Sense8 and sensibility, or
how it became necessary to queer the world in order to save it

by Deborah Shaw and Rob Stone

Making sense of Sense8 requires a certain sensibility.[1][open endnotes in new window] Dreamt up by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski for Netflix, Sense8 dropped onto the global streaming platform on 5 June 2015. The first episode introduced a multinational ensemble cast playing eight strangers from different parts of the world. And, as viewers discovered that these characters shared mental, physical and emotional experiences that amounted to radical empathy, so the viewers claimed to share the characters’ radical empathy too, not only via their viewing of the series but through an online fanbase that would grow to determine the fate of the series. Ostensibly the show was a science-fiction series, relating how eight “sensates” realize they are a separate species named Homo Sensorium; the disparate group can communicate telepathically, body-swap in times of need, and transcend time and space to form a resistant, even militant unit that fights for survival against a sinister organization. Although in its effect Sense8 quickly transcended its synopsis, we provide a brief outline here, especially useful for readers who have not seen the series.

The characters: “You are no longer just you”

To give a sense of the series without detailing the widely varying episode incidents, we will briefly describe the characters. There is an onscreen cluster of eight members of a separate species termed Homo Sensorium who share a birth date of 8 August (the eighth month). The episode plotlines generally serve to show the ways that radical empathy sets these characters apart from stalled human evolution (the figure 8 also is the symbol of infinity). Many of the plotlines revolve around action adventures, but there is a difference from most action plots: these characters share an empathetic psychic connection, can hear and converse with each other, and can appear in each other’s lives when the occasion demands.

After they find they can ‘visit’ fellow members of their cluster, they progress to ‘sharing’ and become an eight-strong ‘being’. As Jonas explains the process to Will, this sharing can only occur with his “seven other selves” within the cluster; and sharing allows them all to (in Jonas’s words) access “each other’s knowledge, language, skills.” At times of greatest emotional and physical intensity, all the sensates appear together, which turns sex into an orgy, for example, and a fight into a full-on brawl, Lito’s coming out speech at São Paulo’s Pride into a collective celebration of self-affirmation, and a classical music concert in Iceland into the occasion of group therapy, with each sensate reliving memories of his/her/their birth.

One of the sensates Bak Sun (Bae Doona) is a businesswoman from Seoul with extraordinary fighting skills. She finds herself embroiled in her family’s corruption, then takes the fall, is incarcerated and breaks out in search of revenge. Neglected and overlooked by her father after her mother’s early death and burdened with looking out for her selfish brother, Sun expresses her frustrations via martial arts. She becomes a star of underground kickboxing, a male-dominated milieu (as indicated by the title of S01:E03, ‘Smart Money’s on the Skinny Bitch’).

Another action character is Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt), a streetwise Berliner, expert fighter and safe cracker, born into a gangster dynasty and pushed into gangland culture.  The progeny of his abusive father’s rape of his sister, Wolfgang kills his father when just a boy and still resents his cousin and kingpin uncle, who did nothing to protect him or his sister/mother from his father.

Wolfgang enjoys a reciprocated passion for his Mumbai-based cluster-mate Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai). Kala is a highly competent chemist who struggles to reconcile her faith with science, professional duties with moral imperatives, and a chaste affection for her husband with an undeniable passion for Wolfgang. As an action heroine, she has no compunction about killing, and as a chemist, she provides the cluster with chemical blockers to prevent their mortal enemy Whispers from ‘visiting’ the cluster.

The cluster is also joined by Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago cop with fighting prowess, heightened detective skills, and a strict moral code. Although seemingly a privileged white male cop, Will has been stigmatized by his psychic gifts ever since he was a child, when he was first ‘visited’ by Sara Patrell, a young girl murdered by Whispers. That experience damaged Will’s relationship with his ex-cop father (Joe Pantoliano), whose belief in his son’s psychic gifts was ridiculed by police colleagues.

Will is in love with fellow sensate Riley Gunnarsdóttir (Tuppence Middleton), an internationally renowned DJ from Reykjavik with a tragic past. Riley experienced the death of her husband and new-born baby in a car crash; grief-ridden, she left Iceland for London and plunged into the solace of its drug-ridden rave scene. Her increasingly maternal role and musical talents bind the cluster together, attract other sensates, and help maintain their well-being throughout the series’ varied adventures.

Then there is Capheus Onyango (played by Aml Ameen in S01 and Toby Onwumere in S02), a Nairobi matatu (pimped-up bus) driver turned political activist. He is known affectionately to locals as Van Damme for his love of the Belgian action star. His gifts are courage, driving skills, and honesty in the face of criminal violence. He even becomes an anti-corruption political candidate. Capheus is struggling to raise money to pay for his mother’s AIDS medication, but his inter-tribal heritage renders him an outsider and his moral integrity sets him in conflict with local small-time and big-shot gangsters.

In terms of characters who are trans or gay/lesbian, San Francisco-based Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender woman and computer hacktivist, a dispenser of wry wisdom. She is on the FBI’s most-wanted list until she commits e-death and erases her life completely from all existing data. At one point, Nomi’s mother sanctions the sinister organization, BPO as it attempts to lobotomize her daughter in a perverse attempt to reverse Nomi’s previous gender reassignment surgery.

And finally, there is Lito Rodríguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), an initially closeted gay B-movie actor from Mexico City, who frequently shares his acting skills with his cluster members to get them out of danger. Lito keeps his true self secret from his loving mother and his fans. He is socially ostracized when a vengeful attempt at blackmail results in his exposure and enforced coming out. But, thanks to his cathartic speech at São Paulo Pride he becomes an internationally famous gay icon and secures a breakthrough Hollywood role.

Secondary human characters inhabit a kind of hierarchy topped by those who are gradually let in on the secrets of the cluster:

Amanita and Bug watch as Nomi inhabited by Sun watches a Korean video of her brother being interviewed on television. Hernando and Daniela paint Lito’s toenails.

The plot also features other sensates in flashbacks. In particular, one flashback features the birth of the cluster as experienced by Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah). Interestingly, her name suggests a homage to Alan Turing’s advances in computing and it connects the sensates with his history of queer persecution, while also suggesting a correlation between sensate powers and the connectivity of computers and cyberspace.

That people who have never met and who live very distinct lives in very different parts of the world should discover themselves via empathy to be members of an exclusive cluster was also a perfect concept for the Netflix audience to recognize as their bonding experience of viewing Sense8. An underlying social condition shaped the use of the sci-fi genre and affected much of the audience’s devotion. That is, the Wachowskis recognized that in our corrupt and threatened world they needed a science fiction premise to demonstrate the ways in which empathy was a rare quality, perhaps equivalent to super strength or invisibility, and therefore a quality found only in superheroes. Such a series’ premise then implied that each viewer could become a superhero by simply expressing empathy. No wonder that the fanbase’s glimpses of utopian fulfilment, when snatched away by the series’ cancellation, resulted in such a passionate fan response that it led to the granting of a series finale. That finale then was full of utopian resolutions replete with interpretative understandings of the concept, theory and practice of trans*. In addition, it offered ideas of being and becoming that are interrogated via queer subjectivity. As a result, this final episode was less of a conclusion, than a prologue to what those same gender-savvy fans might hope to realize in life.