"I think I'm losing my mind!" gasps a cop who finds himself in a hallucinatory car chase in which he teleports back and forth between the pursuing car and the pursued in the blink of an eye. "No," counsels his companion-quarry, possibly a terrorist and possibly a guardian angel. "It's just expanding."
So it goes in Sense8, the long-awaited television debut of Andy and Lana Wachowski, sibling creators of the Matrix films as well as V for Vendetta. Paradoxes, anomalies and just plain old murk abound, without any obvious guideposts to help sort them out. In short, it's business as usual for the Wachowskis, whose peel-the-onion style of storytelling has both fans and detractors in joyous abundance.
All 12 episodes of what the Wachowskis and their co-producer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) are calling the "first season" of Sense8 debut today on Netflix. The binge-watching potential of the mass release may be an advantage—viewers seeking solutions to narrative lacunae can charge ahead until their eyeballs fry, rather than waiting four years, as they did with the Matrix movies.
Or it may be a disadvantage, simply allowing the Wachowskis to slow their pace to a crawl. In interviews, they've said the first season will be spent filling out details and back stories of their characters rather than moving the overall plot forward. That sounds like an awfully long first date, especially when there's no guarantee of scoring at the end.
That it will take time to establish the characters, there is no doubt. Sense8 has eight twenty-something principals, scattered all around the world, with no visible threads connecting them—except that they've all shared a horrifying vision of a gory suicide.
They include Will as a Chicago cop bridling against the callous ethos of his department, and Riley, a London electronica deejay so profoundly disconnected from life that she assumes her vision of the suicide was the result of "too many drugs."
In Mumbai, Kala is a recent college graduate tempted by a loveless yet prosperous marriage to her boss. Wolfgang is a Berlin safecracker with daddy issues; Sun, a mysterious and ill-tempered Seoul businesswoman; Lito, a wildly popular—and deeply closeted—action-adventure Mexican movie star. San Francisco blogger Noni is a former hacker, while penniless Nairobi bus operator Capheus is struggling to find affordable medicine for his AIDS-afflicted mother.
Following their vision of the suicide, all these characters go about their daily lives. But soon their lives begin bleeding over into one another's—first in wisps (as Kala attends her engagement banquet, Wolfgang wakes up with a craving for Indian food), then in outright mind-melds as they pop up in the middle of each other's crises.
Flitting about in the background of all this is a man who calls himself Jonas, whose sinister appearance (he's played by Naveen Andrews, the menacing Iraqi secret-police torturer of Lost) is—seemingly—belied by his attempts to help the eight. They're "sensates," he tells them, with unspecified special mental powers, and they're being hunted down for vivisection by a malign force, perhaps a corporation or government.
It's this broader plot that unfolds slowly in Sense8. The stories of the eight major characters move at different paces. By the end of the third episode (all that Netflix made available in advance), we know a great deal about Will the cop but virtually nothing of Capheus the bus driver. The story-telling style is reminiscent of the Wachowskis' eccentric and elliptical 2012 film Atlas of Clouds, in which individual lives give off ripples that stretch out over centuries.
Yet there are also echoes of the Matrix films, particularly in Sens8's dreamy texture. As sights and sounds—sometimes as mundane as a file folder, sometimes as ominous as a gun—carry over from one character's life to another, the boundaries of reality get mistier by the moment.
The effect is amplified by the fact that all the characters seem to be wearing multiple masks: Noni the blogger is not only a lesbian but transgender. (The actress who plays her, Jamie Clayton, is transgender, as is Lana Wachowski.) Lito, the closeted actor, uses a series of gorgeous actresses as beards to protect his box-office bang. And the prim businesswoman Sun has a secret with real punch, revealed in an explosive scene that is no less effective for all its obvious manipulativeness.
In short, Sense8 is a seamless blend of excitement, ennui, sexual intrigue, anti-authoritarian paranoia, and fascinating sci-fi concepts that—of which the presence of Lost's Andrews is a continual reminder—could turn out to be thunderously stupid. The ultimate paradox of Sense8 is that it can give away so little about its ultimate destination in three hours of screen time, and still be seductive enough to make hour four an attractive proposition. As one of Lito's frustrated groupies tells him, "I'm not used to men telling me no. It's kind of turning me on." We know the feeling.
Sense8. Now available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: