Still from Sense8. Netflix.
As I advised CounterPunch readers on December 9th (), Netflix is still worth the subscription price as long as it produces shows like “Narcos”. As further confirmation of its value, “Sense8” is about as entertaining as anything you can see in movie theaters (you remember them, don’t you?) and on premium cable such as HBO. For that matter, plain vanilla cable is catching up with HBO as demonstrated in the USA Network series “Mr. Robot” that like “Sense8” premiered in the spring of 2015. The first two seasons are complete and can now be seen on various VOD venues.
Season one of “Sense8” has been completed and season two has just started. The show’s title is a play on the word “sensate” that means being perceived through the senses as should be obvious from its spelling. However, the word takes on a heightened meaning as the eight leading characters are endowed with special powers that allow them to share each other’s field of vision from thousands of miles away and even be transported from long distances to share thoughts with their cohorts and assume their identity at critical points. Most frequently this involves a skilled martial arts fighter inhabiting the body of an unskilled member of the group in order to ward off an attack by gangsters, assassins or other miscreants. Think of Woody Allen becoming Jackie Chan temporarily and you’ll get both the action and comic possibilities of this conceit.
The eight leading characters are:
1/ A female DJ from Iceland who works in London, hangs out with drug dealers, and eventually becomes the love interest of the character below.
2/ A NY cop who is haunted by the image of a woman committing suicide (she turns out to be a tormented fellow sensate.)
3/ A safecracker from Berlin named Wolfgang who becomes part of the octet’s muscle-on-demand just like the cop.
4/ A Korean businesswoman who is also a highly skilled martial artist and rounds out the Sense8 special forces.
5/ A woman from India working in the pharmaceutical industry who on the eve of her arranged marriage becomes drawn to the safecracker through sheer sexual magnetism.
6/ A Mexican movie star famous for his macho roles who is a closeted gay.
7/ A transgender woman named Nomi who is a blogger and hacker in a lesbian relationship with an African-American. She is played by Jamie Clayton, a trans woman who has acted in such roles since 2010.
8/ A Kenyan minibus driver whose vehicle is nicknamed “Van Damme”, after the action hero he idolizes. He is constantly being rescued in confrontations with Nairobi gangsters by the Korean woman who kicks ass like it is going out of business.
On the most basic level, the message of the series is human solidarity as the eight grow closer and closer based on their commonly shared gifts as well as the need to offer emotional support to each other. If the Kenyan is incapable of delivering a karate chop he is certainly able to console the Korean woman who has been sent to prison unjustly for embezzlement. He is just as likely to show up in her prison cell as an avatar as she is in a seat next to him on his minibus.
There is really no point in asking how any of this takes place since that line of investigation would lead to placing yourself outside of the fantasy world of “Sense8”. You might as well ask how Dorothy ended up in Oz.
The people most in need of protection and moral support are the trans woman and the Mexican actor who are putting up with bigotry in one form or another. In his case, it is having his career destroyed after a purloined photo of him having sex with his lover goes viral on the Net.
Whether or not the Wachowskis intended for this show to function as the ultimate anti-Trump drama is impossible to say but that is its objective role as we used to put it in the Trotskyist movement. If diversity has become an overused buzzword too often associated with Ivy League colleges and large corporation personnel offices, it comes to life in “Sense8” as an unfolding drama of shared human values and respect for “difference” even to the point of depicting an orgy with all 8 characters having sex with each other whatever the sexual preference they are accustomed to.
If the show was about nothing except this message, it would hardly be worth watching but it is the tremendous story-telling powers of the Wachowskis that makes it so compelling. “Sense8” is basically a nighttime soap opera in which the dramas of all the different characters keeps overlapping like the various themes in a Johann Sebastian Bach fugue. Hearkening back to the “Perils of Pauline”, the characters keep getting bailed out by their comrades in the most surprising manner.
Does the name Wachowski ring a bell? In 1999 brothers Laurence and Andrew Wachowski co-directed a film called “Matrix” that became part of a series of films about a world dominated by tyrannical robots that most people understood as a metaphor for our own existence. It was no accident that Cornel West was featured in one of the films as an elder statesman of the last free territory on earth. The Wachowski’s were also the screenwriters for “V for Vendetta”, a film widely understood as expressing the sentiments of anarchist hackers worldwide.
