Mediocre Flashback: ‘Sense8’ Asks You, ‘What Is Human?’

Note: The original version of this post appeared elsewhere on June 9, 2015. This edit is published here on the premiere weekend of the series’ second season.

I’ve still only seen exactly two other Wachowski projects: The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta, none of their other projects ever seeming to be meant for me. Enter their streaming series, which by episode three of its first season became my first quickly-all-in Netflix original since Orange Is the New Black.

Sense8’s first season was the first true spiritual successor to everything Lost did right.

There’s a fairly substantial history of television trying to produce the “next Lost”, resulting in a long string of fairly insubstantial shows. Most of those failures tended to get wrong what it was that made Lost work, focusing too hard on trying to establish a mysterious mythology and not enough on creating characters anyone would particularly want to spend any time with. Javier Grillo-Marxuach penned a lovely history of the early Lost years.

While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was—and a lot of the criticism of the show centers around whether or not we had worked out the mythology in advance and whether or not we accurately represented to the press the extent of our preparation once the show became a success—few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.

Arguably, the reason audience members fell in love with Lost was as much, if not more, that they bonded with our ensemble as they were tantalized by the mysteries of the island. Much of our work in those early days came in the form of figuring out who those characters were, how they would interact in series, and how their stories could play out in relationship to one another.

Lost’s mythology, when properly deployed, was only ever meant to be the stage upon which its characters learned about themselves and each other, and struggled with life before and after the inciting event. I’ve no idea whether or not The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski talked about Lost at all when conceiving Sense8. It’s possible that the question of Lost’s lessons for serial storytelling are just part of the writer’s mental milieu these days. Either way, what matters in Sense8 is not where “sensates” fit into the evolution of humanity or the metaphysical mechanics of how they are connected to one another both within their cluster and without.

What matters, like it did in Lost, is how these characters deal with having been forced into being inescapably, inexplicably connected to one another.

Sense8 season one was legit, was the real deal (for me anyway), because it literally was about empathy. Rather than being thrust together in an isolated physical location as in Lost, its characters are thrust together mentally and emotionally, isolated from each other in disparate physical locations.

They don’t merely need to confront how to live with one another, but how to live within one another.

Lost had a pretty diverse cast. Sense8 followed suit, although with a much smaller one. It came a time when diversity and representation still was pushing into areas that might make some audiences uncomfortable. (That’s still true.) While the producers of Lost were told in no uncertain terms that they were not allowed to kill Jack Shephard because the network insisted the white lead remain in place, that show’s audiences didn’t necessarily have to stretch too hard to accept and come to identify with a man in a wheelchair, an Iraqi soldier, or a Korean couple.

Sense8 (and in this way it perhaps was served by being on the same service as Orange Is the New Black which had success with audiences identifying with Sophia) made a striking decision in offering to the audience a lesbian couple with a transgender woman as its first emotional hook into the central characters. We were beginning to live in a very interesting time for transgender recognition and acceptance in popular culture when Sense8 premiered, and while I don’t think the producers of Sense8 viewed making Nomi the audience’s first real emotional connection specifically as a challenge to the audience, that choice does deftly underscore the underlying narrative about empathy: the character potentially most likely to alienate some (read: straight, white, and male) viewers is the one whose fate they quickly are made to care about.

At the time of Sense8‘s first season, and as I’d argued in the original version of this post, I’d believed that the early prominence of Nomi actually became one of the season’s weaknesses near the end, as her place as the emotional pivot of Whispers’ threat to the cluster was usurped by Riley. I believed that because of this, the season didn’t quite stick the landing, although not in any way that derailed the series overall.

I later came to realize that this view actually did Nomi a great disservice as maintaining her as the damsel in distress would have devalued her.

Instead, she moved to being an integral part of the group’s efforts to rescue Riley. Leaving her merely as Whispers’ victim for the duration of the season’s arc would have left Nomi as a character with little of her own agency, the very thing even her own family kept denying her.

(Full disclosure: I was then, and am still now, a devout supporter of Nomanita. Nomi and Amanita forever.)

The mythology mostly being the background radiation that excites or impacts events in the characters’ lives, what Sense8‘s first season spent its time doing was what Lost did at its best. Who are these people, who were these people, and who will they decide to be to each other? Wolfgang tells Kala that life isn’t about who’s connected to you by “something as accidental as blood” but by “something much stronger”: choice. The irony is that these characters come into each other’s life by just as much of an accident as blood offers. Still, what they do with that accident almost entirely comes down to choice.

What is accident in this sense but another word for chance, itself another word for opportunity.

These are not people who otherwise would have come into each other’s lives. Each of them is living an experience the others are not likely to have encountered otherwise, from the outside let alone from the inside. Each of them easily could reject any of the others. Could ignore them, dismiss them. Hate them. That’s the choice we’re faced with every day, but they’re faced with it in a much more immediate and visceral way.

Sense8 pushes this as far as good exploratory humanist science fiction perhaps should, at one point putting the cluster into, for lack of a better term, a kind of empathic orgy.

One likely is meant to assume (rightly or wrongly) that in normal circumstances Will wouldn’t go for a homosexual encounter, but the thing about how a cluster works is that between “visiting” and “sharing” you’re at least in part experiencing events from the perspective of the others in your cluster in addition to your own. It must be difficult for Will, the show’s nominally-straight, white, stereotypical leading man, to carry forward any nascent homophobia he hypothetically might have, when he experiences that sex from inside the experience of a gay man. That doesn’t necessarily mean Will suddenly will expand his own romantic or sexual horizons outside the cluster. It just means he’s now open to understanding the life of someone like Lito in ways he wouldn’t have been able to do before his cluster was birthed.

(I don’t mean to have focused so much on the LGBT aspects here, although they are the most prevalent in the season itself, which doesn’t really get into divisions of race or class quite so directly. It’s perhaps an artifact of those still being amongst the issues straight audiences feel most squeamish about, and so they have a pretty direct impact on the show’s desire to talk about empathy. They’re also issues the Wachowskis more personally are attuned to.)

The title of the series’ tenth episode asked, “What is human?” While what matters narratively is the issue of how “sensates” fit into the scope of human evolution, what matters thematically is what does it mean to be a human being? What are we, and what do our differences mean, to ourselves and to each other? Sense8‘s answer is that empathy, and the connection it engenders, is what is human.

The cluster of eight “sensates” is microcosm. We are on Earth a cluster of 8 billion. We’ve been thrust together by chance, into a life shared with increasing interconnectedness across the span of a single globe. The pressures of that accident offer an opportunity to engage with and accept each other on equal terms, if we but make that choice.

Referring posts