Friday, December 23, 2016

Tease The Threat For Sense8: It's Not Really "A Christmas Special!"

The Good: Good performances, Good direction, Moments of character
The Bad: Does not advance the plot significantly, Terrible name
The Basics: "A Christmas Special" seeds the important plotlines for the new season of Sense8 . . . fairly well.

[NOTE: This review was written when the second season premiere of Sense8 first aired. At that time, the episode was entitled "A Christmas Special." A week later, its name was changed to "Happy Fuckin' New Year." Rather than rewrite the review with its new title, we've opted to maintain the original wording.]

Of the Netflix Original shows, there is only one I have rewatched more times than the first season of Sense8 (reviewed here!). I have been eagerly awaiting the return of Sense8, as have many fans of the show. So, when Netflix and the Wachowskis suddenly revealed that there was a Christmas episode prepared to drop and a release date for the second season, my first reaction was excitement. That reaction was quickly tempered with a sense of cautious optimism.

There have been very few shows that have had a cliffhanger that have effectively placed an episode in between the cliffhanger finale and its resolution episode. In fact, while Doctor Who often does a Christmas episode that bears little or no resemblance to the season premiere/finale, the only show that comes to mind for inserting an episode as a "bonus" was The West Wing. The second season of The West Wing (reviewed here!) ended on a huge cliffhanger, but writer Aaron Sorkin felt compelled to write his own The West Wing reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks and present that before the third season of The West Wing (reviewed here!). But "Isaac And Ishmael" opened with a very clear disclaimer by the cast that the episode is a tangent episode existing on its own as a de facto "alternate universe" episode. And the third season premiere of The West Wing began without any acknowledgment of that episode and given how intense the first season finale of Sense8 was, the idea of an interstitial episode in the Sense8 narrative was inherently troubling.

After all, how does one do "A Christmas Special" with so many characters in an intense state of angst?! The first season climaxed with most of the cluster aiding Will Gorski in rescuing Riley from the scientific complex run by the Sensate-obsessed doctor, Whispers. In the process, Will was compromised and is now a liability to his cluster and was last seen being drugged to keep him from regaining consciousness and connecting Whispers to the new cluster. The other big budding relationship in the first season was virtually destroyed when Wolfgang revealed his dark past and murderous abilities to Kala. So, with Nomi and Amanita laying low from the government, Lito outed, Max having just killed a prominent gangsters (and many of his men) and Will a threat to his entire cluster the moment he regains consciousness . . . naturally the next thing would be a Christmas episode.

Fortunately, "A Christmas Special" is a Christmas episode of Sense8 in name only. Covering at least five months, "A Christmas Special" advances the timeline of Sense8 by minorly advancing some of the characters, while merely restoring other characters to where they had been in the first season.

Opening with Kala on her honeymoon, which affords her fellow Sensates a chance to go for a swim, the outing is one of the few chances Will has an opportunity to escape his isolation. Riley has Will hooked on heroin in order to break the psychic bond between him and the rest of the cluster in order to protect them from Whispers. While Will is tormented by visions of Angelica killing herself, Sun remains in prison while her lawyers keep dropping her appeal and Lito is publicly outed and suffers the consequences of his honesty. Capheus loses the Van Damn after attempting to repair it. Wolfgang is approached with the consequences of his killing his uncle, while Amanita deals with being harassed by a U.S. government agent.

While Lito relocates from his condo, Sun fends off attacks by assassins hired by her brother and Kala tries desperately to make her marriage work. Capheus is given a new bus by the gangster whose life he saved, who appears to have turned over a new leaf by preparing to open clinics to provide health care to the people of the city. Wolfgang is unsettled when his aunt asks him to step into his uncle's shoes to prevent a turf war in Berlin, while Nomi and Amanita leave the women's shelter for the company of the unlikely person they are still able to trust. But when Riley takes Will out to ice skate, Whispers is able to access him and menace him with images of how the scientist is at Will's father's house. The threat to the cluster is not only from Whispers, though, as Wolfgang's refusal to join the mobster lifestyle leads to an explosive confrontation.

For those who hate trailers, the trailer for "A Christmas Special" certainly is not going to convert viewers; the final moment of the episode is in the trailer!

That said, it takes a while for "A Christmas Special" to actually establish its timeframe. "A Christmas Special" begins an ambiguous time after the first season finale; Capheus is still fishing bullets out of the Van Damn, Sun is still in solitary confinement, but Riley and Will have made it to an undisclosed location and Nomi and Amanita have been harassed enough by the same Federal agent for Amanita to have banter with him. But, as Thanksgiving nears, Michael Gorski reveals that Will has been gone for four months and the episode moves ahead to New Year's.

