[Note: This is a long recommendation, but much of the last half if explaining each of the 8 main characters in case someone wants to just watch this episode and skip the previous portion of the season.]
Sense8 on Netflix is one of those series that does work as one long season-long story, but strikes a balance of also having each episode work with a full story arc(s) as well. All too often, some of these shows with a strong season-long story wind up with individual episodes just being a piece of a story and not a story on its own. Sense8 manages to avoid that to a large degree.
The series is about 8 people who are mentally linked – able to visit each other telepathically, use each other’s skills, and the like. One thing I love about the series is that it not only explores the ramifications of the sci-fi concept of the story, but also deals with themes building off of it. So it’s not just about 8 people whose minds are linked, but it is about relationships between people – the connections that bring us together and choices that drive us apart. It also has this meta-thing going on (mostly in earlier episodes, I believe) with references to Jean-Claude van Damme, Conan the Barbarian, and Lito’s telenovelas that shows how even ridiculous fun of these stories can have deep, inspiring impact for people (and that even a sci-fi show about 8 people telepathically linked can touch and inspire us as well).
I recommend watching the entire series, it is great – although it is certainly adult. There is recreational drug use, nudity and sex (including heterosexual, homosexual, and what is best described as a psychic orgy early in the series), and violence that is occasionally, but not always bloody. However, if you want to jump to the episode I’m recommending (“What is Human?”), you don’t need a lot of background to understand it (see below).
I have heard some people talking about recommending the season finale “I Can’t Leave Her.” That is another very strong episode, but more than any other episode of the series, it is really dealing with the overall season-long story and that, in my opinion, is what makes it strong. If you aren’t invested in the story of the entire season, then the finale is probably only okay. It does have some great teamwork of the entire cluster of 8, but as a stand-alone, I wasn’t as moved by it as “What is Human?”
With “What is Human?” – the 10th episode of the 12 episode season – it shows off everything I love about this series. In particular, the emotional structure they build into the stories really works for me. I tend to prefer uplifting stories far more than depressing ones, and in Sense8 they emotionally manipulate me perfectly. They have this way of sinking into tragedy right before leading into a moment of triumph. Don’t know about anyone else, but it works for me. It makes the triumphs so much stronger, and has an overall, more hopeful feel to it while definitely avoiding being sappy, feel-good. The lows are certainly low, but they persevere. They survive. Definitely reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption in that regard (at least the movie, haven’t read the original story). Characters bottoming out in miserable conditions, and then soaring to triumph.
This episode also has a beautiful moment near the end at an orchestra performance. Thinking about it, that scene is completely irrelevant to the plot. However, thematically, it is striking and really brings them in touch with their own humanity, and humanity in general, and is a moment of beauty we rarely think about. Like the karaoke scene earlier in the series (which is, in my opinion, one of the best karoke scenes ever), it brings a touch of humanity and connection to the characters, and (to get grandiose) the viewers as well.
I greatly recommend it for a Hugo nomination. Even if I could only nominate one thing this year, I would push aside all the stories I have read, and nominate this episode.
If you want to jump straight to this episode without watching the rest of the series before it, I think the quick summary below should have it make sense. Of course, a lot more happens in the first 9 episodes, but this is enough for “What is Human?” to make sense. If you want to watch the whole series without spoilers, then stop reading now.
Basic storyline – as mentioned at the beginning, the show is about 8 people whose minds can link. They were not able to do this until their “cluster” was awakened in the first episode, and much of the first season is them trying to figure out what the heck is going on as random strangers suddenly appear to them, and they can visit them mentally as well.
The 8 main characters are:
- Will (Brian J. Smith) – Chicago cop. He is one of the ones doing really well in putting together what is happening as well as a larger conspiracy to hunt down Sensates (as they are called) like them. Is falling for Riley.
- Riley (Tuppence Middleton) – Club DJ living in London, although by this episode she has returned home to Iceland. In a recent episode it was revealed that she was married and had a baby, but her husband and baby died the day the baby was born although there are just hints at the details of that tragedy. Has cool, soul-patched musician dad. Is seriously smitten with Will as well.
- Capheus “Van Damme” (Aml Ameen) – Bus driver in Nairobi who idolizes Jean-Claude van Damme. He is hands down my favorite characters in the series (although there are some very close runner-ups). In order to help his mom get the AIDS medicines she needs, he is involved with driving a local crime boss’s daughter to medical treatments. Despite being in over his head, he always has this “simply being alive is the greatest miracle of it all” attitude that is wonderful.
- Sun (Doona Bae – the Wachowskis love casting her) – South Korean member of a wealthy family whose business is collapsing due to her brother’s embezzlement. To save the family’s business and honor, she gives a false confession and goes to jail. Also, to let off stem from her usual tightly-wound business life (prior to jail), she’s a well accomplished kickboxer.
- Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) – Mexican telenovela mega-star. Has a bunch going on that needs some explaining. He is a massively admired and lusted after hunk actor who is secretly gay. If the public finds out about his boyfriend, he fears his career will be over. Had a girlfriend (not-really-a-girlfriend) named Daniela who wound up being even more than okay with him and his boyfriend and moves in with them (she thinks they are sweet together, and they totally are). She was also trying to avoid abusive psycho ex-boyfriend (and rumored killer) Joaqiun. Well, pictures are taken of Lito and his boyfriend, psycho gets them and threatens to blackmail, and Daniela winds up getting back together with psycho to protect Lito. Hernando (Lito’s boyfriend) voices what we are all thinking and is like, “Dude, why are you ok with this? I’m breaking up.” Then Lito goes into post-break-up spiral that, well I have never been sobbing in an empty, broken hot tub in nothing but my underwear, one sock, and one flip flop – but I think most of us can sympathize with the feeling. Lito has hit rock bottom and thinks that his entire life is a lie.
- Kala (Tina Desai) – Chemist in Mumbai and devout follower of Ganesha who is engaged to marry apparently the most dashing and eligible bachelor in all of Mumbai, but she just isn’t feeling it. Is falling for Wolfgang (next on the list), but knows it’s most sensible to marry her betrothed. I believe at this point in the series, they started the wedding ceremony, but she saw Wolfgang during it (and I believe saw *ahem* ALL of Wolfgang, which didn’t help) and fainted before it was complete and is even more emotionally confused.
- Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) – My second favorite character on the show – a German safe-cracker whose extended family is deep into organized crime. He stole some diamonds that his evil cousin planned to steal, now evil cousin wants them back and has already shotgunned Wolfgang’s best friend into the hospital. In this episode, Wolfgang sets up a meeting with evil cousin to give him the diamonds so that he will leave Wolfgang and his friend alone. Totally has a thing for Kala as well, but also knows that he is bad news. Wolfgang and Lito have my favorite visitation scenes of the entire series so far in this episode. It is absolutely magnificent in its ridiculous awesomeness.
- Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) – Transwoman in San Francisco, blogger and hacker. Dating Amanita (played by Dr. Who’s Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman). Even more than Will, Nomi is heavily involved in the over-arching story of the sensates being hunted down, but I believe in this episode only appears in a random sex scene, unfortunately. That is too bad because she is an interesting character throughout the rest of the episodes, and you can’t help but read a lot of Lana Wachowski (also a transwoman) in the character of Nomi when she has to deal with prejudices and fitting in with a new identity.
Hopefully that explains this enough that if you dive right in, this episode should make sense. I hope you enjoy it because it is my favorite episode of one of my new favorite series and I highly recommend it.