Copyrighted Image. Image Credit: Sense8 Finale, Segolene Lagny / Netflix
The just-concluded Netflix series Sense8 is lonely, but never alone. There is a big bad multinational company (the Biologic Preservation Organization [BPO]; a hard-luck love story of metahuman types (Chicago cop and Icelandic DJ); the pleasures of San Francisco hacker culture; etc.—but these are all mere set pieces for a much more interesting and inclusive project.
The show centers on the “cluster” of “senseates”—eight people who suddenly discover, as adults, that they can enter into each other’s experience at any time, channeling their strengths and fears, and experience shared physical sensation. It would be easy for the premise to be delivered with the same ham-fistedness of the worst plot-driven science fiction, but Sense8 is a ship that avoids those rocks as deftly as a lighthouse can appear on the horizon, wherever you need one, at a moment’s notice.
Canceled after two seasons, Sense8 was revived by Netflix for a fan-service two-hour finale that premiered on June 11. I talked with show writer and amazing author Aleksandar Hemon, late of Chicago and soon of Princeton University, about what it took to write a show about interconnections so intense that it makes Twitter seem like a game of beanbag.
Davis: Sense8 is so unapologetically hopeful in its depiction of identity—it’s a polyvocal world of gender plurality and sexual multiplicity. It’s a globalism that runs across the rim of capital (the film industry for the character of Lito [Miguel Silvestre]; finance for the character of Sun [Bae Doona]) without falling for its seductive traps. How did you get involved, and at what point in the series?
Aleksandar: Lana and Lilly Wachowski developed Sense8 with the writer J. Michael Straczynski, and directed the first season (with James McTeague, Tom Tykwer and Dan Glass). For personal reasons, Lilly was not involved in the second season, and Lana invited David Mitchell and me to help with writing it. I’d been friends with Lana (and Lilly) for a while, as had David, so we heeded the call. We spent a week in the same room developing the plot with Lana and Joe and the directors, and then sent in pages with scenes that were assigned to us. Both David and I loved the experience and agreed (for a fee) to block out the summer of 2017 for writing Season 3. As you know, the show was cancelled after Season 2, but we Lana, David and I got together anyway to develop a spec project we had talked about. While we were doing that, Netflix responded to the Sense8 fan campaign and approved an episode that would be the Finale of the show. Lana, David and I were in the room together already—we called ourselves the Pit—so we just took down the note cards with plot points for our spec project and started developing the Finale. It took us a little more than a month to come up with a 168-page draft (“The Writers’ Cut”), which was then trimmed to a manageable length.
Davis: That’s am ambitious timetable for the Finale. Beyond what drew you to the work; what sustained the furious pace of the collaboration?
Aleksandar: The biggest draw to it all is that I love Lana and David and admire them as artists and human beings. Every moment spent in the Pit was full of joy and pleasure, and I’ve longed for it every day of my life since we finished our job(s). But there is also an overlapping of our thinking about what constitutes a human being, as we are all drawn to the idea of polyphonic consciousness, where the mind inescapably occupies various, even contradictory, positions simultaneously, while some of them are actually rooted in others. The idea is rooted in my/our belief that we formulate our selfhood in dialogue with others, in the world fundamentally defined by the presence of the not-mes. This idea exists in opposition of essentialist sovereignty, whereby each of is endowed with an essence that is then discovered and actualized, willed into existence, as it were. The idea of Sense8, cinematically activated, is that no one is alone in the world, not even in their heads, and that no human can be reduced to their identity without violating the complexity of their consciousness and life experience.
Davis: This pleasure in collaboration, and the longing for it is, a beautiful thing, and also very much what I take from the excessive intrusion-into-the-space of others within a Sense8 cluster. We rarely find sensates upset that they are interconnected with others, and they become almost immediately open to the interconnections in ways that are intertwined with desire. To what extent, if any, did this concept—we are never alone in our own heads—find its way into the writing process, structurally? What I mean, in a sense, is this: did a “cluster” connection in the Pit that allowed for the philosophical viewpoint of the show to emerge, and in what ways was the intense togetherness of the collective writing experience a dialogue that informed the structure of the Finale?