It is now no longer the Wachowski brothers. Both men transitioned into women who are now known as Lana (formerly Laurence) and Lilly (formerly Andrew). “Sense8” is obviously a defense of their views on sexual identity and one arguably more convincing than a thousand articles in scholarly journals. Before they worked on “Matrix” and when they were still identified as male, they wrote the screenplay for “Bound”, a marvelous film about lesbian lovers who turn the tables on a mafia gangster who has been abusing one of the women. It was one of the first movies featuring gay characters that ended triumphantly for them.
A 1999 NY Times profile on the Wachowski’s might give you a sense of how they became masters of their art:
For “The Matrix” the Wachowski brothers studied the work of directors as varied as John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, George Lucas and Fritz Lang. They also read and reread their favorite book, “The Odyssey.” Larry said: “I read it all the time. I always get something out of it.”
That would be my advice for any young person reading this article with plans to go to film school: follow the example of the Wachowski’s.
One of the primary influences on “Mr. Robot” is “Matrix”. Like Keanu Reeves, the main character is a programmer named Elliot Anderson who is a hacker in his spare time. Anderson is eminently qualified for his avocation since his day job is with one of the top computer security firms in the USA.
Unlike the robots that have cast humanity into the netherworld in the Wachowski film, the Evil Presence in Mr. Robot is a multinational corporation called E Corp that is a conglomerate involved in manufacturing computers, a credit card business like Visa and various shady deals smacking of Enron and Monsanto but even worse. Anderson always refers to the company as Evil Corp.
Anderson is a deeply alienated man who suffers from depression and a general sense of the futility of existence that is only relieved by daily doses of morphine. Perhaps the only thing that keeps him going is the possibility of carrying out the ultimate hack, one that would bring Evil Corp crashing to the earth like Enron.
Fate would have it that he becomes a member of fsociety, a group of hackers based in a nondescript warehouse in Coney Island that is led by a woman named Darlene who is motivated less by politics than a nihilistic need to destroy for the sake of destroying. As it happens, this was not that far removed from the realities of the hacker underground as I discussed in a review of the 2014 documentary “Hacker Wars”. Known as “Weev”, Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer was hardly committed to progressive values. In an article posted on the neo-Nazi Stormer website, Weev let loose with this:
I’ve been a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda. Judge Wigenton was as black as they come. The prosecutor, Zach Intrater, was a Brooklyn Jew from an old money New York family. The trial was a sham…The whole time a yarmulke-covered audience of Jewry stared at me from the pews of the courtroom. My prosecutor invited his whole synagogue to spectate.
As the series moves toward the conclusion of Season Two, Anderson has become so disenchanted with the hacker life and so psychologically torn apart that suicide becomes the only possible salvation. If “Sense8” is all about possibilities, “Mr. Robot” is a deeply pessimistic look at our world today that seems to conclude that there is no alternative to the current state of affairs.
“Mr. Robot” is the most noir-informed work I have seen in years. It is unrelieved by moments of lightness and joy that typify “Sense8”. Elliot Anderson is the most pronounced voice of despair whose soliloquies are among the show’s most important elements:
Is that what God does? He helps? Tell me, why didn’t God help my innocent friend who died for no reason while the guilty ran free?
Okay. Fine. Forget the one-offs. How about the countless wars declared in His name?
Okay. Fine. Let’s skip the random, meaningless murder for a second, shall we? How about the racist, sexist, phobia soup we’ve all been drowning in because of Him?
And I’m not just talking about Jesus. I’m talking about all organized religion. Exclusive groups created to manage control. A dealer getting people hooked on the drug of hope. His followers, nothing but addicts who want their hit of bullshit to keep their dopamine of ignorance.
Addicts. Afraid to believe the truth. That there’s no order. There’s no power. That all religions are, just metastasizing mind worms, meant to divide us so it’s easier to rule us by the charlatans that wanna run us. All we are to them are paying fanboys of their poorly-written sci-fi franchise.
If I don’t listen to my imaginary friend, why the fuck should I listen to yours? People think their worship is some key to happiness. That’s just how He owns you. Even I’m not crazy enough to believe that distortion of reality.
So fuck God. He’s not a good enough scapegoat for me.
Is our future that of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”, a question made more palpable by Donald Trump’s inauguration today? As human beings with free will, let us push for becoming sensate.