I Am Also a We: The Radical Empathy of “Sense8”
In 2015 I heard about Sense8, Netflix’s scifi series that focused on eight strangers who discover they can share each others’ senses. Despite living in different countries and speaking different languages, four men and four women find they can communicate with each other and interact as though they were in the same room. I tuned in to the premiere, pulled in by its ethnically diverse and international cast, as well as its showrunners, the ever-impressive Wachowskis. I knew the show would be queer in some capacity, with trans women at the helm, in the cast, and as a lead character.
Sense8’s premise should have appealed to me instantly. As a child, I played a game where I would take note of everything I was sensing, and think: What if suddenly someone could experience life as I am at this exact minute? The person of interest was always someone I wanted to impress — a cool kid, a mean kid, a crush — and I wished not that they would know generally what I was going through, but that they would see and feel and hear the things I saw and felt and heard, just for a split second. They would catch some of my prouder moments and be intrigued, I thought, and they would care.
But on my first attempt viewing Sense8, I found the show as disconnected as it was geographically scattered. (The show was shot on location to follow storylines in Germany, Kenya, Iceland, India, Mexico, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.) I couldn’t muster investment in this journey and quit a few episodes in. On my second viewing, I realized the irony of this.
Netflix cancelled Sense8 in June 2017, after its second season, which happened to be the first day of Pride month. The persistence of fans, creators, cast, and crew begat a 151-minute film, released this 2018 Pride Month, that summarizes what would have been its third season. Thoughtful viewers’ heartfelt endorsements encouraged me to buy tickets for a finale screening. I returned to the series, committed now to stick through to its conclusion. This time, I was stunned and compelled.
Sense8 resurrected my childhood mental game, but now with a similar refrain from my adolescence. At that time, my fantasy was that someone would be able to intuit my thoughts and intentions: To give me the benefit of the doubt, and to understand that I was trying so hard and hurting so much. To flip from scrutiny to sympathy, to know my earnestness and exhaustion.
Sense8’s deeper premise is radical empathy demonstrated through eight strangers who share the inarticulable and become a family. And Sense8 is inherently queer in more ways than character descriptions suggest.
In the series, “sensate” refers to the homo sensorum, another species that coexists with humans and whose members share consciousness through a psychic nervous system. Most sensates become aware of this identity and ability only when another links them into their cluster of eight fellow sensates. This is an abrupt and disorienting experience that gives them access to another plane of existence, one in which they now can commune with the other members of their cluster and avail themselves of the others’ experiences, skills, and knowledge.
Sense8 initially struck me as fragmented, but it largely develops characters as they are experienced through the members of their cluster. Across seven countries, they experience each others’ worlds with wonder and affection. In the show’s most thrilling moments, Capheus, Kala, Lito, Nomi, Riley, Will, Wolfgang, and Sun pool their resources in times of need, and we learn what each brings to the table. Through their psychic connection, we learn that each member harbored much they did not share with the world: grief they could not articulate; trauma they could not access; fear they could not abate; joy they could not publicize; depression they could not justify; hope they could not spread.
Among the most iconic aspects of Sense8 is its sex. Characters feel each others’ desires, and the erotic connection goes much deeper than titillation, epitomizing this openness and vulnerability. The members of the cluster share these moments and sense each others’ pleasure as well as inexperience, frustration, wistfulness, jealousy, repression, devotion, abandon, and hesitation. An aspect of humanity that is so frequently masked in bravado is stripped of pretense and makes space for something very special.
One reading of this is that sexuality doesn't matter. Some members of the group are queer, yes, and some are even in long-term same-sex relationships, but the group experiences something sacred and personal together, something which transcends gender, sex, and orientation. Since their union strikes at the core of connecting with other souls, labels would only cheapen it. Indeed, no character refers to themself as bi or pansexual, despite sharing sexual experiences with the group.
However, the transparency that facilitates what happens in the cluster only emphasizes why Sense8’s queerness matters. Too often homophobia festers when someone “doesn’t get” how one man can desire another, or how a woman can satisfy another. Biphobia festers when someone “doubts” that orientation could be legitimate. And transphobia festers when someone “can’t imagine” dysphoria. But the cluster interacts first from a place of sincerity and proceeds without skepticism. They understand each others’ identities, feel the same passion, and see the same beauty, without policing or second-guessing.
Sharing those most intimate moments unites them in lows and highs—not only the ache of ending a meaningful secret relationship, the pull to start using again, the fear of being hunted, the numbing drive for vengeance, but also the thrill of coming out, the rush of being loved, the relief of being heard, the serenity of gaining freedom. They validate and rejoice with each other. As the world pushes isolation and toxic masculinity, they fight to find a place where they can remain tender and hold each other there. As I watched, I too understood their flaws, hurt for them, cheered with them, cared for them.
That’s the irony. In Sense8, eight individuals see each other fully and powerfully, and the inexplicable gives way to radical empathy, cooperation, compersion, and love. Every character was profoundly deeper than I knew — just as we are all so much more than our outward charm or the ease we present in times of stress.
The Sense8 finale was a beautiful and satisfying coda. It did what many prematurely cancelled series do in last gasps: put everything on the line, indulged our nostalgia, and provided wide sweeps of closure. But this series could continue indefinitely, even if only showing how this one family assists each other through the smaller, everyday moments, or providing a compassionate view into the lives of more sensates. Sense8 did much to illuminate some of the stresses and triumphs of sexual minorities living in and out of the closet, of people living in wealth and in poverty, and with widely varying family structures and support systems.
Watching Sense8 now, I connect to every character in the cluster. Those who at first seemed boring, melodramatic, petty, brutish, troublemaking, idealistic, and worthless revealed themselves to be determined, fearful, loving, devout, brave, and bright. Sense8 used science fiction to lovingly celebrate difference and the beauty of community. How I wish we could linger in this world and get to know and love sensates who are racial minorities in their home countries, who are asexual, who have disabilities, who are neuroatypical, who exist along more and more intersections.
The show about the fictional homo sensorum was always deeply human.