There’s a moment in Sense8 that has stuck with me for years. It’s a small moment, barely a scene, between Nomi, one of the eight main characters, and her girlfriend Amanita. They are on a hill, overlooking San Francisco, accompanied by all the mawkish elements of cinematic sentimentality: a picnic, a sunset, a slowly engaged kiss. Like so much of Sense8, what should be cheesy or contrived is somehow neither. It’s a beautiful, earnest moment between a trans woman and the love of her life, and they are both so happy I get emotional just describing it.
Sense8, the TV show that lasted for two seasons and movie at Netflix, is a beautiful, rainbow-colored flower of a thing. Sense8 has always been unabashedly queer and trans-positive, helmed by the most prominent trans directors of our time, Lana and Lily Wachowski. Sense8 stands apart from so much queer media, remaining firm in the belief that just because queer natives contain tragedy, that does not inherently make them tragic. When so much so-called prestige television is content to mumble in depression-soaked gray tones, Sense8 shouts, screams, sings — yes, even along with its own soundtrack — in one colorful location after another.
While Sense8 is not without its flaws, even those flaws help create the glorious, wildly entertaining, utterly human celebration that is the show. It’s a superhero show where the main power on display is pure empathy, where problems are solved not by destruction, but connection. It is not for everyone. But for those it is for, it is for them very much indeed. It’s a fairy tale disguised as a television show.
We, collectively, do not deserve Sense8.
But I do.
When Sense8 premiered on June 15, 2015, I was presenting as the male identity I was assigned at birth. I had been out as queer since college, but for some reason acknowledging the trans part of myself was a line I couldn’t cross. Looking back, the signs were plentiful — as a child I frequently felt mystified by the behavior of boys, whose macho games didn’t become more clear as I grew older. I had an identity as a man who wasn’t trapped by masculinity; a well-groomed dandy who cooked and sewed in his spare time. To break that, to show that the reason I wasn’t defined by masculinity was because I wasn’t a man at all, was too difficult. I had a life, after all. I was 35, I was married, and we were trying to have child. If there was a window for me to come out as trans, I missed it. And after all, I was large, broad-shouldered, and hairy. The prevailing narrative was people like that didn’t become trans women. And if they did, they were jokes. Hairy men in dresses.
"After so many trans characters in film and television have had to deal with the loss of loved ones due to their transition, don’t we deserve a fairy tale? Don’t I?"
Two years later, Sense8 Season 2 came out, we had a daughter, and I began hormone replacement therapy. While there are many things in my life that allowed me to get to this point — wanting to be a fully present partner and parent, years of therapy, etc. — I can’t discount the effect this crazy television show had on me. There’s an old saw that goes “being trans is contagious,” but in actuality, what is contagious is the idea that it’s okay to be trans. And nothing displays that better than the sci-fi Pride parade that is Sense8.
Sense8 is unabashedly a trans narrative. Many essays have been written about the trans issues at the heart of the work of the Wachowski Sisters, from their original Matrix series to their adaptation of Speed Racer. But Sense8 goes deeper. It’s no accident that one of the first signs that macho cop Will Gorski’s life has changed is hearing music no one else can. Later, he sees a woman instead of his own masculine reflection.
“Few know what it means to be reborn,” Naveen Andrews’ man-with-all-the-answers Jonas purrs early in the series. “You saw her. But that’s just the beginning. You are no longer just you.”
In the mythology of the show, Will is a “sensate.” He possesses a psychic connection to seven other individuals, given to him by another sensate, his psychic “mother.” Will now has a new identity that he has difficulty explaining to his father and his coworkers. He has a new perspective now, one that’s changing his ideas of sexuality and gender, and things that were confusing are now becoming crystal clear. He has — to make metaphor for queer communities that becomes more explicit as the show goes on — a new family, one that comes not from a shared cultural background but from shared experiences.
All of that is subtext, of course. Where Sense8 shines, and where it means the most to me, is in the text. In the character of Nomi Marks.
Nomi is a trans character played by a trans person. A rarity, to be sure, but she is not the first. She’s not even the first on Netflix; we had Laverne Cox’s indelible portrayal of Sophia Burset on Orange Is The New Black for two seasons before Sense8. Nomi is played Jamie Clayton, who, like Cox, is tall, charismatic, and stunningly beautiful. But while Sophia’s story is marked by misery (to be fair, she’s not alone in that; OITNB is nothing if not a study of consequences, earned and otherwise), Nomi is allowed to be happy.
Sure, she has to travel to some dark places over the course of the show, and her difficulty with family acceptance is a running thread. But it's not an accident that we first meet Nomi at the climax of joyful sex session with her girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman). The scene is at first surprising in its frank depiction of Nomi and Amanita’s sexuality, but now appears tame considering the writhing multi-gender and sexual orientation psychic orgies that would become one of Sense8’s hallmarks.
Nomi is clumsy, defiant, awkward, and quietly funny. But above all, she is happy, and her love with Amanita is huge part of that. It helps that Agyeman’s Amanita is the greatest girlfriend this side of Wonder Woman. She fights for Nomi against bigotry, can do a mean motorcycle chase, and is whip-smart despite still somehow working at a bookstore. My wife confessed to me that she knows she’s not as good a partner as Amanita is, but who could be? Amanita is a fairy tale, the perfect girlfriend from her rainbow dreads to combat boots. And after so many trans characters in film and television have had to deal with the loss of loved ones due to their transition, don’t we deserve a fairy tale? Don’t I?
The love between Nomi and Amanita meant so much to me, in ways even now I have difficulty expressing. When I was trying to imagine the possibility of being trans, what my life would be like, I kept coming back to that moment of Nomi and Amanita on the hill, having a picnic. Being in love. I could have that, I thought. That’s within reach. That’s possible. I just saw it on the screen.
When I first went shopping for girl clothes, I bought a pair of black thigh-high socks. I couldn’t afford the shopping trip to begin with, and certainly didn’t need those socks. But I had to have them. Because Nomi wears them in that scene.
Netflix decided to end Sense8, the show we collectively do not deserve, after only two seasons. The Wachowskis had planned to do five. Thanks to fan outcry, Netflix granted us a movie-length finale that would tie up loose plot threads and give us, if not a satisfying ending, at least an ending.
And it does end. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the bad guys are stopped, the good guys win, and love triumphs. For all the finale’s the rush to get to the ending and all its contrived moments (including, hilariously, Chekov’s rocket-launcher), seeing our heroes save the day is remarkably cathartic. At a time when those in power are hell-bent on barring all queer and trans people from public restrooms, public facilities, public life, there’s something to be said about watching their fictional counterparts go down in flames. A small comfort, perhaps. One only a fairy tale can provide.
As a fairy tale, it’s only fitting that Sense8 ends with the wedding of Nomi and Amanita, and so it does. More than any other character, Nomi gets her goddamned happy ending, and we, the trans people in the audience, get ours. She gets married, surrounded by her friends and her new family; she gets the understanding of her parents; she gets the entire Eiffel Tower as the setting for a dance party. And so do we. It’s the only way it could end.
Well, actually, Sense8 ends with another writhing multi-gender and sexual orientation psychic orgy. Because it’s still Sense8.
And we still don’t deserve it.