Aleksandar: The cluster as the basic unit/family of sensates was there from the beginning, so David and I accepted it as fully formed—we were not born into it, but joined the cluster, as it were. One of the many things Sense8 questions is the value of privacy—which is often merely loneliness—and of individual sovereignty. The notion of selfhood that dominates American culture is “I am myself and have always been so” so that sovereign, essential selfhood is what needs to be discovered and validated in the market of selves, so to speak. Sense8 blows that up by imagining lives in which no one is ever alone. Much of the first season was the characters’ negotiation and subsequent expansion of the limits of their selves, physical and mental. There is a scene when all the characters join in declaring “I am a we.” Whispers [the main antagonist] is the only sensate who is alone—a pathological individualist—for which he had to kill the rest of his cluster and experience their deaths in the process.
Davis: To what extent did the writing process—the Pit—need to model this sense of togetherness? We’ve already covered that the process was collaborative, but in the show, collaboration among sensates demolishes traditional boundaries of the “I” in the ways you suggest above. And since all art is collaborative, even when we perceive it to be solitary, the experience of writing in a group is also different than the “solo” myth of the hangdog auteur pecking away at an old typewriter.
Aleksandar: The pleasure of the Pit for me was a similar dissolution of the limits of the self. Much like a sensate, I was thinking someone else’s thoughts, occupying their positions to consider mine. What wrote the Finale was a three-headed mind. I remember that I wrote first drafts of some scenes, but when I watch it, I can never claim any ownership of a scene or even a line. Even if I could, collaboration is the very essence of cinema, so that a scene, or even a line, could never be fully owned by a writer—that would just be delusional egotistic. I experienced this temporary, discursive dissolution of the self as liberating, but it was not unfamiliar. Writing my books, I experienced this sensation of becoming and being someone else—all narration is necessarily, if to various degrees, polyphonic—no one can tell, or perceive, a story without occupying multiple positions, which means that they might have to be questioned and renegotiated. Sense8 orgies are famous and spectacular, but they actualize the logical extreme of the notion that one loses one’s self in sex, in the moments of shared pleasure. Here, sex in all its varieties is not pathologized, or a matter of shame, but a means of liberation from the limits of normative selfhood. Hence the show’s queerness, proudly, and deliberately, sabotaging heteronormative, partriarchal family/relationship format, which always pins you to an essentialist identity, to a role you presumably must play to be legitimate as a subject.
Davis: The sabotage of heteronormativity goes about its work with equal parts pleasure and empathy, so much that the show will sometimes appear to sacrifice “plot” for the detours into the collective moment that are, of course, not detours. This happens consistently for me via the scenes of collective and often musical experience—Riley playing the song on the train (Depeche Mode? A remix of something from the 80s I recognize but can’t place…); the sex scenes which use the camera to confuse the binaries of the body; the intensity of action when the cluster is engaged in unison.
Aleksandar: The amplified expansion into others is what Sense8 is about. People have called that radical empathy, but empathy doesn’t cover it for me, because it is merely emotional identification. Sense8 does more than that: entire minds and bodies are shared and inhabited, everyone is someone else while being themselves (except for Whispers). Sense8 appreciates the value of chosen family—as opposed to a given family—and the ways a family can be assembled voluntarily on the basis of love. The final wedding/sex sequence is like the ending to a renaissance comedy—everybody joyfully on the stage, all love problems resolved, all the villains punished or eliminated—but is also a celebration of an assembled, expanded, chosen family. By way of the Pit, I became part of that family, which also includes the fans. The screening for the fans in Chicago was the culmination of that glorious process.