"A Christmas Special" is heavily reliant upon having seen the first season of Sense8 in order to get much of anything out of it. The flashbacks to Angelica make no real sense out of context and Sun's brother's crimes are more obliquely referenced so those who are not fans are not likely to catch that he killed their father. Fortunately, "A Christmas Special" manages to get out of the way some of the potential deadweight moments; Lito's storyline advances as he loses everything while remaining strong in coming out of the closet. Will's condition generally deteriorates over the months encompassed in "A Christmas Special," which sets up the whole idea that the way he is hiding from Whispers is not sustainable.

"A Christmas Special" presents a potential weak spot for Whispers as well; he has a family, but the episode also sets up his replacement when Jonas mentions that Whispers is not the only Sensate hunter active in the world.

Sense8 is flush with characters, so the two-hour special has a lot to do to satisfactorily service all of them. Some of the characters, most notably Riley, are under-used in "A Christmas Special." At the outset of "A Christmas Special," the primary characters are:

Will Gorski - Having seen Whispers, Whispers is now able to use him to access his cluster, so he is kept drugged and in an undisclosed, nondescript apartment. He is miserable, but is happy to be with Riley,

Riley Blue - Relegated to a supporting role, she keeps Will drugged to keep herself and the others safe. Still, she wants to enjoy some of her time with Will and takes him ice skating,

Lito - Outed by the press, he tells off his publicist, agent and lawyer in order to remain true to himself. Hernando and Daniela remain his steadfast lover and friend, respectively. But all indications are that his career as an actor is over,

Sun Bak - Kept in solitary confinement, she keeps the cluster focused on protecting Will and they, in turn, give her opportunities to escape her cell through them. She is hunted by minions of her brother, who want her to die in prison. Her former cellmates bribe the guards on her birthday so she doesn't have to be alone,

Nomi Marks - On the run from the government, she relies heavily on Amanita. They flee to Bug's boat, while she affords Will a single chance to contact his father,

Wolfgang - While he waits for Felix to recover, his aunt approaches him to take over his uncle's territory in the Berlin mob. While he has moments of being tempted by that, witnessing how one of the mobsters treats his uncle's lawyer - and with encouragement from Kala to be a better man - he turns back to a more just approach to dealing with people,

Kala - Deeply unhappy in her new married life, she accidentally hurts her new husband when they get around to trying to make love. She offers herself to Sun to get out of her cell and tries to see the good in Wolfgang after she witnessed how horrible he could be,

Capheus - He recovers from nearly getting killed and losing the Van Damn. He is put back on his feet by the mobster whose life he saved on his birthday and continues to idolize Sun for the way she helped him,

and Whispers - Now inside Will's head, he is eagerly hunting Will and Riley to try to break into the new cluster and learn the identities of the other five members he does not yet know.

The characters in "A Christmas Special" are very recognizable and familiar for who they have been. The performers, save the new Toby Onwumere, are all comfortable in their roles. Onwumere takes over the role of Capheus and writers Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski use the recasting as a chance to make a few in-jokes pertaining to the recasting. Onwumere is erratic in recreating the cadences of Capheus's voice, slowly transitioning it from how the character sounded to a more natural speaking pattern for the actor.

The performance of the episode arguably comes from Miguel Angel Silvestre. Silvestre soars in providing reaction shots when Lito interacts with his mother and finds unexpected acceptance. Silvestre illustrates the most range in "A Christmas Special" when he transitions from ecstatic and fun to serious to the verge of heartbreak.

Tina Desai is once again impressive as Kala and she plays the character as beautifully conflicted. Desai continues to deepen her on-screen chemistry with Max Riemelt, but her performances are best when she plays Kala as attempting to commit to her marriage and when she plays humor. Tina Desai has an excellent sense of comic timing in one of "A Christmas Special's" funniest scenes, which is a would-be sex scene! Desai might well have the best agent of the cast as "A Christmas Special" includes a boatload of nudity from the main cast, with Desai showing the least amount of skin!

The direction from Lana Wachowski is generally good. Wachowski provides the obligatory orgy scene - it's not really "A Christmas Special" after all! - and there are some beautiful shots, most notably near the climax of the episode during Will and Riley's ice skating scene.

But "A Christmas Special" is very clearly more of a season premiere than it is anything resembling a holiday special. The episode is a strong opener for the second season, but it holds up very poorly on its own or as an event episode.

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"The Ghost" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"The Present" - The Flash
"Out Of Time" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Medusa" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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