Netflix premiered the second season of Sense8 last week. As I wrote about at the end of its first season, and when its Christmas special debuted late last year, It remains a great big mess of a show, but one that’s so ambitious, so endearing, and so much fun when all of its many globetrotting elements are all working together, that I will forgive it the many moments where it feels like pure gibberish.
And the second season was much stronger overall than the first, both because co-creators Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski had gotten all of the set-up out of the way, and because they had learned as much as their characters about how all of this works. Here are a few specific things the show did better in season two — with spoilers for the whole season — coming up just as soon as I mix you the world’s best sidecar…
Less explaining, more punching.
The premise at this point is a bit like why no one recognizes Clark Kent as Superman, just because he wears a pair of glasses and slouches a little: the more time spent trying to justify it, the sillier it seems. Season two certainly doesn’t lack for technobabble about where sensates come from, how the clusters interact, what BPO’s agenda is, etc., but it’s mainly confined to a couple of subplots, and easier to tune out while so much else is happening. As Todd VanDerWerff has noted, the new season felt more like a television show, with specific goals for the characters in each episode rather than the usual Netflix “10-hour movie” slog, and part of that differentiation from episode was making sure there was at least one great action set piece — nearly all of them more ambitious than what the show attempted a year ago — per episode. Lana Wachwoski’s one of our greatest working directors of action, and this season had some doozies: Sun trying to fend off a group of assassins with a noose around her neck, the cluster vs. cluster fight (more on that in a moment), and that stunning chase scene through the streets of Seoul early in the finale. It’s much easier to forgive the show its various indulgences when it can frequently offer something so thrilling.
(The kinetic, easy-to-follow style of the fight scenes, and how great Doona Bae in particular is at them, only makes Iron Fist look lamer in comparison.)
More clusters = more fun.
While I don’t much care how clusters are formed or what the evil corporation wants to do with them, seeing how members of one cluster interact with others brought a lot of energy and surprise to the new episodes, and particularly in the cluster-on-cluster violence in Germany when Lila tried to set up Wolfgang for assassination. The image of the two clusters standing in a line, throwing punches (and being punched) in unison, was among the season’s most vivid. And having more sensates out there interacting with our crew opens up possibilities for various action scenarios beyond one of our heroes needing to escape and finding a conveniently-placed bus for Capheus to drive, a guard for Lito distract, a computer system for Nomi, Amanita, and Bug to infiltrate, lather, rinse, repeat.
Everybody has a story.
Because so much of the first season had to be devoted to the eight leads learning about and accepting their connection to one another, a lot of their individual storylines felt pretty underfed. Now that everybody knows, more or less, how it works, their own personal tales began taking on greater resonance, from Lito dealing with the personal highs and professional lows of coming out of the closet to Nomi’s father standing up for her — and calling her “my daughter” — at her sister’s wedding. Having Capheus run for office seems foolish for the sake of anonymity — as the other Kenyan sensates point out when they visit him — but it did allow him to deliver that eloquent campaign rally speech summarizing the show’s themes about the importance of connecting, choosing bridges over walls, etc.
Riley and, especially, Will, are two of the show’s less exciting characters, so it’s a smart move to not only pair them off physically (since they don’t have the kind of compelling supporting ensembles that a Nomi or Lito does), but have them focus almost entirely on investigating Whispers and BPO. They get to move the show’s larger plots along, and with rare exceptions (like the return of Joey Pants as Will’s dying father), we don’t have to worry too much about what’s happening in lives they’ve largely abandoned, anyway, for the good of the cluster.
I enjoy this show a lot, and hope Netflix keeps it — one of the few shows in their stable to significantly improve as it’s gone along — around for a while to come.
A few other thoughts:
* As alluded to above, the show is starting to reach “Aquaman in Superfriends” levels of trying to get everyone’s skillsets involved, like having Sun use a bus to escape the prison. Wachowski and Straczynski still haven’t tried to find a combat application for Riley’s DJ skills, but it was nice to see even Kala get in on the action, literally, by using her science brain in the Seoul parking garage to light the bad guys’ car on fire.
* Circumstances prevent Kala from telling Rajan about the cluster, and it’s interesting to see how few of them have told their loved ones about it this far into the series. Amanita knows — and now Bug does, which led to some of this season’s funnier moments — and Riley tells Will’s ex-partner Diego about it, but Lito hasn’t told Hernando, Wolfgang hasn’t told Felix, etc. The far-flung nature of the characters and the varying genres of their stories means Sense8 doesn’t suffer from the secret identity problem that a lot of superhero shows (which this very much is at its core) do, but you would think Lito, at least, would consider it, given how close he and Hernando are.
* I still don’t entirely understand the physical laws of the sensate experience. In the first season, it was presented as if one member of the cluster could stand in for another physically — Sun fighting on Capheus’s behalf, or Wolfgang doing the same for Lito — but there was still only the one body present in any given moment, even if all eight were mentally in the room. But there were several instances this season where things played out as if others were physically there, too, like Will breaking off a piece of a vent in the police van to pick the lock on Sun’s handcuffs. It’s entirely possible this has been explained in dialogue, but, again, Sense8 is at its worst when characters talk about how this all works.
* Having Sun’s brother seemingly get away with things because of his influential politician friend is frustrating, but it’s meant to be, and I was glad to hear Detective Mun survived his injuries, since Sukku Son and Doona Bae worked very well together in their various fighting/flirting scenes.
* Nice choice of Cheyenne Jackson, who is part Native American but zero percent Latino, as the Oscar-winning actor who will be Lito’s co-star in his first big American movie. Sense8 is one of the most diverse shows ever made, but Hollywood as a whole still tends to hire the most recognizable white actor or actress for even the most explicitly ethnic of roles.
What did everybody else think?