Davis: The show is such a spectacle of hope, despite the almost uncountable death toll, that I found myself swept up in the communalism…so that the unlikely let’s-all-meet-at-the-Eiffel-Tower closing wedding scene felt less like a contrived cram of characters and more like the close of Kafka’s Amerika, with the “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma” chapter where jobs and promise are abundant. The tone is completely different, of course, but in Kafka, as in “Sense8,” the “tone” comes to transcend the genre. This is the global community where we all enjoy a pot brownie—a great final plot device, by the way—and become better for it. This was completely on display at the Chicago advance screening at the amazing Music Box Theater, complete with their famous live organ performance warm-up, in a communal experience where the audience reacted line by line. The screening reminded me of something collective and yet also rare: permission at the movies to yell and scream and cheer. The reactions were so frenetic, the collectivity sometimes subsuming the actual screening. We were “the many” and our experience no longer individual. It wasn’t until later, really, after the immediacy of the experience had faded, that I started to consider the narrative; I want to ask you about that. What does the writing team look like and how do you balance the needs of the competing narrative strands against the structural requirements of “television” as expressed in the desire for plot and unity? I think here of the many scenes that are “collective” pieces rather than “action” scenes?
Copyrighted Image. Image Credit: Sense8 Finale, Segolene Lagny / Netflix
Aleksandar: When David and I worked with Lana on the Sense8 Finale we accepted and understood that it was her project, which also means that she was the one wrangling the structural requirements. But the Finale is a strange beast, as it comes at the end of two seasons of television, yet it is the size of a feature film. This was challenging to say the least, as we first had to decide what story lines we would not pursue. We also had to decide not to go for what we called the “Moldovian Solution,” which a reference to the last episode of the fifth season of [the 1980s show] Dynasty, where everyone present at the wedding seems to have been massacred—only for some of them to resurrect (having completed contract negotiations) at the beginning of Season 6. In another words, we had to bring together not only the eight sensates, but also their humans, which is to say that we had about sixteen main characters, and we had to move them through a reasonably coherent plot, while being mindful of the story lines from before that needed to be wrapped up. Compared to that, writing a novel, particularly the plotless kind I gravitate toward, was a walk in the park. With all that, the plot was a vessel that could contain all the characters and allow them to retain relation to their life stories.
Davis: The “massacre closer” has its place, but I am glad you chose a different direction. There is an almost cartoonish quality to the body count and to the bad guys in the series. The BPO (Biologic Preservation Organization) baddies were rarely individuated or identified enough to be interconnected with anyone, and yet the trope of the mega-corporation gone amok seemed to me to be almost secondary to the survival story of the sensates. I don’t mean it wasn’t believable within the world of the story, but after a time—especially once Whispers is captures by the sensates—BPO seemed a foil to the interconnectedness of the main characters. Even so, the two-hour running time forced plotlines from Season 2 to not be “wrapped up.” Lito, compared to the previous season, was less utilized; the “Superpower” gang in Kenya disappears; Sun’s corrupt brother drops away (for the most part). What were some of the hard choices that had to be made, and what narratives might have had more room to bloom had the show been extended?
Aleksandar: Some of the characters and their stories were limited by their shooting schedules, as a few actors were working on other projects at the same time. But I wish I could tell you the character trajectories Lana has outlined and we kept imagining—it would’ve been great. We had to opt out for the relative unity of time and space, and disregard, which was painful, story lines we had no time to pursue. So that Lito’s big break and Capheus’s political career had to be suspended. All of the narratives could have gone further: Lito’s career could’ve taken off; Capheus could’ve had to deal with the situation of being in power; Kala could’ve gone on waffling between the two men (as Rajan’s corruption affair would affect their relationship); Nomi and Amanita could’ve had to pay back The Guy for the favor; Riley and Will could’ve worked on connecting and uniting other clusters; Wolfgang could’ve been in the middle of the succession war unfolding in Berlin; Sun’s brother could’ve united with a politician who makes an appearance at the end of Season 2. But that’s all entirely speculative. Who knows what would’ve happened if the Pit spent 2 months outlining Season 3 and then wrote it? Writing is nothing but contingencies, really.
