NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Sense8” are present in this review
It’s been quite a while since Netflix has released a new episode of Sense8, 2015’s rather divisive sci-fi series about eight individuals that are psychically linked from across the globe. The first season drew mixed feedback, though caught on in a big way within several international territories, which eventually managed to get Sense8 a belated renewal for a delayed second season. Said second season won’t premiere on Netflix until this May, though for now, we get to catch up with the Sensates within Netflix’s traditional annual Christmas special, usually reserved for an initially struggling Netflix series that has spent some extra time in the cooker to re-tool itself for its sophomore season. In the case of 2016, it’s Sense8.
Despite billing this one-off special as a Christmas episode, Christmas doesn’t really become a huge focus in the rather drably named, “A Christmas Special.” Instead, this episode primarily serves as a bridge that moves the sensates from where Season One left them, to their new story arcs for Season Two. That’s fair enough, but perhaps the best element of this special is that it does uphold the usual standard of Netflix’s Christmas specials improving upon their inspirations’ more contested first seasons. Mind you, Sense8 still has a ways to go before it stands with Netflix’s best shows, and its Christmas special is still not going to convert anyone who already dislikes the series, but as with the BoJack Horseman and Marco Polo specials that came before it, 2016’s Christmas special shows that the next season of Sense8 might be making some welcome improvements that should make this show a lot more accessible and enjoyable.
Of course, if you already loved what Sense8 did with its first season, then you’ll certainly still have no complaints about the Christmas special. You’ll get much of the same highbrow visual direction and stimulating artistic framing, and yes, there is a spiritual orgy in one scene, because it’s Sense8, so of course there is. Fortunately, the show picks these moments better than it did before, and doesn’t make them feel so awkward and heavy-handed this time. It also helps that the sensates can now freely interact with and assist each other without compromise by the time of this special, whereas the first season seemed to put a lot of weird caveats on their abilities.
Better still is that almost every character arc in the Christmas special is pretty good, even though some just involve characters on the run from BPO, the sinister organization that is hunting and killing sensates across the world. Nomi and Amanita still headline one of the best story arcs, though the ensemble now feels a bit more balanced in terms of appeal, so they don’t hog a lot of the best scenes to themselves anymore. Even the more romantic odyssey of Riley and Will is a lot better and more heartfelt than it was in Season One. Now that the stakes with BPO have created proper consequences for these two, it’s a lot easier to invest in their characters, and to feel like there’s real stakes behind them, rather than dryly wallowing in personal demons from the past. This is especially true of Will, who ended up making eye contact with Whispers at the end of Season One, thus allowing Whispers to infiltrate his mind whenever he pleases. This immediately makes Will’s character a lot more interesting, and this is a story element that he was in dire need of during his more dull portrayal in Season One.
Even the dreary wedding fallout with Kala is pretty effectively emotional, after her romantic fallout with Wolfgang. Kala and Wolfgang still find themselves struggling with a sense of attraction, despite the fact that they seemingly decided that they couldn’t be together towards the end of Season One. It might come off as backtracking to a point, but Kala failing to find solace in a seemingly perfect marriage is something that makes her character noticeably more engaging than she was in Season One. Wolfgang no longer has a criminal vendetta to pursue, granted, but the promise of him being the catalyst of a huge gang war in Berlin during Season Two, the result of his murder of Steiner during Season One, has a lot of great promise in episodes to come!
On the lesser end, we get Capheus and Sun, who didn’t really get as much to do in this episode. Sun is still acting as ‘the fighter’ in the cluster and little else for now, since she’s still shut away in prison, and primarily exists to be summoned so that the sensates can get themselves out of trouble whenever they’re in a fight. Sense8 is still very good at its action scenes, and that’s still on display whenever some fisticuffs kicks up in this Christmas special, but I really hope that Sun taking the fall for her corrupt brother actually starts going somewhere different in Season Two. Likewise, Capheus does practically nothing in this Christmas special, and just kind of hangs around. His bus is destroyed at one point, which is initially interesting, but then he just gets a new bus in the very next scene, so that ends up being pointless. Oh, and Capheus has also been recast for Sense8 going forward, and is now being portrayed by Toby Onwumere, rather than Aml Ameen, who abruptly left the show during Season Two’s production. Onwumere has the same likable, grinning charm as Ameen, so beyond looking a lot less boyish, it’s not too distracting to see Capheus played by a different actor after a while. I still wish he was given more to do for this special though.
This just leaves Lito, who is still one of this show’s better characters overall, though in the case of this Christmas special, he was unfortunately saddled with the most problematic storyline. In the wake of the explicit photos of Lito having sex with Hernando being leaked online by Joaquin, Lito decides to come out as gay, and this ruins his career. It also gets all of his stuff sold (seriously?), and his apartment locking him out, rendering him homeless, seemingly bankrupt, and pretty much left with nothing. Uhhh… What? I’m sorry, but in 2016/2017, that’s ridiculous, especially since Mexico is one of the more tolerant countries when it comes to LGBT rights in the modern era. People are virtually rioting in the street at one point, over a gay actor! Don’t actors come out as gay all the time? Again, maybe I’m missing something, but it just felt like the fallout from Lito coming out was unrealistically overblown, to the point where it came off as absurd, rather than dramatic. Had it been a small minority of hateful bigots that persistently harassed Lito, or even Hernando’s students harassing him like around the start of the episode, that would have been fine. The whole country suddenly wanting Lito’s head on a spike just because he’s gay though? That’s ludicrous. The fact that he doesn’t have a single defender online is even more ludicrous!
Fortunately, the pacing is also cleaned up significantly in this Christmas special, which avoids the dull, self-indulgent stretches that sometimes plagued Season One. Even then though, you could probably shave about 15-20 minutes off of this Christmas special, since a few scenes still do drag on a tad longer than they should, and the episode still does go in circles a couple of times. Also of note is that the special’s ending is kind of clumsy. It’s one of those two-hour specials that, rather than organically ‘end’, it just sort of ‘stops’, without actually resolving a thing, or even properly leading into the start of Season Two. There’s an action scene with Wolfgang, he pops off a one-liner, and that’s it. Everyone else is just left hanging with their buddies over Christmas. Really? It sadly makes the special end on a whimper, and doesn’t really set the stage for Season Two with any kind of fanfare.
Still, I suppose that Sense8 is nonetheless moving in the right direction, as seemingly indicated by this Christmas special. The first season certainly had its flaws, but hopefully, Season Two has the series better grasping its full potential. This episode seemed to have the show doing that a lot more, despite still having a few issues, namely the continued handful of dull stretches, and Lito’s storyline feeling pretty unrealistic in the modern era. I wish that the special hadn’t just fizzled out on a shrug at the end, but the series’ usual high points, namely its style, performances and action, are still great at least. Several of its Season One flaws have also been smoothed out for now too, so here’s hoping that Season Two continues that better polish when it releases this May.
- More balanced, evenly appealing ensemble storylines
- Same great style and action
- Less dull, self-indulgent stretches
- Still some dull, self-indulgent stretches
- Lito's storyline feels too unrealistic
- Abrupt, unsatisfying ending