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Celebrating Intersectionality in the Futuristic Netflix Series ‘Sense8’

As anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and isolationist policies sweep a growing number of nations, Sense8 takes us into a microcosm of a world these policies react against.

all images via sense8.tumblr.com

There is a lot of sex in Netflix drama Sense8’s Christmas special — orgiastic, multiracial, multigender, transnational, GIF-worthy sex. There is also a lot of conflict: verbal sparring, blazing guns, martial arts mayhem, fistfights, and psychological battles. Somewhere between making intersectional love and making interpersonal war lies the basic tension of this show’s Season 2 premiere.

Sense8, a product of the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski, launched last year with a simple premise: eight good-looking 30-somethings, born at the exact same moment on the exact same day, are psychically connected, even as they live radically different lives. Season 1 showed us just how powerful they could be — and how that power threatened a mysterious organization run by Whispers, who tries desperately to control others. Season 2 picks up with its two-hour Christmas Special, as the eight protagonists, known as “sensates” in the show, come to terms with their new reality. Many of them are being hunted for different reasons, and one is already imprisoned.

The premiere comes at a time of rising nationalism around the world and an increasing awareness of global digital surveillance and propaganda networks on the internet. As anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and isolationist policies sweep a growing number of nations, Sense8 takes us into a microcosm of a world these policies react against. The show features a number of queer characters, including Nomi Marks, a trans hacker played by rising star Jamie Clayton, and Lito Rodriguez, a (formerly closeted) gay action star played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre, best known for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar films. Half the characters come from Asia (Seoul and Mumbai), Africa (Nairobi), and Latin America (Mexico City). The others come from major Western cities: San Francisco, Chicago, London, Berlin.

As author Claire Light has rightly pointed out, not all of these characters are depicted equally. Indeed, those hailing from nonwestern countries come across quite a bit flatter — at some points in Season 1, while Icelandic Riley and American Will had a complex love affair and gorgeous trek through Iceland, it seemed like Korean Sun Bak existed solely to help the others do cool kick-ass moves, and Kenyan Capheus helped with car mechanics. It is too early to say if Season 2 will adequately address this critique, but the fact that the sensates were coming together to support Sun Bak’s quest for freedom and Lito’s rocky coming-out process suggests it might. And as we look to the world’s political climate at the beginning of 2017, the concept of queer, global interconnectedness imbues the series with a greater sense of urgency.

The show’s creators are no doubt aware of this. Season 1’s earliest episodes featured Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita motorbiking triumphantly in San Francisco’s Dyke March; by Season 2, Nomi is on the run from an FBI agent who bears a striking resemblance to Agent Smith from The Matrix. After coming out bravely, Lito decides to face the consequences — and they are brutal. Meanwhile, Whispers pursues Will and Riley relentlessly, toying especially with Will’s emotions when he is unable to return home to Chicago for the holidays. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the sensates manage to have a dance party and another orgy, but the overall mood is much darker.

The Matrix, the Wachowski film that propelled the directors to fame, is relevant here. The movie, which depicts a cyberpunk future, made waves in the late 1990s just as the internet was taking hold in popular culture. It featured the moment of awakening that comes with plugging in — an emotion familiar to many who used the internet at that time. Neo, the film’s protagonist, faced a critical moment when he realized he was not alone and then learned to transcend the bounds of the society he was born into. The ever-present surveillance state took this as a grave threat, and they nearly succeeded in destroying him. Ultimately, however, his power came from himself.

Sense8 is The Matrix for the 2010s. While not overtly about technology or the internet, its opening sequence plays like a Flickr reel or Twitter Trending Topics list, showing many walks of life on the planet today. Told through the allegory of psychic connection, it is a show about the internet and airplanes and global communities unbounded by geography and even language and culture. Now that nearly half the world has access to the internet, and now that we see just how not-alone we are, we have the potential to connect deeply with people all across the globe. Some do, and, like the eight sensates, this connection makes them more powerful, more empathic, more aware of their interconnectedness. Many don’t.

all gifs via sense8.tumblr.com

Like The Matrix, Sense8 wraps its worldview in stylish cinematography and uneven dialogue that creates an aesthetic and narrative experience for our times. After the optimism of the early internet, we now face grave uncertainty. In 1999, Neo transcended the threat of Agent Smith because he learned to believe he was “The One”: He alone could save humanity, with only moderate help from others. In 2016, the Wachowskis seem to be thinking more intersectionally. As Season 2’s premiere makes clear, the queer, global, multigender sensates face a mysterious transnational conglomerate. They will only find a way forward if they are able to work together.

Sense8 is now available on Netflix.

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