Season 1 of the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski’s Sense8 took a compelling idea and made it diffuse by too often concerning itself with an evaluation of… well, pretty much every idea. That’s understandable, as the series is a creative big swing that wants to mix a massive, eight-character narrative with a sprawling exploration of the human experience that also offers political thriller, science fiction, romance, and crime-thriller subplots for the discerning viewer. The sheer abundance of narrative options effectively renders Netflix’s vast, earnest, and often visually sumptuous series into a storytelling buffet. If you’re not too keen on watching a hacker disrupt the workings of a shadowy multi-national conglomerate, just wait; there’s a Korean prison break/revenge drama and a German crime saga happening at the exact same time.
While the profusion of narrative options at its disposal make Sense8 into a fascinating model of the binge-watch era, that wealth of material also worked to its detriment in its first season. The story of Will (Brian J. Smith), Nomi (Jamie Clayton), Sun (Doona Bae), Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), Capheus (Toby Onwumere), Riley (Tuppence Middleton), and Kala (Tina Desai) – not to mention Naveen Andrews’ Jonas and Daryl Hannah’s Angelica – was so big, and the writers’ desire to turn each episode into a platform to tackle topics both political and personal, all while underlining the common Wachowski theme of a unifying human experience, that it was difficult to discern what, exactly, the main story was. Thankfully, the start of season 2 demonstrates the ways in which Lana Wachowski and Straczynski have managed to add more action, narrow the series’ focus, while still managing to keep the expansive character dramas running full steam ahead.
Much of that has to do with fleshing out the conspiratorial end of the equation, giving it a face (aside from Terrence Mann’s Mr. Whispers) and, surprisingly, a hint of humanity that affords an otherwise black-and-white situation the chance to investigate more enticingly gray areas than it did before. In the first episode back (and well into the second), Sense8 spends the majority of its time addressing the cliffhanger that brought the first season to a close. The focus on Will’s battle to keep Mr. Whispers from locating and presumably eradicating his cluster of Sensates is a welcome introduction to the new batch of episodes, one that effectively gets the series out of the corner it painted itself into back in 2015.
Back then Will was in a drug-induced haze conducted under the watchful eye of Riley. It was a tricky conflict that established a compelling threat, but effectively took Will off the board and turned Mr. Whispers into an omnipresent boogieman, thereby overriding the importance of each character’s individual storyline – many of which wound up feeling like they had completely stalled out or were so propulsive they overshadowed the stalemate between Will and Whispers. The first episodes of season 2, then, are like a course correction, one that sees Will and his cluster go on the offensive, upending Whispers’ attempts to locate him, while at the same time deducing a way to exploit the two-way street that is the villain’s invasive psychic connection to undermine his position at BPO. The result, then, is a livelier back-and-forth between the pursuer and the pursued, giving the Sensates nearly the same footing as the corporation that wants to wipe them out.
The move also puts Will back in the drivers’ seat, a spot he enjoyed for the majority of season 1. Though the series works best as an ensemble, the main thrust of the overarching plot was driven in large part by Will and Riley – mainly because they were the two characters physically present for the conflict with Whispers and BPO. Although he hadn’t been out of the game that long – really just the final few minutes of the season 1 finale and the Christmas Special – Will’s drugged state and the constant panicked interruptions caused by Whispers’ inopportune appearances were already starting to wear thin. Halfway through the season 2 premiere it feels as though Sense8 is set to spin its wheels and turn the Will vs. Whispers situation into the season’s primary conflict. Thankfully, season 2 puts an end to that in hasty fashion, demonstrating just how well the cluster has learned to work with one another.
While all of that helps make the central conflict more interesting, the season also doesn’t lose track of the threads that go beyond the conflict between the Sensates and the clandestine organization seemingly hell bent on wiping them out. There are the typical asides here that also serve to push the individual plot threads forward and even weave some of them into the larger tapestry. Some threads, like Lito dealing with being publicly outed, steer the series toward more intimate territory, which leads to some pontifical moments that nonetheless feel of a piece with the series as a whole. Whereas joining Lito, his boyfriend, and live-in friend Daniela, as they deal with his career concerns and shop for a new condo, might seem like an unnecessary diversion from the more pressing concern of a psychic death squad out to kill a group of super powered individuals, the intensified focus on Whispers and BPO turns such character-based storylines into a welcome digression, one that better frames the Sense8 as what it was intended to be: a rich patchwork of interconnected and deeply personal stories that enhance a larger plotline when called upon to do so.
Sense8 season 2 demonstrates that the creators have learned some lessons from what didn’t work in season 1, and that they are taking steps to correct them. For example, there is an interesting subplot involving Wolfgang that expands on the notion of clusters and the lengths to which some go to survive that illustrates how Wachowski and Straczynski have worked to weave individual story threads into the larger narrative. The new episodes are improved in small ways, without appearing radically different from what came before. And that’s a good thing for fans of the series, as Sense8 continues to be messy and beautiful and weird, but still leaves you wanting to see more.
Sense8 seasons 1 & 2 are available in their entirety on Netflix.
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