“We live in a world that distrusts feelings,” says Sense8, at the end, when it has the moment to say exactly what it wants to say. The words are spoken by Amanita, who, throughout the series has become the audience surrogate—the first “sapien” to be told of the sensates, and increasingly part of the fandom for the sensates, and by extension Sense8 itself. (At one point she yells “HOT DAMN I’VE BEEN WAITING TO SEE THAT” when she finally sees Nomi, possessed by Sun’s martial arts skills, take down a nameless cop. Same as heck, Amanita.)
So when Sense8 puts those particular words about how feelings are more important than reason in that particular character’s mouth, at the moment when emotions and goodwill toward the show and its characters are at their height, at least theoretically, it’s announcing what it wants to be remembered as. Amanita is delivering Sense8’s eulogy. This show is about loving and trusting and believing in feelings, and not letting the hobgoblins of reason bring us down, forcing us into fear of loss of control.
It is a beautiful sentiment, and it is one that Sense8, at its best, has engaged in. From its intro trying to show the whole swarming mass of individuals that make up humanity, to its ridiculous karaoke scene that made the show’s intentions clear, to all the moments of balletic violence and heartfelt love, it has worn its heart on its sleeve to the exclusion—and occasionally detriment—of everything else. We have stuck with Sense8 because of its commitment to feeling above all else, even when that means cliches in place of characters, on-the-nose writing, and especially in the second season, increasingly strained plotting. Sense8’s commitment to feeling is what makes its sins forgivable, and its joys so much stronger that most other TV, so of course the show should highlight that at the most essential moment.
If only “Amor Vincit Omnia” actually lived up to that.
From the beginning Sense8 has been torn between multiple focuses. There’s the celebration of humanity’s connections, yes, but also the individual plots of each character, the earnest moments of joy, and hyperviolent action sequences. But the connecting tissue, the thing that has driven the plot forward when it needs to move to another level, has always been a conspiracy storyline involving our sensates hiding from, and acting against, the BPO that threatens them and their kind.
The BPO has worked, when it’s the Bad Person Organization. When it gives Terrence Mann the chance to act malevolent, when it gives the characters a reason to move around and take the next step, and when, of course, it provides an infinite supply of nameless goons for Doona Bae to kick over railings, it’s fine. But when the BPO is called upon to do more than that? That’s when Sense8 begins to fall apart—like most TV conspiracies, the more we learn about it, the less interesting it becomes.
This was an issue with the wobbly first part of season one, when there was a little bit too much focus on the nature of the conspiracy before the show began to breathe, and in the second half of season two, which was far too interested in mythology at the cost of characterization.
The delicate balance of Sense8 feels broken through most of its finale, sadly, and the key culprit is a commitment to trying to answer every question about the BPO conspiracy—trying to use reason over feelings. Significant amounts of time are dedicated to finding out what the exact timeline of Jonas, Angelica, and Whispers were during whatever their big breakthrough/betrayal was decades prior. There is also a “Chairman” of BPO who is set up as the real villain above and beyond Whispers, but who does absolutely nothing to deserve that buildup.
This is a major flaw with contemporary television, which feels compelled to answer every “question” left behind, lest someone on Reddit or YouTube compile a list of plot holes or sins that are meaningless in terms of feeling, but always are supposed to be reasonable. Did anyone care about exactly when and where Angelica attempted to redeem herself? Did we need consistent reminders through the first 90 minutes of the finale that there were parts of the timeline that could be clarified? And, at its absolute nadir, did we really need the sensates suddenly being teleported to the Lothlorien Of The Mind for Galadriel to give a pointless bit of exposition that re-motivates them to… want to kill Whispers, the man they’ve opposed for the entirety of the show and only kept alive because he was temporarily useful?
Mythology’s often overwhelming presence in the finale reminded me that when Sense8 came out, J. Michael Straczynski promised a five-year plan, similar to his remarkable success with Babylon 5. Obviously the cancellation put that on hold, but it felt like several season’s worth of reveals were included in the finale because they were on a document somewhere. The BPO chairman! Ruth Al-Sadaawi’s daughter reforming BPO! Lila’s sensate haven plan! The Lacuna!
Beyond the fact that these largely aren’t that interesting, they also have the net effect of making Sense8’s core metaphor lose its power. Exactly what the sensates are supposed to be a metaphor for is (rightfully) somewhat ambiguous, but I think there are clues scattered throughout the episode. It opens with a knockoff Eurovision, an international competition famous for terrible music being used as an excuse to bring people together—small wonder it’s flowered in the social media era when livetweeting ridiculous pop presentations with a bunch of other people is about the most fun you can have online. Sense8 is, at a certain level, about sudden and consistent communities, or even found families.
There’s also a case to be made for the internet itself, and social media, as the metaphorical target of Sense8. After all, where else can you connect to your best friends’ deepest or most inane thoughts, anytime you feel like it? Early in the episode, when each member of the cluster is running the safe house with their phones, that feeling of connection via technology becomes clear. (Sense8’s development having occurred before Gamergate and the dark side of social media becoming impossible to ignore also may be important here.)
And then there’s the point where the episode fades to black: Nomi and Amanita’s rainbow strap-on dildo, the most memorable part of the pilot episode, hitting the bed, well-used, just as it did in those characters’ intros. Perhaps the easiest metaphor to make, with Sense8 ending on a poly, queer, kinky orgy, is that the core metaphor is for the international queer community, or perhaps anyone who’s pushing against the boundaries of patriarchal norms.
The metaphors are ambiguous, as perhaps they should be, but that helps explain why Sense8 has acquired a strong internet and international fandom: It’s a show aimed at weirdos and outcasts, of whatever form seems appropriate.
