More than most, Lana and Lilly Wachowski have had quite the rollercoaster career in Hollywood. The duo first broke through with the low-budget neo-noir drama Bound in 1996 to much critical acclaim, before The Matrix would cement the writing/directing duo as a household name. That film, of course, emerged as a phenomenon and kept the Wachowskis busy with two live-action sequels, a direct-to-DVD animated anthology, video games and assorted other media. However, perhaps due to the lacklustre legacy The Matrix franchise left in its wake (the original film remains a classic, thankfully), the Wachowskis have developed into some of the most divisive filmmakers working today.
Aside from their writing and producing work on the 2006 film adaptation of V for Vendetta, the duo has been behind some of the most polarizing – and disappointing, from a box office perspective – releases in recent memory. Remember that neon-colored Speed Racer film? Theirs. What about the three-hour time-hopping opus Cloud Atlas? Also a Wachowski joint. The duo even turned Channing Tatum into a half-dog warrior and Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne into a screeching tyrant in the bonkers sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending. Yet, throughout it all, the Wachowksis’ ambitious storytelling and fearlessness to explore unorthodox concepts has remained intact, even when the material they churn out may be uneven or lay far outside the mainstream. That being said, perhaps the duo’s creative tenacity is put to better use when there isn’t a pesky $170+ million budget hanging in the balance.
With Sense8, the Wachowskis may have proved that their high-minded ideas and daring sensibility are best suited for serialized television. The series debuted on Netflix in summer 2015 and was renewed for a second season before Labor Day, signalling the streaming service’s faith in the Wachowskis’ vision. Over the course of 12 episodes, Sense8 season 1 introduced viewers to a group of eight individuals who experience an awakening, becoming mentally and emotionally linked.
Featuring an incredibly diverse cast and filmed on location throughout the world, the show earned a strong critical reception and an especially warm response from the LGBT community for its representation of relevant characters and themes. However, before season 2 of Sense8 really kicks into high gear, this batch of episodes starts off with a two-hour Christmas special, with the remaining 10 episodes set to debut in the spring.
While the Sense8 Christmas special does ultimately involve the holiday season, fans expecting that the bulk of its plot to centre on the season of giving will be disappointed. Rather, most of the episode simply plays out like a traditional season premiere, catching up with the “sensates” (as they are known) some time after the conclusion of season 1.
Sun (Doona Bae) is imprisoned, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) and Will (Brian J. Smith) are on the run from the enigmatic Whispers (Terrence Mann), Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) finds a personal secret on the verge of tearing apart his professional life, etc. You get the idea. Part of what Sense8 does so well is balancing a mountain of story. Due to the psychic connection between the main characters, the series is able to shift from one storyline to the other at the drop of a hat. Since they’re all taking place simultaneously (and the characters are able to bob and weave into each other’s lives at will), the interconnected web of figures never feels overwhelming or overly convoluted.
Granted, with eight main characters to service and a ton of abstract sci-fi concepts at its core, Sense8 is one show that newcomers might feel lost in if they delve into it mid-stream. Instead, like the best of genre television, it rewards attentiveness and devotion to its complex mythos. In many ways, Sense8 manages to blend in the scope of a show like Lost (which also follows a connected group of strangers) with the finer points of the Wachowskis’ own storytelling prowess.
Fans who love the way The Matrix trilogy incorporates meaningful philosophical discussion will revel in the way Sense8 uses its central conceit to explore a wide variety of powerful concepts, and just like Cloud Atlas, the series features a broad spectrum of subplots, ranging from the oddly comedic to the incredibly bleak. In nearly any other hands, such an approach would result in a tonally erratic episode. Yet, the Wachowskis largely make it work.
Although Sense8 deftly allows the duo to play to their strengths, it also suffers from some of the same indulgences as some of their previous work. The Christmas special opens with an ethereal electronic track hopping across the globe, a neat bit of style befitting the individuals who gave the world The Matrix. This then transitions into a grander montage in which swimming and a jazzy cover of “Feeling Good” takes centre stage. As an opener to the episode, it’s an attention-getter to be sure, but this montage does go on far longer than it should have, and moreover, it’s only one of several sequences in which the plot halts for an extended hang-out with the sensates, as they celebrate their collective birthday, revel in the holiday season and engage in what can only be described as a psychic orgy. When the admittedly compelling story of Sense8 frequently pauses to bring viewers a music video, the momentum suffers, and the seams within the mythos of the series and its premise begin to show a bit too much.
However, when it’s rolling along at full speed, it’s damn entertaining. As with the bulk of the Wachowskis’ work, it certainly isn’t for everyone, as its story is more sprawling and complicated than some viewers may be willing to delve into. For those who are fascinated by what they saw in season 1 though, Sense8 appears to be back to boundary-pushing business as usual. Even though this Christmas special does little to clarify exactly where season 2 will be heading, it does whet fans’ appetite for more and proves that there’s plenty of life left in this intriguing world the Wachowskis have created.
Newcomers will likely be lost with the Sense8 Christmas Special, but those already invested in the sci-fi drama will find themselves once again swept up in its ambitious tale.