Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Sense8 – The full spectrum of life and love

Although I have done work on the astonishing Netflix television series, Sense8 (a play on ‘sensate’) before, it was restricted to the first season. Since then, I have viewed the Christmas Special, the second season, as well as the two-and-a-half hour conclusion-substitute for a third season (which was ‘inexplicably’ cancelled by Netflix), Love Conquers All, and had my initial conviction, that it is a multi-component, visionary cinematic artwork, confirmed. Those people who have viewed the series will probably understand why I make this statement; those who have not, are encouraged to do so. However, I should add immediately that bigoted, culturally or racially biased, ‘neoconservative’ viewers will probably not enjoy the series, although (given their degree of receptivity to something novel) they may just change their conservative position if they take the brave step of viewing it. In fact, I suspect that the full-length third season was cancelled because the widespread neoconservatism in the US affected the ratings adversely enough for Netflix to reconsider the series.

From a neocon perspective it is understandable that the series is ‘unacceptable’ — after all, the series projects an almost incomprehensibly bold vision of a (possible) society where present prejudices do not exist. Imagine a world in which a multicultural, multiracial, multi-gendered group of guests gather to witness, and applaud, the wedding between two gay women — one a mixed-race American, and the other a white transgender American. One of these also happens to be a sensate (or Gyna Sensorium), who represents a jump in evolution, or at least another species of human who has been around, and been persecuted, by its cousin, Homo sapiens, for as long as its ‘difference’ has been recognised, and feared.

You see, this (Sense8) is biological science fiction, and the brains behind it — the transgender Wachowski sisters, Lana and Lilly; before 2010 the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame – must be credited with its visionary character, probably partly owing to their own transgender status. They’ve been there, and know the differences between the genders. Sense8 unfolds the narrative of a newly ‘birthed’ cluster of 8 sensates — a gay Mexican man, Lito, a transgender white American woman, Nomi, a black heterosexual African man, Capheus (Van Damn), a white heterosexual American man, Will, a white heterosexual Icelandic woman, Riley, an Indian heterosexual woman, Kala, a Korean heterosexual woman, Sun, and a white heterosexual German man, Wolfgang. They discover, to their consternation (as young adults), that they are telepathically and, moreover, sensorily ‘connected’, so much so that they have the capacity of three-dimensional teleportation to where the other members of their cluster are, even if this is thousands of kilometres away.

The impetus behind the narrative is imparted by the fact that all sensates — there are many other clusters — are hunted and ruthlessly lobotomised (if not killed) by Homo sapiens, that is, people. When they discover this, painfully, through the intervention of an older sensate, Jonas (an Indian man), the flight from ‘Whispers’ — their chief pursuer and himself a sensate (who hates being ‘different’ from ordinary humans) — begins, only to be turned around into an attack against Whispers and the well-equipped BPO (Biologic Preservation Organisation), which he represents.

The hunter becomes the hunted.

This makes for suspenseful, action-packed television, which is great for viewers (particularly because of the various ‘talents’ possessed by the members of the cluster), but this is not the main attraction of Sense8, at least not for me. The chief reason why I find it irresistible, is because it instantiates a vision, on the part of the Wachowkis and their collaborators, of a world where the hatred towards, and persecution of, individuals who are ‘other’ or ‘different’, makes way for an acceptance and celebration of these differences – which is a really lame manner to articulate the world adumbrated by this marvellous series.

So let me try again: whereas global society is at present riven by divisions among different groups of people – between neocons and progressives of all stripes, to put it broadly – to the point of simmering hatred that could boil over into internecine violence at the slightest provocation (witness what happened at Charlottesville in the US not too long ago), the Wachowskis have employed the narrative of Sense8 in a dual manner. First, they hold up a mirror to this (all too powerful) world of bigotry and hatred for anything that challenges the putative normalised and normative order, and secondly they project an alternative ‘order’ (if it could be called that, given the salutary philosophical anarchism that underpins the narrative – the principle that people don’t need governments; they can organise all the necessary agreements and interactions themselves) where hatred makes way for loving mutual acceptance.

I know this sounds hopelessly soppy, but it is not. What is love, after all? Behind all its many manifestations (erotic love, brotherly or sisterly love, parental love, friendship, and so on) it is, as the ancient Greek philosopher, Empedocles, claimed, the cosmic force (Philotes) that brings disparate things or entities together, just as hatred or strife (Neikos) is the cosmic force that drives them apart. When I write, therefore, that (particularly the concluding episode of the series – Love Conquers All) Sense8 projects a vision of ‘loving mutual acceptance’, I mean it in this sense of bringing together what is sundered by hatred. Which is a tall order in today’s world of ostensibly irreparable social, political, cultural, racial and economic chasms.

What makes Sense8 so powerful is that it employs the visual and auditory capacities of the most powerful artistic medium in history – as Walter Benjamin realised – namely, cinema, to project its vision. Addressing, as it does, one’s senses with a combination of dialogue, music and animated image-sequences, the opportunities for character-identification, in psychoanalytic terms, or, in Deleuzian terms, for experiencing cinematic events at varying levels of ‘intensities’, abound in this extended film. Depending on the acuity of the director(s) of a film, such opportunities can be utilised to the full, and the Wachowskis demonstrate that they are past masters of the art (although some episodes are directed by other people).

Take the episode (the Christmas Special) where Kala is swimming in the Mediterranean, having married Rajan and honeymooning with him, to the accompaniment of the song, Feeling Good, and the other seven sensates of her cluster appear in the ocean with her. Many of the shots are from below, showing the eight soul-mates exulting in their aquatic togetherness, having escaped from BPO and Whispers at the conclusion of the first season. In particular, one observes Wolfgang and Kala, who are in love, kissing and holding each other underwater, before Kala surfaces and gets into the motorboat with Rajan (whom she married at Wolfgang’s insistence, because he believes he is not ‘good enough’ for her). The scene-sequence leaves one elated, given the cinematic-musical evocation of solidarity and mutual love among the members of the cluster.

Other scene-sequences achieve the same effect in different ways, like the one where Sun Bak’s treacherous brother, for the sake of whose protection (promised to her mother before the latter’s death) she voluntarily went to prison, sends his henchmen, disguised as prison guards, to execute her in prison. Sun, who is a superior martial arts exponent, is handcuffed and, although — with the help of the other sensates, when they embody her — she fights off her assailants, they manage to get a cable around her neck and pull her up (with the result that the other members of her cluster experience her feelings of pain and anguish as well). The sheer difficulty involved in orchestrating such a complicated, apparently one-sided fight, is enormous, and when she finally, with the help of one of her inmates, an elderly lady, as well as Will’s, who is a whizz at opening handcuffs, uses the opportunity to escape from prison, the effect on the viewer is similarly one of elation: the cluster has, for the time being, overcome injustice, again.

The culmination of this ‘overcoming’ is the concluding wedding scene; I can image how utterly exasperating it must be for someone who is a dyed-in-the-wool racist, white or black, or white supremacist, or cultural (or gender) purist, to view this scene of two WOMEN getting married. They would howl their disapproval. But it would be their loss; this is a vision of what love in the Empedoclean sense could bring the world, if only humanity were open to, or ready for, its possibility, which — at least for now — it is unfortunately not. And it implies, at a further remove, a more encompassing love, which would include all of Mother Nature’s living creatures.

Readers interested in a more sustained exploration of the significance of ‘colour’ in Sense8, can read my paper, ‘Colour in variegated contexts: The Wachowskis’ Sense8’, South African Journal of Art History, 33 (1), ISSN 0258-3542, 2018, pp. 13-26. Available on SABINET, ResearchGate and Academia.edu.

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