (Terrence Mann).

But for the bulk of the series, this isn’t the main motor of the narrative; it’s more like a ghostly nudge that turns into a bona fide push as the first season accelerates towards its climax. What hooks us instead are the individual narratives of the various characters, and when they interlace it feels like an added bonus.

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

An ancillary — but certainly not trivial — side-effect of this structural choice is that it places all of the various questions on an almost equal emotional footing; so that a romantic discord between Lito and his beloved Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) is placed side-by-side with the comparatively much harsher realities Capheus has to contend with.

Intentional or not, this has the wonderful effect of reminding us that, while the characters day-to-day situations and national, cultural and economic context vary greatly, we can come to understand their emotional priorities and respect them accordingly.

In a world where discourse is dominated by the — sometimes blinkered — drive to “out” who is more privileged than whom, and where empathy is limited to either dry facts or sensationalised sob stories, Sense8 reminds us that the way to understand someone is to first understand that, just like you, they have a day-to-day life in which they reckon with things wonderful and mundane, life-altering and life-threatening, at nearly every turn.

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

And while the Wachowskis have left details about the sensates‘ overall purpose and mission tantalizingly open to interpretation (read: ripe for exploration in subsequent seasons of the show), perhaps one thing we can assume about the reason why they exist, is simply to remind us that it is in fact possible to tap into something resembling a common wellspring of humanity… but that taking the importance of the flesh into account — as life-giving, pleasurable, deadly and prone to death and termination as it may be — is crucial to this process.

Just like you can’t hashtag your way into social justice — as recent developments all over the world have shown — so you can’t truly appreciate the value of other human beings without doing your damnedest to quite literally walk a mile in their shoes. Or, you know, temporarily possess their body to vanquish evil henchmen thanks to the martial arts skills you happen to have, and they don’t.

The rudiments of story win, too

Of course, there’s another reason why the conceit of interconnected body-hopping humans is handy for Straczynski and the Wachowskis. To wit, it’s a clever way of legitimising deus ex machina. They don’t always get away with it: there will be points when you’ll ask yourself why a sensate manages to interfere in certain instances, and not others.

But on the whole, it works in tandem with viewer expectations and makes for great moments of catharsis. This is particularly evident in the climactic episode, where the story slots into the kind of ‘chase’ sequence that you expect from X-Men-style narratives of marginalized super-powered beings fleeing from, the confronting, those persecuting them.

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

In a lot of ways, Sense8 works despite its niggles because it meshes form and content in a way that other shows don’t. The very idea of the sensates suddenly forced to come together and reckon with each of their individual life stories, and feed on each others’ abilities, works perfectly with the serialised television format, where multiple character arcs are not only possible, but actively encouraged.

It’s also clearly in line with the Wachowskis’ own ambitions, which have often resulted in stillborn feature film productions, but are finally given space to flourish in a 12-episode format.

Sense8 is a heady, febrile tumble that does suffer a few bumps and scratches on its breakneck descent. But it’s also a positive flip-side to the Wachowskis’ narrative sincerity and ambition; where their cinematic output has all too often revealed how such an approach can backfire. How a second season fares is still up in the air, of course, but the fact that its course remains touch-and-go already makes it a more exciting prospect than your usual TV fare.

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Please consider donating to the Patreon page for MIBDUL — the comic book series I’m currently working on with the artist Inez Kristina. 

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