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Arts in Review

The many contradictions of Sense8

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After three years, a cancellation, a very loud fan campaign, and, ultimately, a revival, Netflix’s Sense8 came to an end this summer with one final, movie-length episode. Its story — of eight psychically-linked characters living across the world — ended the same way it started: as a shining beacon of contradiction.

It’s not that the plot is contradictory in itself — it’s a twisting, complicated, conspiracy-filled story, yes — but it’s internally consistent. The contradictions manifest throughout the show, and nowhere more strongly than in the tone. Sense8 tries to be two things at once: both a contemporary sci-fi story about shadowy organizations hunting not-quite-human protagonists, and a more dramatic story, one grounded in the stories of those people’s ordinary lives. And those personal stories are (with perhaps one or two exceptions) fantastic and engaging.

When the show tries to explain the psychic links between characters, however, or wades into the history surrounding links like theirs, it gets bogged down in uninteresting and far-too-complex details that don’t matter to the stories that actually engage the viewer. The show is at its strongest when telling the story of real people dealing with complicated, dramatic situations, as an invisible support network in their heads backs them up. All attempts at building a larger overarching narrative are, while helpful in that they add a sense of progression and cohesion to the story, not actually, you know, interesting. See Orphan Black for another perfect example of this problem.

That said, not all contradictions are bad, by any means. The way Sense8 juggles tone is masterful to watch: the show can reach some very dark, very real places, can burst with joy, can turn into full-on comedy, and can be a cheesy soap opera, a brutal revenge story, and a techy spy thriller all in one episode, and shift seamlessly back and forth between them. Each of the eight characters are strong in their own right, and most could carry a full movie of their own (though a few, most notably German safe-cracker Wolfgang, do fall behind).

The Netflix format also works dramatically in Sense8’s favour. Like most of their shows, it’s a slow burn, ramping up the tension as episodes go by after a slow start. While there are peaks and valleys of interest, with so many storylines running side by side it’s hard to find an episode where there won’t be at least something of interest for most viewers. When it reaches its finale, the first half of the lengthy final episode does drag, but the show does an admirable job of tying up loose ends that were meant to last for two more seasons — the big mysteries are solved, the big choices are made, and while some characters’ personal storylines are left unfinished, they are in a calm enough place that viewers can assume a satisfying ending without having been shown it.

One element of Sense8 that needs to be discussed reaches beyond the show itself; the show has been divisive amongst viewers for being diverse in its cast and story. Some have criticized the show as pandering, especially towards LGBTQ+ audiences, but those arguments don’t hold much weight when looking at the show as a whole. Sense8 is a series about connection, love, and bringing people together. Both the main eight characters and the extended cast around them are supportive of each other, and there’s never a hint of betrayal from any character we’re meant to like (which is unusual for this genre). It’s ultimately a message of unity, of coming together despite any superficial differences to serve a common goal of making the world a place that everybody can live in and be themselves in. And really, how could you tell a story and make that point with a cast as homogenous as a more typical sci-fi shows’?

Ultimately, Sense8 is far from perfect, and is sometimes sloppy and confusing, but it’s a show that keeps you engaged, and draws the emotions it’s aiming for without coming across as manipulative. Watching it through for the first time as a full package, without the need to wait between seasons, it works as a cohesive whole far better than a show cut so short has any right to. In fact, it feels like, given two more seasons, the show could have dragged on and gone too far down the deep end of sci-fi backstory. Maybe getting cancelled and then revived for one last hurrah was the best thing for Sense8.

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