Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s a very particular wavelength that some TV shows function on, and that are subsequently far more rewarding and entertaining when you’re clicking and riding along that same emotional swath of storytelling. Most recently, a show like This Is Us debuted to massive, gushing fandom, perhaps due to everyone’s sudden need to have something fictional to cry over every week, but also thanks to the fact that it was just consistently, impressively great at earning those tears.
I won’t go so far as to say Sense8 is your next great weepfest, but I will say that the under-appreciated little sci-fi gem more than deserves to be a widely beloved obsession at any scale. The show works – more than ever in season 2 I’m happy to say – because its loftiest science fiction parables never once obfuscate the crackling emotional core of its vibrant, inclusive cast. They work side-by-side, one aspect of the show elevating the other, and as season 2 expands the mythology (and blows your mind), the sensates at the center of the adventure likewise grow and change in unendingly interesting ways.
But perhaps I’m burying the lede. First and foremost, the second episode of Sense8‘s sophomore season picks up after the show’s Christmas special from last year (which is now technically considered season 2 episode 1), and cements the show’s nuttiest, psychic warfare ideas. Like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, Will (Brian J. Smith) has made eye contact with the elusive Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann), meaning that the villainous magistrate of BPO can visit Will’s life through a psychic connection whenever he pleases, putting the lives of everyone in Will’s cluster at risk.
As season 2 picks up, Riley (Tuppence Middleton) continues to dose up Will with heroin to keep him in a prolonged state of mental exhaustion, somewhat successfully preventing Whispers from entering Will’s mind. Elsewhere, Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is ever-so-slowly coming out of the closet in the crushingly homophobic movie industry in Mexico City; Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a fugitive in San Francisco trying to dig up as much dirt on Whispers as possible; Sun (Doona Bae) remains in prison and sees a target on her back widening, likely at the behest of her nefarious brother; and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) deals with the fallout of killing his uncle Sergey, which has left somewhat of a power vacuum open in the Berlin underworld.
Still slightly less interesting are Kala (Tina Desai) and Capheus (Toby Onwumere, replacing Aml Ameen), whose subplots about a turbulent new marriage and bus driving in Nairobi are Sense8‘s least exciting roadblocks. The recasting of Capheus slowly becomes less of an issue outside of Onwumere’s weird debut in the Christmas special, but the actor lacks Ameen’s gushing, charming spark. Despite all of this, Kala and Capheus’ subplots represent another pro for Sense8: I still intensely care about them. For a show that is essentially 8 stories running concurrently, that’s a massive achievement in storytelling.
The show’s second season continues to appropriately evolve this year, doing a good job of not only expanding upon – and answering – central questions raised by the end of season 1, but also not being coy with finally explaining the Big Mysteries and introducing new knots for viewers to unravel. Obviously, I can’t praise specific shocks here, but I can say that within the first few hours of season 2 I felt a satisfying chunk of the show’s byzantine backstory had already been ever-so-slightly filled in, complete with Netflix’s patented just-one-more cliffhangers.
Beyond straightforward, propulsive stories, Sense8 is a marvel in a sheer technical sense. The new season’s best, goosebump-inducing moments are the simplest, like when Lito and Capheus both find themselves lassoed into uncomfortable interviews, and unconsciously begin using their shared state of fear as a basis to stand up together 10,000 miles apart. That moment – and many others – are edited beautifully and boast some of the richest cinematography seen in any Netflix original, flashing back-and-forth between Mexico City and Nairobi with a hectic pace that a layperson would wrongly label as frenetic, as something that lacks an attention span, but that every Sense8 fan could easily identify as pure finesse.
It’s a learned-language, sort of like the themes covered in last year’s Arrival, and exactly like the connected sensates at Sense8‘s center, that makes watching Netflix’s show feel like some kind of mental expansion. The characters aren’t just hearing and seeing one another, they’re feeling them, knowing them, able to pick up scents of a childhood home or the moment a parent died just by having one of their “visits,” and Sense8 – as a 2D, 21st century TV medium – is near groundbreaking in the imperfect, scatterbrained-yet-sensical depiction of such high concepts. “It felt fucking biblical,” one sensate remarks about the shared death of a member of their cluster at one point this season, coming pretty close in also describing the show’s more mind-bending moments.
Sense8 is made up of moments like that, but also small ones, and it flourishes – and perhaps even succeeds – because of them. Tiny, inconsequential scenes are tantamount to the larger emotional resonance at play, and co-creators Lana Wachowski & J. Michael Straczynski know how to paint in the details, like when Lito’s devoted, gay-loving BFF Daniela (Eréndira Ibarra) sinks down in her seat when a movie theater audibly bristles at an on-screen love scene between Lito and a woman. Or when Riley’s cool-as-a-cucumber papa (Kristján Kristjánsson) sits titled back in an Amsterdam cafe lilting out “Secret Agent Man” to his on-the-run daughter.
These people are tangible and real, and they’re just side characters. I don’t have nearly enough room to boast about Sense8‘s massive cast, so I’ll pick and choose my favorites here. Rising to Big Bad status as Mr. Whispers, Terrence Mann is the boundary-defining villain that season 1’s somewhat amorphous psychedelic road trip needed more of. He’s tense, implacable, and uncannily unnerving behind those magnified spectacles, and the more Will meets up with him, the scarier he gets. As Will, Smith is the sort of everyman blank slate a show like this needed from the get-go, but he does a whole helluva lot to work beyond preconceived notions that he doesn’t have his own fuck-ups to bring to table.
Notably, he has nice chemistry with Sense8‘s reigning MVP: Tuppence Middleton. The actress, so quiet and powerful, rocked the back half of Sense8 season 1 with one indelible, raw scene after another. In comparison, she feels shockingly underused in the first half of season 2, resigned to be a babysitter for lack of a better word, but her skillful presence on screen still remains one of Sense8‘s best assets. The first few episodes set up what is surely to be another round of poignant, resonant storylines for her and her cluster to work through.
As good as she is, Middleton still isn’t my favorite part of Sense8; that part lies in a bit of a deeper mental well that’s sometimes hard to shine a light on. The best way I can put it is that the show has an economical ability to manufacture empathy on an near overwhelming scale, and it’s that very core of emotional gratification that I think makes it not only a great TV show, but a necessary one, despite its faults. Truly, Sense8 might be the current best fictional antidote to real-world toxicity and hate, because it’s stocked with characters who inherently uncover the best in one another even when the other sensates’ experiences couldn’t be further from their own. It’s a simple message, sure, but it’s one that continues to be delivered with a loving, sweet intricacy throughout the new season.
One of the most intriguing and sincere sci-fi mythologies returns in Sense8's second season, which never for a second loses sight of the aching humanity pulsing away at the center of the show's breakneck adventure.