Review: Sense8: A Christmas Special Brings Together Our Favorite Sensates In Less-Than-Spectacular Fashion
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from our favorite sensates on Netflix’s sci-fi offering, Sense8. While Season Two doesn’t start until May 2017 the Wachowskis, along with J. Michael Straczynski, have given us a holiday gift this year: Sense8: A Christmas Special, a special 2-hour episode that dropped on Friday! **Spoilers Abound! Do not pass if you’re saving this one for a rainy day!**
Thankfully, the Christmas Special started with a solid “previously on…” segment so that, if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to re-watching Season One yet, you’re covered. Check it out above.
The special itself gets us caught up with where everyone is after the events of the first season:
- Lito has been outed by a tabloid photo of him and his boyfriend having sex, which doesn’t do his life as a film star in Mexico any favors
- Sun is still in solitary confinement in prison
- Nomi is a fugitive on the run as Amanita covers for her in San Francisco
- Riley and Will are hiding out in Reykjavik and are officially a couple as Will shoots up heroin in an attempt to block and track Whispers
- Kala is on her honeymoon in Italy with a husband she doesn’t love, pretending she doesn’t love Wolfgang
- Wolfgang waits as his best friend heals in the hospital after getting shot by gangsters, and is now being pursued to be the head of his father’s crime territory, which he has zero interest in. What he is interested in is Kala.
- Capheus has a new face (the actor who played him in S1, Aml Ameen, was replaced by Toby Onwumere in the role), and is working to fix his “Van Damn,” the bus he and his best friend drive for a living, which was messed up in a shootout last season. He also has to somehow explain to his bestie just how he suddenly became a martial arts master.
As each of them attempts to figure out a new normal, they live in constant fear of being found out by both law enforcement and by the organization Whispers works for. Or, in Wolfgang’s case, being pursued by rival crime bosses and dodging dodgy relatives who want him to take over for his crime boss dad. Or, in Sun’s case, of being killed in prison by armed hit men hired by her brother.
In the midst of all that, the special takes place during the sensates’ birthday (remember, they were all born on the same day)! There’s a joyous birthday celebration where their dance party bounces to and from all of their locations and they let loose in the midst of fear to enjoy togetherness for once.
Not only that, it’s the holidays, so there’s a lot of celebrating going on! Nomi and Amanita celebrate big in San Francisco, Will and Riley go ice skating, Capheus watches It’s a Wonderful Life (it’s not clear if he celebrates Christmas or if he just likes the movie), and Kala (who definitely doesn’t celebrate Christmas) celebrates her new home with her husband. Meanwhile, Sun is kept aloft and given gifts by her cell mates who take turns visiting her at her cell in solitary. Wolfgang celebrates with his friend, who is now out of the hospital, but can’t seem to keep himself out of Kala’s way.
And, of course, there’s the now-requisite sensate orgy scene where we get to watch these ridiculously attractive people get naked and jump into a big love-pile as each of them gets it on individually. (Honestly, this is probably the best use of their powers.)
Sense8: A Christmas Special was fun, and it was nice that we had something to tide us over until the 10-episode S2 starts in May.
However, the episode dragged in places, and much of the dialogue was on-the-nose hokey. It also highlighted the fact that, with a cast of regulars this large, there are always going to be those that are short-changed. In this case, Riley and Capheus were the most underserved, with Riley existing solely to support Will through his story, and Capheus having very little to do except watch a bus get ruined, then get a new bus.
Speaking of Capheus, I have to say that, so far, I prefer the original actor to Onwumere. Onwumere is a fine actor, but Ameen had an earnest sweetness in his face and demeanor that I think captures the heart of Capheus. Onwumere’s Capheus feels more jaded than the character should be.
Wolfgang’s story, while not underserved, was paid too much attention while having very little to do with the rest of the sensates. Both he and Kala only really existed in this episode for each other, and while their interplay was fun to watch, it was also frustrating, because we have yet to see Kala admit what she genuinely wants. However, the stuff with Wolfgang and his life of crime made very little sense to me. I wondered why his family would hound him to take over, when he clearly doesn’t want to, rather than just take it over themselves. It was just a series of scenes in which people were either shooting at him, or trying to convince him to take his father’s place, but none of it really went anywhere. Wolfgang’s stuff could’ve been trimmed to make room for other story.
And there were some fascinating ones! The aftermath of Lito coming out was both shocking and heartbreaking as you realize the difference between coming out in, say, the U.S., and coming out in Mexico, where a man is nothing without his machismo. The harshness of the public response to his coming out is matched only by the industry’s response, which is basically to take literally everything from him. Thankfully, Lito ends up having one of the best support systems on the show.
Sun’s story is also fascinating, as she sits in prison in order to cover up for a brother who has now turned his back on her. Watching her bide her time in a rage as she tries to survive in prison and prepares to deal with her brother once she gets out is strangely inspiring! Also, she and Kala have one of the best conversations from a female perspective, when Kala appears to her afraid that she finally, at long last, has to sleep with her husband and, as a virgin, is nervous. Sun tells her about her first sexual experience, which she completely owned at 17 and feels zero shame about. While yes, they are technically talking about men in this scene, I feel like their talk passes the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test, in that the conversation is really about Sun telling Kala to own her sexual experiences, because one’s sexuality is something worth honoring, not something to be afraid of.
Will and Nomi’s stories were fine, but merely passable, and there was something that began to bug me in Nomi’s story as I watched the episode with my wife, who is Jewish. She brought up the fact that Amanita has a Jewish mom, and her last name is Caplan, and yet not only is she celebrating Christmas, but she’s, like super gung-ho about Christmas to the point that Nomi comments on it. So, Amanita and her mom were out watching Santas sing Christmas carols. What pissed my wife off even more was when the show underscored the whole thing with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a very Jewish song by a very Jewish singer-songwriter.
On a show this diverse that works so hard to be understanding of different cultures and religions, it seems like a wasted opportunity for Jewish representation; representation that would’ve been really interesting as explored through a black lesbian.
Stuff like that, plus Riley having basically become Will’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl remind me that, while Sense8 is giving us some unique sci-fi underscored by representation that we just don’t see anywhere else on TV, it also has plenty it can work on.
Still, as a standalone holiday special, it was a nice way to catch up with characters and a world I had been missing. While it could’ve easily been 90-minutes instead of a full two hours, fans of the show will enjoy the way that time is spent and forgive it its flaws, because they are starved for more Sense8.
Sense8 returns to Netflix for a second, 10-episode season on May 5th, 2017.
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