Having recently commented about how I am watching *The Handmaid’s Tale* but it is leaving me bruised after each episode, along comes season 2 of Sense8 to act as a balm.
Where The Handmaid’s Tale is almost unrelentingly grim, a reminder of how we can be divided, stratified and brought to hate each other, Sense8 is a reminder that, although such divisions exist, there is hope, love, art and cooperative effort that unites us and brings us together.
That might sound like hippy-shit but in a show that gives us, alongside this, trans-prejudice, homophobia, political assassination, false imprisonment, water riots, trading in out of date antibiotics and more it’s fair to say that it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of things.
It should come as no surprise, and for me it didn’t really although I welcomed it, given The Wachowski’s exploration of mysticism and theology in The Matrix trilogy at least, that I found myself on familiar ground here and there’s a fairly strong pattern of taiji yin-yang dualities explored, Wolfgang and Kala as the almost anarchist, live for the moment gangster and the prim-and-proper, live for your fate/Karma dutiful wife and daughter, the cop and the drug dealer, the lonely Sun and the adored, social media obsessed Lito, the previously hyper-closeted Lito and the out and proud Nomi and so on. Given there are eight of them, it’s tempting to push the analogy a little further and look at the bagua, the trigrams of yin-yang lines. You might be familiar with these from the top and bottom halves of the i Ching, or from the Korean flag. I think people have more than 3 main impulses, but it’s an interesting exercise, and surprisingly quick and easy, to assign each of the eight to a trigram, so I suspect that’s deliberate. Also, inherent in this model is the idea of moving lines, characters that are changing. The most obvious, spoiler free, of these would be Nomi and her transition from male to female, but in this series we see major changes for several of the characters as well along a major axis of their character, which supports this theory in my mind. Carrying on with the daoist analysis, we have some fairly extreme opposites, obviously “our” sensate cluster are the heroes and they’re opposed by BPO and Whispers who are the counter-balancing force of unalloyed evil. But Angelica and Jonas, who form a double layered taiji dyad as literal mother and metaphorical father to our cluster also form a moving-line smaller taiji as individuals - sometimes showing up as allies, sometimes as enemies, sometimes more as neutrals. It might not make them as much of a threat in some people’s eyes, although personally I think it makes them more of one, but it makes them both more interesting and more real. A villain, to work well, should be the hero of their own narrative (watch Narcos and Pablo Escobar’s journey for how to take this to the logical extreme) and while we don’t see enough of Whisker’s to understand him really, it’s also hard to see how he can see himself as doing the right thing. With Jonas, and to a lesser extent Angelica (again we see less of her) we see enough to understand some of the hard choices they make. They’re not the monster under the bed, but when they are doing “bad” things, things that aren’t for the good of our heroes, I feel it a lot more, because to a greater or less extent I can sympathise with their choice.
Much though I loved season 1, even I would have to admit it was patchy, didn’t really hit its straps until episode 4 and still had definite highs and lows after that. It remained visually gorgeous and interesting and engaging but not always great. Season 2 could have had “tricky second album” syndrome, but they learnt their lessons and built on the elements that worked where they could. That’s not to say, where the story demanded other things, they didn’t go with the right choices and put the storytelling first, but where they had a chance to be stylish or lavish, they certainly didn’t pull any punches in that department either. In fact, it made some of the other choices, for crushing despair or stark utilitarianism or brutal violence all the more effective to my mind.
Like season 1, not everyone will like season 2, but this season is more consistently great than season 1 with action set pieces, emotional set pieces, tender moments and I suspect a scheduling, shooting and editing job that had multiple people reaching for the prozac. But to my mind it makes for a great spectacle and is well worth the watch. Having binged it, I think I’m going to watch it again more slowly, after the remaining episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale as a kind of balm to my psyche - that show is too good and too important not to watch but too battering to really say I enjoy it. Processing it while watching something like Sense8 will be good for me I think.
It’s practically redundant to talk about the Bechdel test when half your lead characters are female. Not every scene passes it, but every episode does, almost always multiple times. This show also passes the Russo test in multiple scenes in every episode.
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