The unlikely nature of Sense8 – A Christmas Special is also a large part of the two-hour event’s charm. The narratively and logistically ambitious series from the Wachowskis hasn’t had a new episode since the initial 12 of season 1 dropped in early June of 2015. And with Netflix apparently giving the production a wide berth – i.e., nearly two years between seasons – coming back for an almost surprise (or at least surprising) Christmas special is an interesting way to remind viewers Sense8 is still a thing, and to spark interest in the long-in-the-making second season, which drops in May (you, know, in case you didn’t catch that during the trailer for the Christmas special).
It is also interesting to note that the new season next spring offers just 10 episodes, rather than the 12 offered by the first. The special, then, being two-hours long, effectively fills in the gap left by those “absent” episodes, giving the series a full 24 (23 technically) in total, despite a technically shortened second outing. What that means for Sense8 – A Christmas Special could effectively remove it from the usual frivolity of such things, and propel it into a different category altogether. In other words, the question is: is Sense8 – A Christmas Special just that or is it really a continuation of the first season – thereby being a holiday special in name only?
Given Netflix’s vague and possibly successful marketing tactics with The OA, using a two-hour special to essentially promote a series with a passionate fan base months ahead of its premiere is not too terribly surprising. As it turns out, though, Sense8 – A Christmas Special is both: a blatant reminder that season 2 is not forgotten and a necessary continuation of the series. It has, after all, been a long while since everyone’s favorite cluster of psychically linked characters was last seen on screen. So its designation as a special is something of a misnomer, as the event doesn’t underline its thematic nature to the degree of, say, a Doctor Who Christmas special or any other television event meant to market a product for the holidays.
Instead, this is just the series getting its bearings again, reacquainting the audience with its unique ensemble cast and reminding them of the unusual forces that brought them together and the unsavory elements working to tear them apart. In that regard, the special doesn’t announce itself as such. The idea of the holidays isn’t even presented until almost 90 minutes have gone by, which actually works in the favor of the event as a whole. Like so many series in recent memory, Sense8 season 1 fashioned itself more as a proof of concept than anything else. Its flashy editing, with all of the logistical challenges of scheduling and arranging the actors in and around various global locations – often just to shoot a brief scene with one person interacting with another – was the real star of the show, a reminder of just how ambitious the series was and how big the Wachowskis’ – along with J. Michael Straczynski – thinking could be when fashioning their story of a group of strangers inexplicably linked by forces they cannot comprehend but are willing to accept nonetheless. So when the first season ended, it ostensibly began at the end of a very long – sometimes too long – introduction, an origin story of this brand new cluster being brought into the world.
The proof of concept worked. Even when it was uneven or failed completely, it was easy to overlook such shortcomings because of how delightfully earnest the series was and how completely it bought into its own outlandish story and, more importantly, the messages it was not-so-subtly trying to convey. Perhaps more so than any other project they’ve shepherded, Sense8 is packed to the brim with familiar Wachowski themes of unity and humanity – a shared bond that connects otherwise disparate individuals against a world seemingly intent on oppressing them simply for being different.
So as the Christmas special gets underway, it’s nice to see that Sense8 hasn’t lost its touch. It’s still as admirably heartfelt as ever and its ambitions are equally impressive, but its bad habits are also still front-and-center. Most of that has to do with its pacing. The show loves its characters, and that’s a huge part of Sense8‘s appeal because its very easy to be sucked in emotionally to the various threads – Lito being outed in the press and then visiting his mother on Christmas is one such example – but at a certain point, Sun’s imprisonment, Nomi’s status as a fugitive, and Capheus’ now-thriving Van Damme bus business (among others) do feel a little tangential when Mr. Whispers is still out there (not) hunting the cluster down. There’s a balance to be struck, one that has time for personal adventures and orgies (because that’s just part of the show’s distinct personality), but one that can also manage to have an overarching storyline with some sense of exigency.
To that end, Mr. Whispers is… something. He’s a threat, but a vague one, as Will only seems afflicted by his presence whenever the series needs to ramp up the tension. The villain’s appearance in the Christmas special feels more like a refresher on who he is, since he played such a relatively small part in the first season. And yet the threat Mr. Whispers represents remains in the margins of a story that can sometimes feel too diffuse for its own good because it’s too much fun indulging in the various individual character arcs.
But all character arcs are not created equal. In season 1, Tina Desai’s Kala Dandekar felt like the odd sensate out, as her thread lacked the same urgency as some of the others. It was an odd exploration of agency and class structure that wasn’t as convincing as, say, the plight of Doona Bae’s Sun – or her ability to mop the floor with just about anyone the group encounters. The Christmas special, then, pays more attention to Kala, and because of the will they or won’t they relationship she has with Wolfgang, he too get’s extra screen time. The move pays off in different ways, but the advantage is mostly for Wolfgang, who finds himself pulled into a burgeoning war between German crime lords. Meanwhile, Kala’s marriage to Rajan mostly becomes fodder for a whiplash-inducing tonal shift from an existential exploration of the connectivity of all things to a phallus-fracturing sex comedy.
There is more on the horizon, Will’s battle with Mr. Whispers and the cluster’s growing unity is showcased to a greater degree, suggesting season 2 will have more of the determination that season 1 lacked. That will certainly help the show’s narrative to come closer to its grand design. Perhaps that will also help justify the enjoyably odd shifts, clunky comedy, and sometimes-syrupy dialogue that are as much a part of what makes Sense8 so special as its ambitious structure. The show wears its heart and its shortcomings on its sleeve. That kind of vulnerability and lack of cynicism doesn’t come around often, much less on the scale of something like this. With Sense8, the Lana and Lilly Wachowski may not reach the pop cultural heights they did with The Matrix, but with this sincere, imperfect show, they clearly have other goals in mind.
Sense8 – A Christmas Special is available now on Netflix.