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“Polyphony” offers the perfect term to describe Sense8’s unique storytelling

B+
Photo: Sense8 (Netflix)
Photo: Sense8 (Netflix)
B+

Sense8

"Polyphony"

Season 2 , Episode 4

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As someone relatively new to the gig, I have to admit that Sense8 is a tricky show to review. So much happens in each episode that I’m spoiled for choice about where and how to engage with this particular chunk of Sense8 storytelling. Moments after finishing the episode, my mind was on Jonas’ lobotomy and Sun’s unexpected reunion with her one-time lover. But looking back through my notes I’m reminded that this episode also included Will’s museum escape, Kala and Wolfgang’s sexy bathroom conversation, Capheus’ rise to fame, and so much more. Sense8 isn’t an ensemble show like Game Of Thrones where individual narratives unfold in parallel stories (the sensates are far too connected for that). But nor is it an ensemble show like Lost where a central location and a defined episodic structure keep things fully cohesive. Sense8 functions best as an abstract commentary on the human experience, but that’s also precisely what makes it challenging to tackle in review form.

Thankfully, this episode offers the perfect term to describe Sense8’s unique brand of storytelling: polyphony, which the always-helpful Wikipedia defines as “two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice.” It’s also a term that refers to literature that features a diversity of viewpoints, but in this case I think the original musical definition is even more applicable. Sense8 often feels more like a musical composition than a sci-fi TV show. And that’s never been more apparent than in the sequence that alternates between a water riot in Nairobi, a religious protest in Mumbai, and Amanita’s motorcycle chase in San Francisco. Set to Ben Howard’s “Small Things,” the wordless sequence draws parallels not only between the events themselves, but between the sensates’ reactions to the events. Nomi’s empty room becomes a space that reflects how alone and vulnerable Capheus and Kala feel in the middle of turmoil. Meanwhile the riots reflect the chaos and panic Nomi feels over not knowing if her girlfriend is safe. And, of course, linking a water riot in Nairobi with a religious protest in Mumbai allows Sense8 to draw a thematic parallel between world events too. What draws communities together? Resources and religion. What tears them apart? The very same things.

But Sense8 isn’t the sort of show to thread one cohesive theme through an entire episode. Its unit of storytelling is the montage, not the episode. So after that moving “Small Things” sequence, Sense8 also finds time for some genuinely funny comedy wherein the sensates come together not to investigate a BPO crime, but to do some sleuthing on Riley’s ex-boyfriend. It’s a funny sequence that utilizes the cluster in a way Sense8 hasn’t really done before. This show is generally so earnest about its characters’ connection that it’s refreshing to watch it get a little goofy with its premise for once. Sure it’s nice to think that the sensate connection would inspire a new kind of global unity, but the idea that it would lead to some intra-cluster gossip rings equally true.

Since it’s less action-packed than the previous episode, “Polyphony” has more time for moments of quiet character exploration, the most successful of which center on Sun and Lito. Though he’s usually one of the sensates most removed from the show’s mythology, Lito gets a chance to move the show’s central mystery forward for once as he visits the father of Raoul, a sensate from the first cluster Angelica gave birth to. It turns out Raoul is also someone from Lito’s past, and though their connection was brief, it’s clearly something that meant a lot to both of them (I think the flashback implies that hooking up with Raoul was one of Lito’s first gay experiences, but I’m not completely sure). Raoul even kept his video of BPO’s unethical practices hidden behind a poster of Lito. Sense8 can get a little too impersonal when it doles out exposition, but giving Lito an emotional connection to Raoul helps offset that. And Marco Treviño’s lovely, understated performance as Raoul’s father also gives humanity to what could otherwise be just another vague mystery.

Elsewhere, it’s a joy to watch Sun simply exist outside of the prison setting that has defined her story for so much of the series. And the new locale gives the show a chance to explore new aspects of Sun too. Though Doona Bae has consistently turned in a great, nuanced performance, Sun’s incredible fighting skills make it easy to pigeonhole her as the stoic badass of the group (a title she shares with Wolfgang). But “Polyphony” highlights a lesser explored aspect of Sun’s character as well: She may have the skills of a stone-faced killer, but she also has “a heart as soft as a baby bird,” as Min-Jung delightfully puts it. And in true Sense8 fashion, the show paints Sun’s kindness as a strength, not a weakness. The episode doesn’t force Sun into a new, softer box—she still gets a kickass, rain-drenched fight scene—but it does deepen our perception of her.

Even more so than the prison break in the previous episode, “Polyphony” seems to bookend one Sun story and start another. Ever since she was sent to prison, Sun’s storyline has functioned as a beautiful celebration of female solidarity and friendship. And that seems to reach its climax as she says an emotional goodbye to Min-Jung, who decides to go back to prison rather than slow Sun down. It’s a scene that moves Sun’s story forward, but like Lito’s investigation into Raoul, it feels personal and character-driven too.

That’s less the case for the ongoing BPO mystery, which is still the part of Sense8 I’m least invested in. Naveen Andrews has injected a lot of likability into what could’ve been a fairly opaque character, but on the other hand Jonas has never really felt like a fully fleshed out person the way the main sensates do. And it’s hard to invest in his relationship with Angelica when we’ve seen so little of it. I doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Jonas in one form or another, but even if it is, his death is less shocking than the show seems to think it is. It’s a cliffhanger designed to keep viewers watching, but Sense8 should know by now that its viewers aren’t here for conventional storytelling tropes.

Stray observations

  • The most unbelievable thing about Sense8 is that Sun managed to maintain a perfectly manicured bob for her entire stint in prison.
  • Sukku Son as Sun’s one-time lover Detective Mun is the sort of actor who’s instantly charismatic even with the tiniest amount of screen time. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the show does with him going forward.
  • Bug learns about the sensate connection and mostly handles it like a champ. Bug is slowly moving up my Sense8 sidekick rankings, which at this point is pretty much just a 12-way tie.
  • There were so many great moments in this episode that I didn’t have time to highlight in this review, but one of my favorites is Wolfgang apologizing to the group for not helping Will escape the museum.
  • Two questions about the previous episode: How did Amanita and Nomi travel from San Francisco to Chicago and back again all while she’s hiding from BPO? I’m assuming she can’t get on a plane without setting off an alert, so did the show just gloss over their multi-day cross-country road trip? Also: Has Will just casually shrugged off his multiple months of non-stop heroin usage?
  • “Let’s just say you’re my son’s type.”