Davis: That takes us to the “master” of all contingencies: Marcel Proust. I saw Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time (Volume 6),” which is, appropriately, the book called The Fugitive, appear as renegade sensate Jonas is imprisoned by our heroes. I want to feel that Proust is always more than a set piece or an afterthought, and more than a mere signal to those “in the know” (you may have heard me shout “whoo hoo” at the screening). Am I right?
Aleksandar: As you know, Proust is irreducible. The only correct and full representation of Proust is the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, which is to say that any quote from or allusion to Proust simplifies his ideas. But the greatness of Sense8 (for a writer) is that you could place Proust in the hands of a sensate who is chained to a radiator in a bathroom in Paris and have the author be recontextualized, if only briefly. The Proust thing is to some extent a joke, but it also marks the space/narrative as Proustian, since the story importantly operates not only diachronically (first this, then that) but also synchronically (both this and that at the same time), which is how memory works.
Davis: We’ve talked Proust before, and as you know, I would be happy to talk Proust forever. In Proust, you can take longer to read about a party than attend it, and the sense of time contracting over the space of the text can feel as fragile and wondrous as an exploding hawthorn blossom. In Sense8, Proust feels appropriate because—even more than a joke—the text signifies a rupture in Jonas’ capture. He’s there, but not there, reading a text that is also there, but not. Proust is, for me, always in everything and of everything: local to the belle époque and limited by Marcel’s limitations, but extrapolating always outward and inward—synchronically, as you note—and reaching as deeply into the pool of “everyone” as Sense8’s pervasive interconnectedness. This is why I yelled “who hoo” at the Chicago screening. And so what are the challenges as a writer of bringing these characters who in earlier seasons largely existed in different parts of the world into the same space? That would obviously be easier for filming, but it was such a marked difference from the earlier seasons where filming took place across the world and the characters, with some exceptions, lived their separate lives. The finale felt to me like Proust’s Time Regained, another amazing finale that actually never ends.
Aleksandar: It was obvious that the Finale had to be basically a two-hour action movie that would resolve the Wolfgang situation, plus the Sense8 essentials: food, sex, music and meaningful conversations. In the expansive format of an entire season there was time for patient thematic development, and space for the characters to talk to each other and in doing so formulate thematic concerns on screen. the Finale had to have ideological continuity as well. Lana had a clear vision of the framework that could contain it all, and our main challenge was making painful choices. The first writers’ draft of the script was 170 pages.
One could argue that Time is regained in editing, that is, in choosing the right fragments/moments that can metonymically represent the totality. The funny thing with In Search of Time Lost is that it is not too long but too short—however long it is, it is less than the totality of Time, since time operates both diachronically and synchronically—it both passes and it never passes, it is the eternal present and the evanescent past at the same time. The thing with narratives is that they have to end, however long they may be. The format of TV series can create a sensation of endless time. It can just keep going, while never changing, which is, I think, where the pleasure of binging lies—binging suspends and accelerates time simultaneously.
Davis: Binging as perpetual motion. Time regained, paused, and unwound…
Aleksandar: But we knew that Sense8 Finale was the end, and the reflective nostalgia is already inscribed in it, except it has the shape of exuberance—we knew that everyone, the fans, the people involved, including the Pit, would look back at it and we wanted everyone to remember the joy and pleasure of it, of the time we were all together, of Time holding together.
ALEKSANDAR HEMON was born in 1964, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He came to the US as part of a month long cultural exchange program of journalists but was granted political asylum when Sarajevo came under siege. Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles, The Making of Zombie Wars and a collection of auto-biographical essays, The Book of My Lives. He is working on his next novel, tentatively titled The World and All That It Holds, as well as three works of nonfiction, How Did You Get Here?: Tales of Displacement (oral histories) and My Parents: An Introduction (memoir) and This Does Not Belong to You (memoir), all forthcoming from FSG. How Did You Get Here? was the recipient a PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History in 2017.
Photo Credit: Velibor Bozovic