You really should watch Sense8. I know, I know, that’s not what anyone wants to hear when Orange Is the New Black has just returned, demanding to be consumed in one binge-sitting. Or, for that matter, when the reviews for J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowski siblings’ project for Netflix have oscillated wildly—fairly, in my mind—between “exhaustingly po-faced” in the Telegraph to expanding “the visual grammar of what television is capable of” from Vox. But in a show that is as meandering as it is masterful, Sense8 has at least one moment that’s undeniably great, a scene as beautiful, tender, and delicately written on queer issues as anything Jenji Kohan has served up in 2015.
Before we get to that, a little background. The mythology of the show is somewhat complicated, but here’s the gist: An evolutionary quirk has bred an ubermensch species known as ‘sensates,’ who are born on the same day and “cluster” together, a connection that links their senses and emotions telepathically and allows them to speak the languages and perform the skills of their cluster-mates. While there appear to be many clusters, the one we focus on here includes a trans hacktivist in San Francisco (Jamie Clayton), a closeted Mexican actor (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), an Icelandic DJ with a dark past (Tuppence Middleton), and a businesswoman in Seoul who is also a kickass kickboxer (Doona Bae), among others.
Sci-fi premise aside, the real thematic heart of Sense8 is its queerness—a fact proudly announced with a moist rainbow dildo tossed on the floor after a bout of lady-on-lady sex in its first episode. Indeed, almost every sensate, at least for a scene or two, explores their queer side, whether in a steamy telepathic orgy or sitting alone on the sofa, like when Nairobi bus driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) finds himself aroused by a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. In that wider queer context, it makes sense that Clayton’s Nomi—the trans woman—and Silvestre’s Lito—the closeted gay guy—do a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of screen time and narrative.
Nomi and Lito are unusual characters with unusual storylines: Nomi’s sensate powers lead to her being forcibly hospitalized by conspirators of the show’s “big bad,” and she spends most of the show on the run, while Lito finds a very willing female beard who has a troubled former lover. Both stories have refreshing aspects. The beard, Daniela (Eréndira Ibarra), never falls prey to cliché plots of deception or blackmail; rather, her flaw is that she fetishizes gay men too much. Nomi’s relationship with Amanita (Freema Agyeman) is unusually strong for TV—not once do the supernatural shenanigans drive a wedge between them. But both stories are also riddled with problems: Why, exactly, is Lito afraid to come out? What is the exact consequence he fears? And why does Daniela’s ex demand to see Lito sleep with her as some sort of validation? His request to ogle their lovemaking comes off as a cheap, clunky bit of over-sexualization. Nomi, meanwhile, runs the risk of being a serious Mary Sue: She is so flawless, so capable, that she is all light and no shade, always the victim or the heroine and never anything in between.
Luckily, these sometimes flat characterizations are saved by exceptional actors: Clayton and Silvestre invest their roles with wit and heart, real sexuality and real vulnerability, and it is because of them that Episode 9 contains the show’s best queer scene by far.
In the episode, Lito and Nomi meet for the first time. (Well, besides the omnibus orgy three episodes before.) Nomi appears next to Lito on a bench in the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City. It was where he went on a first date with Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) his now-ex lover. He wants to be alone, but Nomi, who is unsure of Amanita’s fate, thinks their connection has brought them together because they are both missing their lovers. They sit before a mural by Diego Rivera, and Lito compares his loss of Hernando to the day Rivera lost Frida Kahlo. He recalls Hernando telling him about the Rivera mural and being so overcome with passion for him that they had their first sexual encounter in the museum toilets. In a show that often treats sex with the clunky vocabulary of bad slash fiction, Lito’s description—“I took him into my mouth like I was taking Holy Communion,” he says as he unbuttons his lover’s trousers and drops to his knees—is a strangely beautiful image, alluding to the gauche Catholic imagery of his pulpy movies, the homophobic culture he is fighting against, and the love he can’t stand to lose.
Nomi says she understands Lito’s conflict between his inner self and the job he thinks precludes his coming out. She explains that as a child she used to shower before swim club with her clothes on, and how, one day, the other swimmers forced her to shower beneath water so hot she still has scars. In another masterful bit of writing, she reveals her identity as a trans woman simply by saying, “I didn’t like to be naked, especially in front of other boys.” Lito isn’t fazed by the revelation at all. Clayton’s delivery is so potent, and the story so believable, that it’s hard to watch. “That locker room might have made my father the man that he is,” concludes Nomi, “but it also made me the woman that I am.” It’s a cheer-worthy line in a scene about loving yourself in spite of the world’s hostility.
Often, when the show tries to be didactic, the strokes are too broad: Nomi’s forced hospitalization reads as a conspiracy theorist railing against American health care rather than a reasonable plot device for the first few episodes, and the way characters talk about sex, it bears repeating, is 80 percent of the time nothing like how real people talk. But Sense8 is also a show that manages to shoot a genuinely erotic queer orgy scene (even more impressive considering it has a Macy Gray soundtrack). And in Nomi and Lito’s lovely encounter, there’s a display of raw heartbreak and queer solidarity quite unlike anything else you’ll experience on screen this year.