Sense8 and Empathy

In the middle of working on an emotionally heavy piece of journalism, I had a day where I didn’t have too much to do. I took advantage of the lull by deciding to finally watch the Netflix sci-fi drama Sense8.

Here is how the fan wiki for Sense8 describes the show:

Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers from different places and backgrounds, who suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionally connected in the wake of a tragic death, due to an unknown evolutionary leap of technological origin. As they attempt to sort out why this happened and what it means for them and for the future of mankind, a mysterious figure named Jonas will work to bring the eight together, while another stranger — simply called “Mr. Whispers” — and his organization is on a mission to hunt down and capture or assassinate them.

The eight strangers (aka “sensates,” get it?) are adults living across the world (Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Chicago, London/Iceland, Berlin, San Francisco, Mexico City). Between the 8, there are characters who are gay, straight, cis, trans, Black, white, Latino, Asian, poor, wealthy, brilliant, violent, criminals, scapegoats, sons, daughters, partners, people with deep and interesting histories (we get flashbacks to all the characters’ childhoods), people who are part of big caring families, others who have cold relationships with theirs, and still others who have made families for themselves that have no tie to blood or genes. Suddenly these 8 people not only can sense each other’s emotions, they share experiences, sometimes one person’s consciousness and knowledge slipping seamlessly into another’s. The 8 have conversations about their feelings and lives, they see where the others live, they console, advise, and encourage each other because they have no other choice (and, I think the show suggests, because they are good people); they are now linked by emotion and they must deal.

I love this show. I watched it and then I re-watched it with my husband so that we could talk about it. I’ve had to talk myself out of watching it yet again (I do have things to do, I tell myself).

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I have had this reaction to the show, why I keep thinking about it, why a show full of pain and violence as much as love and affection captured me so fully. It’s not narratively seamless — I haven’t looked but I imagine there are plenty of thinkpieces about where the “science” of this show falters or where there are gaping holes in the storytelling. I don’t care about any of that.

What appeals to me so deeply about Sense8 is that it is a show about empathy. About connection. About how people who know nothing of each other’s lives, when forced to come to terms with those strangers and to experience life simultaneously through their own eyes and those of the other 7 people they are connected to, do.

It probably hit at the right time for me: I was working on a story that seemed to be a perfect example of how often and easily we lack empathy for others. I want desperately to believe that we, as a society (or even a world if I am being too generous), can be more empathetic and that we will all be better people for it. Sense8 speaks directly to that. I am thankful for it. I need(ed) that story in my life.


Some parting thoughts on Sense8 and empathy from two other writers.

Eric Weiss at Nerdy Stuff:

Sense8 suggests that people are all connected, and that if we can see beyond differences of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and profession, our minds and our humanity are remarkably consistent and compassionate. The show simply makes that ideal literal through the introduction of the sensates, making its point far more effectively than other high-concept science fiction based around conflict rather than consensus.

It makes for one of the most refreshingly well-structured and optimistic shows on television, aptly demonstrating that empathy can be just as spectacular as violence.

Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker:

On some level, the sensates’ telepathic empathy is a metaphor for the Internet, which seems, in some ways, to be making us more open to others’ experiences (especially queer experiences). The show also evokes the joys of creative collaboration: people who watch the Wakowskis work together often say that they have “two bodies, one brain.” Really, though, the point of “Sense8” is to revel in the broadening of empathy — to fantasize about how in-tune with each other we could be. In its own, low-key way, therefore, “Sense8” is a critique of sci-fi. It asks whether, in tying our dreams about human transformation to fantasies of technological development, we might be making an error. The show suggests another path to transcendence: each other.

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