But the more detailed the plot gets about what the sensate actually are, or what BPO is chasing them down for, or who Jonas and Angelica are, the more specific the show gets in a way that detracts from its core metaphorical appeal. Everyone can get behind a ragtag band of misfits, but the BPO drone program? Whispers trying to live forever? These make sense from a reasonably plot perspective, but they add nothing to the feeling that Sense8 is supposedly about. The closest the BPO plot gets to reestablishing its metaphor is the moment when Daniela tells Whispers she understands his small, petty, cruelty, and drops a monologue on him that could easily be deployed against a Donald Trump type. But even that doesn’t go anywhere beyond the moment (although it is a very cool moment). Whispers, after this, is largely a football to be fought over instead of a person with his own motivations.
Fortunately, after spending the first two-thirds of its runtime making these mistakes, Sense8 largely rights itself and leaves a good taste behind with its climax. The entire sequence in Napoli is the closest the finale gets to having the specific geographical focus that the show in general before did. The greatest pizza on earth was a little ham-handed, but the sequence where the heroes find, and infiltrate, the particular palace where Lila and Whispers are located based on tourism is entertaining on its own, and entertainingly meta about the way that the show would use locations as surrogate tourism.
The entire “Trojan Horse” sequence is delightfully creative and colorful, the best example of Sense8 as an action show that it’s often been at its peak. Oddly, the action itself after that—and throughout the entire episode—seems oddly muted compared to the show (and the Wachowskis) at its best. The characters get guns, enemies with guns come at them, and the enemies end up dying quickly while the main characters end up wounded at worst. I could have done with a lot more creativity about how the sensates would work with one another while fighting in close quarters, and the advantages of having everyone’s skills and perspective at once—but the episode largely treats all the heroes the same, regardless of whether they’re sidekicks along for the ride or the people with actual telepathic powers.
The finale is not the show at its peak, but at least, with its last note of being “for the fans,” it does a good job of providing at least some of the joy that made the show so great when it was on its game. Nomi and Amanita’s wedding, foreshadowed almost nauseatingly in the first part of the episode, redeemed itself by being the joyous celebration of humanity that only Sense8 can do. Amanita speaks for those who have connected with Sense8, while Nomi speaks for the creators of the show, trying to tell fans it’s okay to both hold on, and let go. “I’m afraid of pretending things will be permanent.”
Was it worth it? It felt split evenly, to me. The episode has every cameo, from Detective Hot Cop or Felix on one hand, to “oh, god, that guy” when Puck shows up. Some are delightful, like Amanita’s mom and dads, but others feel arbitrary and tacked on in order to give the episode the happiest ending possible.
The most egregious of these is Rajan’s appearance, which never makes any kind of sense, in a way that I think perfectly fits with Sense8’s ideology. Rajan somehow finds the safe house before even BPO can, then shows up, and is suddenly the world’s greatest husband again. Back in season one, Rajan was portrayed as the best husband in the world, and the great tragedy was that Kala couldn’t love him despite his perfection. Perhaps, in order to resolve that, season two depicted him as a villain or, at best, an incompetent, domineering patsy!
But the happy ending is demanded, and therefore, Rajan is not only perfectly understanding of Kala’s status as a sensate, but he’s also entirely okay with Wolfgang’s long-term mental affair with his wife without any kind of confrontation or revelation. There’s no point at which he’s told this, no point at which he has to come to terms with it, no point at which he, Kala, and Wolfgang have to negotiate the status of their relationship. (And if there’s one thing I know about polyamory, it’s that there’s a lot of negotiation.)
This isn’t the only area where Sense8 takes a moment that could create interesting friction and instead smoothes it out for happy ending purposes. Apparently, at the wedding, the entire world knows about the sensates and everyone is happy with it. If this is the story the show wants to tell, sure, a story of tolerance and acceptance is quite welcome—but it’s mentioned as an aside, when we had a half-dozen scenes of explanations of what happened to BPO instead across the first 90 minutes.
In the end, this makes “Amor Vincit Omnia” feel like a facsimile of a Sense8 finale. Does it check off the boxes of what a Sense8 finale should do? Hell yes, there’s lots of sex, violence, acceptance, and dancing. Does it do any of those things as deftly as the rest of the show did at its best? I can’t say that it does. But is it enough to be worthwhile? It’s definitely a better ending than the show left us with at the end of season two, so I guess it was. And that’s about as strong an endorsement as I can give.
- “Pain binds us better to one another than anything else.” Jonas is in an entirely different episode from everyone else. I wish his half was part one, and the wedding was part two.
- I have no idea what the goal was with the Wolfgang flashbacks and escape attempt at the start of the episode. The incest twist seemed atonal even for the Wachowskis’ oeuvre, and the violence of the escape didn’t really have a point other than adding a bit of action to the start of the episode.
- The characters not speaking English when we’re not joining them via sensate telepathy is a very clever touch.
- “Who are those people? Have you joined some insane cult?” Word, Rajan.
- My notes: “The fuck is this Galadriel shit” during the Lacuna scene. My partner, meanwhile decided to check her phone.
- “That neutrality in the face of such evil is complicity.” Part of me wishes that the episode showed more stridency about the need to punch fascists. But the metaphor, as I said, was largely washed away. Still, there’s probably a remarkable essay to be written about Sense8 as the transition between Obama-era hope and Trump-era disaster.
- Rajan uses Chekhov’s taser. Love it.
- Hard to say exactly what happened with JMS and Sense8, but he didn’t get a writing credit on this episode. But he still appears at least once in the creator montage over the credits.
- I know this review was largely negative, and I was, in general, disappointed with the episode. But on the other hand, I still have The Magnetic Fields stuck in my head, and that’s perfectly fine for me as a way I want to remember Sense8. Farewell, you bizarre, beautiful, infuriating, joyous show. No matter what happened, at least you weren’t boring.