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Sense8 Christmas Special Review: The Empathy and the Ecstasy

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<i>Sense8</i> Christmas Special Review: The Empathy and the Ecstasy

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One hour and 45 minutes into Sense8’s Christmas special, not long after indicating for the first time that the action does in fact occur around Christmas, the feature-length episode of Netflix’s (literally) scatterbrained adventure offers one last reminder of what the series does best. It is, in its way, entirely predictable, yet another montage set to yet another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—this one sparkling with seasonal lights, from the flickering candles of a shrine in Mexico City to the white twinkle of trees in a London park. It is also, in its way, genuinely blissful, lashing the series’ eight protagonists into a warmhearted tableau—standing before a chorus of Santas in San Francisco’s City Hall, dumbstruck by the beauty of the moment.

In Sense8, after all, understanding is the highest calling, togetherness the greatest comfort, and it’s from this fellow feeling that the series’ finest sequences are built.

In the interim, the Christmas special tries to advance the tale of eight “sensates,” linked in thought and action across vast distances and sought, as if fugitives, by a white-haired figure named Whispers (Terrence Mann), though none of this amounts to much more than dead weight on Sense8’s strengths. As Will (Brian J. Smith), a Chicago police officer, receives counsel from a protective sensate named Jonas (Naveen Andrews), or attempts in vain to evade Whispers—the latter by shooting heroin while under the care of his love interest, Riley (Tuppence Middleton)—the series courts complete hokum: The explanations of Sense8’s muddled mythology are, if not quite unintelligible, at least utterly enervating.

Coupled with the silent, spectral presence of the sensates’ “mother,” Angelica (Daryl Hannah, veering dangerously close to Kate McKinnon-could-lampoon-this-on-SNL territory), it’s tempting to write off the Christmas special, and perhaps the entire series, as another sci-fi misfire from creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski.

And yet, my advice is straightforward: Don’t. For all the flaws in its construction, Sense8’s Christmas special distills the series’ courageous gambit into a handful of sublime sequences, three or four of which—despite being utterly indulgent—left me grinning from ear to ear. (Certainly, nothing else on television is brassy enough to feature a musical montage that becomes a dance number that becomes a queer, multiracial bathroom-stall birthday orgy, a few minutes so joyous they’ll tide me over until the series’ second season debuts in May.)

From the expressive motion of the episode’s underwater opening to the perceptive cinematography that accompanies a meeting between Korean kickboxer Sun Bak (Doona Bae) and German locksmith Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt)—as she comes up from a headstand in the course of their conversation, the camera comes with her—Sense8 recreates the ecstasy of real empathy, which of course is only meaningful when it works in both directions. “I’m not just a me,” as trans woman and tech whiz Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) says in the series’ first season. “I’m also a we.”

Sense8 isn’t above tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, which is, in part, why it’s so vigorous compared to other unstintingly progressive artworks: For instance, the series introduces Toby Onwume, cast to replace Aml Ameen in the role of Capheus, a Nairobi bus driver, by hiding his face in the glare of the sun. (“I must say, you’re looking a little different these days,” his friend comments.) But more important still, the Christmas special’s gorgeous, winsome set pieces grow from the summative effect of smaller, more intimate interludes—as Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a Spanish-language movie star, grapples with being outed by the press, and as Kala (Tina Desai), a Mumbai pharmacist, describes to her husband the “people that I feel connected to all over the world,” people wrongly imprisoned, suffocated by circumstance, chained to the past, mocked by social mores. By cutting among its eight heroes, then finding Lito and Kala mimicking each other’s movements, Sense8 earns the sentiment of that Christmas “Hallelujah”: It is the mirror effect made manifest, “a machine,” to quote Roger Ebert, “that generates empathy.”

This is, perhaps, why that choral rendition of Cohen’s classic, shimmering and flickering with hope, ultimately brought me to tears—ecstatic tears, empathic tears, tears of joy and tears of sorrow—as Sense8 often does. The series’ messy, must-see special is unlikely to become a Christmas perennial, but in this year, of all years, its message is the perfect fit. “Why do you like watching this silly movie?” Capheus’ mother, battling AIDS, asks of It’s a Wonderful Life, and his answer is one we’d do well to remember in the dark days ahead:

“I don’t know,” Capheus replies. “I guess I like what it believes in.”

“What does it believe in?” she wonders.

“People,” he says, and what a fine, fragile faith it can be.

The Sense8 Christmas special streams on Netflix Friday, December 23.



Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.